1 Feb 2011

Dublin archdiocese concealed knowledge of 20 priests suspected of child sex abuse from insurance company

The Irish Times - January 4, 2011

Church silent to insurers on abuse suspects

The Tony Walsh chapter of the Murphy report casts light on how the church secured insurance cover ahead of child abuse claims, writes PATSY McGARRY Religious Affairs Correspondent

THE CATHOLIC Church in Dublin did not inform insurers it had 20 priests suspected of child sex abuse in its ranks when it successfully sought cover in 1987 against possible abuse claims.

In February 1995, the same month former priest Tony Walsh was first convicted in the courts on child abuse charges, the insurance company entered robust correspondence with the church seeking to renegotiate terms.

Chapter 19 of the Murphy report, published last month, disclosed that at the time of Walsh’s February 1995 conviction, the Dublin archdiocese was aware of complaints against him going back 17 years, to 1978.

The report found it likely Walsh had abused “hundreds of children”. On December 6th last, he was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment, four suspended, following his conviction of sexually abusing three boys in Ballyfermot between 1978 and 1986.

Chapter 19 also disclosed that two years before taking out insurance, “by March 1985, at least seven priests of the archdiocese” were aware of concerns about Walsh.

“At the request of (then) archbishop McNamara, (then chancellor) Msgr Stenson spoke to these priests”.

At a meeting with Msgr Stenson in April 1985, Walsh “denied nothing” and revealed further instances of his abuse of children of which the archdiocese had not been previously aware.

Walsh would admit in 1988 to Dublin church authorities that he abused a child every fortnight during his eight years in Ballyfermot.

In February 1986, he was moved to Westland Row parish where child sex abuse complaints about him soon began to emerge.

In chapter 9 of the Murphy report, which deals with insurance, it is disclosed that in the Dublin archdiocese, “serious consideration was first given in 1986 to obtaining specific insurance cover” where possible claims arising from clerical child sex abuse might happen.

An approach was made to Church General Insurance, principal insurers for the Catholic Church in Ireland and part of the Allianz Group since 1998.

As the Murphy report put it: “Church General understood that the impetus for this approach came from a visit by Archbishop Kevin McNamara to the USA where he learned of difficulties in an American diocese arising from allegations of sex abuse by priests of that diocese.”

Murphy continued: “It need hardly be pointed out by the commission that the archbishop’s understanding of the need for insurance came from events much closer to home than the USA. At this time, the archdiocese had knowledge of approximately 20 priests against whom allegations of child sexual abuse had been made, or about whom there were suspicions or concerns.”

On March 2nd, 1987, Church General issued a policy for the archdiocese where “the stated insured was Archbishop McNamara and ‘his predecessors or successors in that office’.” The initial premium “was £515”.

Murphy added: “There was no indication given by the archdiocese during the negotiations for the policy of any facts that would indicate that the archdiocese had any prior experience of allegations of child sexual abuse by priests.”

Under terms of this initial policy, the archbishop undertook to notify Church General immediately he became aware of a priest whose behaviour might give rise to a claim. The policy agreed with Dublin was then made available to all other 25 Catholic dioceses in Ireland and was taken up by 24 of them.

Murphy reported that “by 1994, Church General was becoming concerned” about its financial exposure in the context.

In February 1995, it sought renegotiation. Difficult talks took place with the church before it was agreed the insurers would pay €10.6 million to a central church compensation fund and then be free of liability for all claims arising from abuse incidents prior to 1996.

Each diocese then took out cover arising from incidents of clerical abuse which took place after 1996.

The Murphy report concluded that the 1987 policy and subsequent agreements in 1996 and 2000 “proved to be extraordinarily good value for the church. In return for trivial premiums amounting to £40,000 (approximately €50,800), the dioceses of Ireland received approximately €12.9 million by way of indemnity”.

It said Church General’s situation under the 1987 policy was sufficient to permit it to “deny liability to indemnify the archdiocese . . . with respect to certain claims arising from child sexual abuse by [its] priests”.

It found that the company also had “potentially significant exposure to the various dioceses in Ireland”. It reported that Church General told the commission “it was a commercial decision to extend this level of indemnity, having regard to the overall value of the church’s business”.

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