Investigating child abuse: the Irish precedent

The Australian Government’s planned royal commission into church abuse of children already has a blueprint for action provided by the Republic of Ireland on the other side on the world.

The Irish Government’s report handed down in November 2009 conveniently offers an insight into the church’s concealment and denial of decades of sexual abuse and provides legal remedies that Australia could adopt.

The three-year inquiry into child abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin uncovered a 30-year scandal of institutionalised sex abuse and systematic cover-up, replicating much of what has been happening across dioceses here.

Most significantly, the Dublin inquiry laid bare the connection between the church hierarchy and the garda (police) in suppressing complaints and sabotaging investigations.

It detailed “inappropriate” and “worrying” connections between the church and the police and found evidence that senior police regarded priests as being “outside their remit”.

This perfidious church-police nexus is also at the heart of the decades of cover-up in Australia when complainants were systematically warned off while the church was tipped off.

A Dublin priest banished to the US for sex offences stayed at the home of a police chief superintendent when he returned to Ireland. The officer was influential in halting the police investigation into the priest’s conduct, the report said.

The 2006-2009 Irish inquiry headed by Circuit Court judge, Ms Justice Yvonne Murphy, found that the church had an “obsessive concern with secrecy and the avoidance of scandal” and had “little or no concern for the welfare of the abused child”.

It investigated 172 named priests, one of whom admitted abusing over 100 children while another said he committed abuse every two weeks for more than 25 years.

The inquiry uncovered the concept of “mental reservation” which permitted priests and bishops to mislead complainants, their relatives and government officials without being guilty, in the church’s eyes, of lying.

“Nothing quite as perfectly illustrates the moral rot at the core of institutional Catholicism in Ireland as the concept of ‘mental reservation’,” remarked religious affairs commentator Patsy McGarry.

“Using concepts which are morally dubious, it has in reality lied, obfuscated, struck an occasional repentant pose, and gone on as before.”

A few “courageous” priests brought sex offences to the attention of their superiors but “the vast majority chose to turn a blind eye”, the report said. Just like in Australia.


Complainants had another hidden hand against them: canon law advisers to the Dublin archbishop. They interfered in the sex abuse process advising that the church had no responsibility to report cases to the state authorities.

They argued that the church’s own internal processes should investigate and judge complaints, a proposition that was formally ended by the Catholic church in Australia in the last decade.

In a strong-worded editorial, The Irish Times declared: “Canon law, which favours abusers over the abused, has contributed in a malign way” and added: “In future, there can be no ambiguity concerning criminals acts and church cover-ups that pervert the course of justice. These offences are equally unacceptable.”

The then Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, a Marist Brothers-educated solicitor, welcomed the report saying: “This is a republic – the people are sovereign – and no institution, no agency, no church can be immune from that fact.

“The era where evil people could do so under the cover of the cloth, facilitated and shielded from the consequences by their authorities, while the lives of children were ruined with such cruelty, is over for good.

“The bottom line is this: a collar will not protect a criminal.”

The proposed Australian royal commission is on a collision course with Cardinal George Pell, the Archbishop of Sydney and the Vatican’s point man in Australia for Catholic orthodoxy.

The major test will come when the royal commission demands documents from the church and records from the Vatican and the Papal Nuncio. Australian ambassador to the Vatican, John McCarthy, is a rabid Catholic and the closest friend of Foreign Minister Bob Carr.

The primacy of secular law over canon law will be central to the royal commission and there should be criminal penalties against those who offend.

For the moment, intense lobbying has begun to water down the royal commission’s remit, curtail its terms of reference and tie it up with restrictions, tight budgeting and inadequate staffing.

People will remember how James Wood’s royal commission into NSW police corruption was brought to a screeching halt when it began investigating pedophile allegations. Prepare for a deja vu moment.


Finally, an apology to all my email contacts who received a invitation from me to join a site called Linked In. I inadvertently pressed a wrong button on my laptop. I am a member of Linked In and I rarely, if ever, use it. My advice is to dump the invitation and all future unsolicited emails from Linked In. Sorry. 

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