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Irish bishop criticised for lax response to abuse allegations

Bishop John Magee meets Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 (CNS photo)

A judicial report into the handling of allegations of child sexual abuse against clerics in the Diocese of Cloyne has concluded that the Church’s own guidelines were “not fully or consistently implemented” in the diocese as recently as 2008.

The report, released by Judge Yvonne Murphy, also said Cloyne Bishop John Magee admitted to what has been described as inappropriate behaviour with a young man. It said the bishop embraced him, kissed him and told the young aspirant for the priesthood that he loved him.

The 400-page report also records for the first time stark disagreement among Irish bishops over whether Bishop Magee – a former secretary to three popes – should quit as bishop of Cloyne after December 2008, when the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church said he was using child safeguarding policies that were “inadequate and, in some respects, dangerous”.

At an emergency meeting of the Irish bishops’ conference in January 2009, just weeks after the report critical of Bishop Magee, “there were strong opinions on both sides” as to whether the bishop should quit.

“The strongest argument in favour of resignation was made by Archbishop [Diarmuid] Martin” of Dublin, the report said. At the time, Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh, Northern Ireland, emphatically insisted that Bishop Magee should not go despite the latter having admitted to the inappropriate behaviour with the young man in question.

The commission was charged with investigating the handling of allegations made against 19 priests from 1996 – when the Church in Ireland first implemented child protection procedures – to 2009. The commission found that “the primary responsibility for the failure to implement the agreed procedures lies with Bishop Magee”.

“It is a remarkable fact,” the report notes, “that Bishop Magee took little or no active interest in the management of clerical child sexual abuse cases until 2008.”

The commission accuses the Vatican of being “entirely unhelpful” to bishops who wanted to fully implement the agreed guidelines.

In particular, the report referred to a letter from the apostolic nuncio to Ireland a year after the 1996 guidelines were introduced in which he informed bishops that the Holy See was refusing to grant the document Vatican approval. The Congregation for Clergy, the letter noted, insisted that the guidelines were not in conformity with canon law.

“There can be no doubt that this letter greatly strengthened the position of those in the Church in Ireland who did not approve of the framework document as it effectively cautioned them against implementation.

“This effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore the procedures which they had agreed and gave comfort and support to those who … dissented from the stated official Irish Church position.”

The report is highly critical of the Cloyne vicar general, Mgr Denis O’Callaghan, who, it notes, “did not approve of the requirement to report [allegations] to the civil authorities”.

The commission notes that “one of the ironies of Mgr O’Callaghan’s position is that it was clear from his evidence that, in most cases, he believed the complaints, which make his failure to implement his own Church’s policy all the more surprising.

“He also displayed some inexplicable failures to recognise child sexual abuse,” the report adds.

The report says allegations of abuse and concerns about inappropriate behaviour were raised against nearly eight per cent of priests serving in the diocese. One priest of the diocese has been convicted while another was successful in having his trial halted because of his age. One chapter of the report is heavily redacted because the cleric involved is currently before the courts.

Regarding canon law, the commission found that there was a “haphazard and sometimes sloppy” approach to canonical investigations.

On a positive note, the commission concludes that “there was no case in which the Diocese of Cloyne moved priests against whom allegations had been made to another parish or out of the diocese altogether”.

Cloyne was also criticised for its failure to properly record and maintain information about complaints of child sexual abuse until 2008.

The diocese drew attention in 2008 when social service authorities expressed concern to the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church that Bishop Magee was not following the Church’s own child safeguarding guidelines properly.

Initially, Bishop Magee resisted calls to resign and pledged to assist the investigation. However, in March 2009 the Vatican announced the appointment of an apostolic administrator – at Bishop Magee’s request – and said Bishop Magee would no longer exercise power of governance but would retain the title of bishop of Cloyne. In March 2010, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had accepted Bishop Magee’s resignation.

Three of Ireland’s 26 Catholic dioceses have now been subject to judicial inquiries that have severely criticised Church leaders and found that the reputation of priests and the Church and the avoidance of scandal were put ahead of the rights of children to be protected from abuse.

A high-profile team of senior prelates recently concluded the first phase of an apostolic visitation of the church in Ireland at the request of Pope Benedict. The Pope announced the move in a March 2010 letter to the Catholics of Ireland in which he repeated his shame and sorrow at the abuse and the subsequent mishandling of cases and warned Irish bishops that their failures had “obscured the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing”.

In May, the head of the safeguarding children board, Ian Elliott, admitted that he had consider resigning over what he described as a lack of co-operation from senior Church leaders in Ireland to his auditing of dioceses handling of allegations. Bishops had withdrawn from the auditing process, citing data protection concerns. However, all dioceses are now co-operating according to the board, and the body expects to complete the audits in the coming year.