29 Oct 2010

Church pays little of Ireland's child-abuse bill despite deceiving government over extent of abuse

The Associated Press - May 22, 2009


DUBLIN (AP) — Ireland's Roman Catholic religious orders resisted growing demands Friday for them to pay more for the abuse of thousands of children behind the closed doors of state-funded schools.

The Irish government expects to dole out more than euro1.1 billion ($1.6 billion) in legal costs and compensation to 14,000 people molested, beaten or terrorized while under church care from the 1930s to 1990s — a long-buried scandal brought into full light this week with the publication of a 2,600-page investigation.

Anger at church leaders is swelling, particularly over their refusal to contribute a bigger share of money to the compensation pot for victims.

Under terms of a secretive, bitterly disputed 2002 deal negotiated at a time when religious orders still denied allegations of widespread abuse, the government agreed to cap the church's total liability at less than euro128 million ($175 million) — potentially one-tenth of the final cost.

Pat Rabbitte, a lawmaker from the opposition Labour Party that has long criticized the 2002 deal, said it was perverse that taxpayers — including abuse victims — had to fund a program that actually shields church figures from lawsuits. Any victim who accepts the payments, which average euro65,000 ($90,000), must sign away their rights to sue either the church or state.

"This terrible, grubby deal protected the monsters, the brutes responsible for this cruelty to children. It protected them from being confronted in court by their victims," said Rabbitte, who called the church's euro128 million limit "a very small price for the religious congregations to pay to escape justice."

But the umbrella body representing the 18 religious orders implicated in the scandal, the Conference of Religious in Ireland, said Friday its members have no intention of renegotiating the deal.

"As far as we are aware, none of the congregations concerned plan to revisit the terms of the agreement made in good faith," the Conference of Religious in Ireland statement said.

"Some have questioned whether the religious (nuns and brothers) have honored their commitment to the agreement. We can confirm that the vast majority of these transactions have been completed," it said. "However, some legal work remains outstanding on some of the property transfers."

Doubts swirl as to how much the church orders actually have paid.

The government says congregations of nuns and brothers have paid euro62 million in cash and covered the rest by handing over 61 properties. But amid Ireland's deepening recession and collapse in property values over the past year, it is likely that the buildings are worth much less than euro66 million.

Prime Minister Brian Cowen said the government could not force the church to pay more.

Cowen said the government in 2002 took the decision that, if victims sued both the religious orders and the government, taxpayers would ultimately be liable anyway because the state funded and had legal responsibility over the church-run industrial schools. He said the orders — which still own many of Ireland's hospitals and schools — could have pleaded an inability to pay.

"I emphasize that the need for the state to face up to its responsibilities was there in any event," Cowen said.

But opposition politicians argued that the state should seek to invalidate the agreement by arguing that the religious orders had not honestly disclosed the extent of abuse that was ultimately uncovered in this week's report.

Rabbitte said the government also was negligent in failing to audit the religious orders' actual wealth.

"Nobody wants to bankrupt them," he said. "But we truly don't have any idea of what cost they could afford to bear in paying for this dreadful chapter in our history."

In 2002, the government estimated total liabilities at a maximum of euro400 million. Within the year, the government's own auditor general said that was hopelessly optimistic and the real cost would likely exceed euro1 billion. At the time, then-Prime Minister Bertie Ahern rejected that assessment, insisting the payout would be "far smaller."

But euro900 million already has been paid out to 12,000 claimants, and 2,000 more remain to be processed. Estimates of the final bill now range from euro1.1 billion to euro1.3 billion.

On the Net:
Ireland's compensation board for abuse victims,: http://www.rirb.ie/
Abuse report,: http://www.childabusecommission.ie/rpt/

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