Feature

Lessons from an Irish experience
Child protection processes in the Irish Church are proving an education to the World, writes Greg Daly

Teresa Devlin.

An invitation earlier this year to address Australia’s royal commission on institutional child abuse shows how highly regarded Ireland’s National Board for the Safeguarding of Children in the Catholic Church has become, according to the board’s CEO Teresa Devlin. 

“It was probably the big event of the year so far in terms of the honour that is bestowed on the national board, to be invited to give evidence at such an important inquiry,” she says, adding that Baroness Sheila Hollins, the psychiatrist who serves on the Pope’s child protection commission, has said she expects the inquiry to lead to significant changes across the world in child safeguarding – “not just the Church but in civil society”. 

“So for me it was an amazing honour to be asked and to be able to share what we have done to make a difference here,” she says. Initially they spoke remotely on background issues, and then she was – to her surprise – asked to address the inquiry directly as the commission had been interested in the impact the board has made in terms of child safeguarding in Ireland.  

“The audience was full of survivors and interested others like members of the Catholic Church and various other people,” she says, “But it was the survivors in particular that I was intrigued by because of course they were all at varying stages of their journey and some of them literally wore their victimhood on their backs. 

“You know ‘I’m a victim of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church’ in t-shirts, some of them. And others you could see by their expressions and by the heavy load that they were carrying, that they were victims, survivors, complainants, whatever label you want to put on them.”

Survivors

The commission arranged for counsellors to be there to help survivors deal with any trauma they experienced through listening to the evidence, Ms Devlin says, describing how she spoke to several of them, who related “horrible stories about their childhoods ruined and the consequences of abuse and how they had left their Faith”. 

The procedures at the commission genuinely impressed her, she says, detailing how serious efforts were made to tease out why the Church had failed so badly in preventing child abuse, and how it was trying to tackle it now. 

“I think that’s what impressed me most,” she says. “They really wanted to understand how the Church had come to the position it was in in Ireland, the journey of the Church. Which I have to say has been a sad start but I think that we’re still working away along that journey but the evidence in – and you’ll have seen – the annual report shows the statistics are way down.”

The guard can never be dropped, she adds, stressing that at the same time things really have changed. 

On the last day she was at the commission, one survivor spoke to her about a priest who had moved to Ireland, and how the board had been contacted and spoke in turn with the bishop of the diocese where the priest hoped to work. The priest had never been convicted of abuse, she said, but the allegations against him were such that the bishops said he could not minister in his diocese. 

“So it worked and the survivors were saying ‘if you can do it, we can do it,’” she says, adding, “The evidence from that particular survivor in Australia was kind of a credit to the work that is being done across the Irish Church. That the systems are alert, everybody’s wanting to make sure the safe guards are in place.” 

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The effect of the Irish experience clearly has had an impact, to judge by how in June at the Anglophone Conference for those involved in child protection across the English-speaking world one of Ms Devlin’s Australian colleagues related how the royal commissioners had praised the work of the Irish board. 

The conference, hosted in Rome this year, was a huge event with well over 100 delegates, such traditional Anglosphere countries of Ireland, England and Wales, Scotland, the US, Canada and Australia being joined by delegates from further afield.  

“Then we have the African countries which many of whom are saying, ‘well we don’t have child abuse in the Church. We have physical abuse in the family and that’s the problem’,” she says, continuing,  “but we know that’s not the case, so at this large conference, I’m delighted that African countries are coming and we have Zambia, Ghana, South Africa, Zimbabwe, a whole lot of African countries.”

During the conference several African delegates said they didn’t know how to address the issues raised because they don’t exist in their countries, she says, making it all the more valuable that others challenge this.

“And those who have been there before are saying ‘yes you do have this problem you just don’t see that you have this problem’,” she says, continuing, “so we can do two things from an Irish perspective; we can continue to attend that conference and try to influence good practice but the large number of Irish orders that have gone out to the African missions, we can influence their international policy.”

Encouragingly, she says, even those African delegates who doubted child sexual abuse is a significant problem in their cultures did ask for resources to help take steps to prevent and tackle it. 

Underpinning all responses to abuse allegations should be Gospel values, she says. “The principle is that you’re doing this because you care – the Gospel says you should be caring for and protecting and safe guarding children,” she says. 

This applies regardless what domestic legislation might be in place, even in countries where reporting allegations to civil authorities could have grave consequences for those reporting – one thinks naturally of countries where Church practice is legally proscribed or limited. “You have to be very careful of that but that doesn’t mean you do nothing,” she says, continuing, “you can still ensure that if someone is abusing a child that they are not in ministry.” 

“I think we should be saying ‘yes please learn from our mistakes. Please don’t do what we did’,” she says.

Not that the board has made itself redundant in Ireland, of course. “I think we have come a long way,” she says. “I keep saying in our annual reports, as we have this year, that there is no room for complacency. I have an anxiety that we’re all going to sit back and say it’s done now, and if we look at our allegations, they are going down, but that doesn’t mean they’re going away.”

