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Liz O'Donnell speech

For my own records:

Liz O’Donnell:

I wish to preface my remarks with a word of support for those priests who have done no wrong. They deserve our support and sympathy at this difficult time. The majority of priests are living out their Christian message in an exemplary fashion and have our support at this time.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of this report, produced by Mr. Justice Frank Murphy and his colleagues. It is a landmark document in the context of child sexual abuse — abuse which was compounded in its gravity because the actors were members of one of the most trusted groups in our society. The victims, children of all ages, suffered not only the most awful forms of sexual, physical and psychological abuse at the hands of clergy but also suffered the silence, betrayal and inaction on the part of the church who placed the protection of the most vulnerable below the church’s priority of protecting themselves and the church. Child protection came last.

I heard a chilling description of what these abusive clergy did to their victims as the equivalent of eating their souls and destroying their souls. Unlike other forms of ill-treatment, sexual abuse of children by priests, and the subsequent disbelief of their stories if they have the courage to speak out, is uniquely destructive of the individual spirit of a person, that inner place or core. Given the scale and brutality outlined in the report, it is truly remarkable, indeed awesome, to witness the human capacity to heal and even forgive among some victims.

This report, however, is a landmark in another respect. I hope it will change forever the special relationship that has existed for many decades between church and State. This report must be the starting point for the State’s response to all contained in it. But this new beginning cannot happen unless the old relationship ends. The unrelenting deference, which constituted the relations between church and State, must end. It was given for many decades and expected for many decades. This special deference and relationship was extremely influential in terms of outcome, and it must end. Only then can the State act as it should, which is objectively.

The systemic failure outlined in the report means nothing less is acceptable. If the church leadership, the hierarchy, was a cabinet, it would resign en masse or be thrown out of office. However, the church is neither democratic nor accountable. In many ways it is a secret organisation, with its own diplomatic service, civil service, laws and self-regulatory codes, which have all failed the public. Because the church in Ireland was the main interface with God, the Irish people and the State have shown deference personally and collectively over many decades. This veil of deference is the root cause of society’s failure to stop the church’s systemic maladministration and dereliction of duty to protect children as outlined in the report. Because what happened in one diocese is just a microcosm of the situation in all diocese, the findings are damning in their import. The fact is there have been hundreds of crimes of clerical abuse against children which went unpunished. Priests were transferred instead of being exposed. Priests with a propensity to offend were ordained, appointed to curacies, and bishops colluded and covered up these matters.

The mighty church has fallen from grace because of its failure to protect children. The first response of the State must be to state unequivocally that the special relationship is no more and to take steps to demonstrate that disconnect between State and church. From now on, with that veil of deference removed, the State can deal with the church authorities in the same way as it would with any other voluntary or State agency that provides services for children and families. This means no longer accepting the bona fides or the good offices of an admittedly remorseful hierarchy after the event. The track record is such that we cannot accept that the church will be truthful or capable of self-regulation. The late disclosure of files by the church authorities to Ferns shows that the instinct for self-preservation and denial is still rife.

This “no more Mr. Nice Guy” approach by the State means no longer countenancing the unhealthy enmeshing of the church in the secular layers of our society. It means no more consultation between church and State on IVF, abortion services, stem cell research, Ireland’s support for family planning in the Third World, contraception or supports for single mothers, adoption, homosexuality and civil marriage. In a democracy, all views can be articulated but the special relationship must be over. The deference must be over. The cosy phone calls from All Hallows to Government Buildings must end.

This also means, like it or not, looking at the church’s almost universal control of education in this country. Our national school system was established 170 years ago and while it was originally meant to be, to use today’s terminology, mixed religion or multi-denominational, in practice this did not happen and, as a result, virtually all national schools are under the management of one church, the Catholic Church. Despite the State paying the bulk of the building and running costs, the relevant church authorities privately own and control the vast majority of national schools. The bishops are patrons of 95% of national schools. The same institution that has been so found wanting effectively decides who is suitable or not to work in our children’s schools. If our stated commitment to taking all necessary steps to protect children is to be more than just rhetoric, it is imperative that we radically address this issue. Indeed, the investigation into the archdiocese of Dublin should deal with transfers of lay teachers for allegations of child abuse without due regard to child protection.