Citing a few allegations and expressions of concerns from recent years, she says one of the current challenges is considering how best to tackle the growing problem of online abuse – what is so often, and carelessly, labelled ‘child pornography’.

“We aren’t as wise as to how to safe guard children online because it’s an international problem. So if a child is abused in Ghana and somebody downloads the pornography in Ireland,” that’s a problem for Ireland as it is in Ghana, she says, continuing, “so in Ireland we can’t say we have sorted it.”

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An ongoing area of focus for the board in recent years has entailed standardising issues of care, she adds, this being an area which has been highlighted on several occasions by members of the Association for Catholic Priests (ACP).

The new standards and guidelines, which include directions on how to care for respondents, were issued last year, and are, as far as Ms Devlin can tell, being embedded across Ireland, with staff telling her that from their visits to dioceses and parishes that “there is a huge amount of effort being put in to making sure that people understand the new standards”.

Other than new standards on care of complainants and of respondents – accused priests – she says they’re not radically different from the previous standards but are clearer, so people should find them easier to implement than before, even when dealing with such potentially tricky issues as visiting priests from abroad. 

“There should be consistent application of that across the country, but we won’t know that until next year,” she says, since it will take time to establish for certain how things are working on the ground. With 26 dioceses and about 160 congregations and orders, she says, “there will be varying stages of implementation”, but so far word is encouraging about the adoption of standards and about staff audits. 

The board has recently worked with the ACP on the issue of care for respondents, she adds. “We went to them,” she explains, pointing how reports of dissatisfaction from ACP members around how accused priests had been treated had prompted the board to contact them and have what Ms Devlin describes as “a very positive meeting”.

Afterwards, she says, the board told the ACP that they would be working on a paper about the care of respondents this year. “This is our priority from here to Christmas and we wanted to engage with them, as we will do with others who are doing that work like One in Four and Marie Keenan, and others around the country who are supporting priests out of ministry,” she says.

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Things have changed in terms of how accused priests are handled, she says. “I do think from our own experience that there is a much better balance now in terms of responding to those who have been accused. It isn’t automatic anymore that someone is removed from ministry unless there is a semblance of truth to the allegations,” she continues.

“It is a much more measured, much more thought through process, in my experience,” she adds. “There can be safeguards put in place while investigations are being conducted. I think the pendulum is swinging back towards the middle and I do agree with the ACP about one stage – at one stage nobody was taken out of ministry, of course, but the next stage all that was needed was a sniff of an allegation and you were removed from ministry.

Perpetrators

“I think certainly for the majority of cases now, it is a much more reflective approach to managing and responding to those allegations, caring for the complainant and – I think – offering some process of natural justice to the person who is being accused,” she says.

One area that needs further work, she says, is the effect of abuse on those who were close to abuse victims or to perpetrators of abuse – those who are classed as ‘secondary victims’ – and while the board needs to work on this, she says she was pleased to find the issue being raised at the Anglophone conference.

“First of all there is the primary victim who has been harmed,” she says. “Then there is his or her family, because they are generally traumatised by this experience, and then there is the community belonging to the person who has abused – so that could be a parish, a religious community, or his or her family; so there are a number of secondary victims that we need to start paying attention to.”

The board has issued guidance on support for communities where a member has been accused of abuse, she says, admitting that it is probably not detailed enough yet but that it is a start because there are concerns about parishes and religious communities where people are traumatised. 

Particular concerns arise with very small communities where one member has turned out to be an abuser, she says, and someone is tasked with keeping an eye on them at all times. 

“That is a serious ministry somebody is carrying,” she says, “and that is how I would look at it – that that is their ministry in life now. That is a heavy burden that they have been given to support this person. And to assist them with that, they need counselling, they need support, they need spiritual direction, and maybe the opportunity to say ‘I can’t do this anymore’.”

In the meantime, she says, the work of child protection continues, with April’s appointment of Dubliner Msgr John Kennedy to head the discipline section in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) having “made a significant change” in the Vatican department others have frequently identified as dysfunctional over the last year or so.

“I didn’t see him when I was over in Rome but I keep hearing people saying to me: ‘that case was sat there for seven years, I got a phone call from the CDF saying it was being reviewed, and it was done in three weeks’,” she says. 

“In terms of the Irish cases, undoubtedly the appointment of Msgr Kennedy is making a difference,” she says, adding that here in Ireland the national case management committee intends this autumn to start training a panel capable of conducting preliminary investigations to ensure allegations are examined in a consistent way whenever the civil authorities decide to take no action. 

“I’m going to talk to John Kennedy about this as well in line with what the CDF would think is a good standard,” she says, explaining that the board wants to ensure consistent assessing and interrogation of information, and to ensure there are consistent bars used when considering what constitutes a semblance of truth and whether or not there is a case to answer. 

All this would probably be for nothing, though, were it not for “the army of volunteers across the Church who turn out to do the training and do the safeguarding and run the children’s liturgy, and make sure that everything is in place”, and Ms Devlin does not skimp in her praise for those who work steadily to ensure the Church is a safe place for children. 

“The safeguards are working,” she says.