I would like to turn to the money trail. The question of finances is perhaps a neuralgic issue. Again, in light of the terrible wrongs done to the victims, discussing finances might be seen as unseemly, but I believe money has been the motivating factor in the actions and inaction of the church authorities in this whole affair. Central to the church’s self-serving response over the years has been private financial settlements, without liability, as well as confidentiality deals. If the State is carrying out audits in every diocese, investigations that could uncover scores of previously undiscovered abuse cases, we must also audit the church’s wealth. Given the nature and extent of the wrongdoing of this institution against citizens, the church should be obliged to open up its books. Discovery orders could be made to gain some understanding of the money trail. Such an audit of church assets and wealth is long overdue and, in fact, should have been in place prior to the indemnity deal given to the religious orders.

I note that, true to form, the church has the temerity to claim €100,000 for its legal costs for dealing with the Ferns Inquiry. It is estimated that the church now faces a compensation bill of up to €250 million for clerical sex abuse resulting from existing claims and new claims set to emerge following publication of the Ferns Report. On top of this is the €128 million already paid to victims of abuse in children’s homes run by religious orders.

Going back to the need for separation and objectivity between church and State, sadly, it is difficult to argue that this was the paradigm within which the negotiations on the indemnity deal struck by the Government with the religious orders took place. The cost to the orders was approximately €128 million, while the cost to the State would be a blank cheque, the State covering every lawsuit brought against the congregations for child abuse in reformatories and industrial schools. This is not to understate the share of responsibility the State has for some of the horrors that unfolded in these terrible places. The uncomfortable fact is that, in several cases taken in the courts recently by victims outside the redress scheme, the liability of the State has not been proven. Therefore, the blanket indemnity was over-generous on behalf of the State. Why? All roads lead to the deference of the special relationship. The result was a bad deal for the State and a good deal for the religious orders. Initial estimates of the potential liability were in the region of €250 million. Three or four times that amount may prove closer to reality in terms of liability to the taxpayer.

The special relationship has not served Ireland or its citizens well. It did not serve the victims of abuse well. For example, the implication in the Ferns Report is that complaints of sexual abuse made against priests to the gardaí were not handled appropriately. Some of the complaints were not even recorded in any Garda file. They were not investigated in an appropriate manner due, perhaps, to reluctance by members of the Garda to investigate allegations against members of the Catholic clergy. Again, the deference descended. Undoubtedly progress has been made in terms of the independence of the Garda now vis-à-vis the church and that must continue.

I welcome the Government’s commitment to introduce new legislation as outlined by the Minister. However, legislation alone will not suffice. The law must operate and apply in a context of objectivity and cool detachment. Victims, family members, friends, Ministers, politicians, gardaí, judges and all of us must not be deterred or reluctant to speak out and to act robustly on these matters. I welcome the fact the Government will move to allow for barring orders against persons, including priests, who are a risk to children in order to restrain them from occupying any employment that exposes them to children, and provide for a new criminal offence of failing to protect children from injury, sexual abuse or reckless endangerment.

3 thoughts on “Liz O'Donnell speech”

  1. hmmm…

    is it fair to admit that I felt queezy at this?:

    “The systemic failure outlined in the report means nothing less is acceptable. If the church leadership, the hierarchy, was a cabinet, it would resign en masse or be thrown out of office.”

    Now Liz…please lets not talk about Irish politicians and their level of accountability…poor comparison

  2. yeah I feel queezy too, a growing feeling of disblief that there still remains a great element of jokey-ness in how Ireland seems to be viewing this. In fact that is only out-weighed by the number of words being expanded in trying to take apart Ms. Liz. Why? Her comparison is valid, if a government had behaved the way the Irish Church did, they should resign. Ah but, the politicians are corrupt so that is not a good comparison. Hmmm…. Why? Obviously the Church could be accused of similar. What exactly are the levels of denial population wide on this subject in the country of my birth?

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