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Cardinal Sean Brady

[Cardinal Sean Brady, bishop of Armagh and head of the Catholic Church in Ireland]

One of the worst of the serial child abusers amongst the Catholic priests was Fr Eugene Greene in Raphoe diocese, which is a peaceful country area at the North-Western extreme of Ireland. It is sometimes known (incorrectly, but more helpfully) as the County Donegal diocese.

The cathedral is at Letterkenny. The bishop from 1965 to 1982 was Anthony McFeely (died 1986). From 1982 to 1994 Seamus Hegarty (then became bishop of Derry until 2011, when he retired from ill-health), and from 1995 to today Philip Boyce.

It is part of the archdiocese of Armagh. The bishop there is head of the Catholic church in Ireland. The post carries a cardinal’s hat. From 1963 to 1977 it was William Conway (died 1977), from 1977 to 1990 it was held by Tomas O Fiaich (died 1990), from 1990 to 1996 by Cahal Daly (died 2009). Daly retired from ill health in 1996 and was succeeded by Sean Brady.

Greene was sentenced to 12 years in prison in 1999 for abusing 26 boys over 20 years and released in December 2008. He was only caught because one of his victims met him decades after the abuse and demanded £5k. Greene reported him to the gardai for blackmail. To his apparent surprise the detectives investigated the matter and two years later charged him with 115 sample charges of buggery, gross indecency and indecent assault. He pleaded guilty to about a third of the charges.

One of the detectives, Martin Ridge, wrote “Breaking the Silence” which was published in 2008 and dealt with the Greene case and the case of Denis McGinley, a teacher in a Catholic school. The book helped to stir up public concern in Ireland.

The main story in Ireland has been somewhat different from in the USA. There the lawyers have made most of the running with huge civil cases against various dioceses. But in Ireland the Catholic church was much more dominant and in the end government took more of a role.

The “Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse” or more informally the Ryan Commission started work in 1999 and published a 2,600 page report in May 2009 (available in html or pdf). However, its remit was childhood abuse in institutions, meaning:

a school, an industrial school, a reformatory school, an orphanage, a hospital, a children’s home and any other place where children are cared for other than as members of their families. [Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act 2000, s1(1)]

An Irish TV current affairs program “Prime Time” broadcast a special program “Cardinal Secret” in 2002 about the failure of Desmond Connell, archbishop of Dublin 1988-2004, to respond properly to child abuse by priests in the Dublin archdiocese. John Paul II made him a cardinal in 2001, but he was forced to retire (aged 78) as archbishop in 2004. The TV program led the government to set up another judicial inquiry, the Murphy Commission, into child abuse in the Dublin arcdiocese. It reported a few months after the Ryan Commission.

Neither the Irish bishops, nor the Vatican, covered themselves in glory. The Irish bishops focussed on setting up procedures to make sure that it did not happen again. A few more junior bishops reluctantly resigned. The Vatican when it did force someone out, it also did so reluctantly and in a way calculated to minimise the bishop’s embarrassment.

The centrepiece of the revised procedures has been the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (website). Last November it published a series of reports, including one on Raphoe (pdf).

The report did not reflect any serious attempt to investigate the past. It simply included a fairly cursory review of the available documents. None of the victims was interviewed. In some ways this was not unreasonable, but of course it also attracted a good deal of criticism, because many people had expected that the Church would come clean about what had happened. On Greene, the report said almost nothing beyond:

It is clear that significant errors of judgement were made by successive bishops when responding to child abuse allegations that emerged within this diocese. Too much emphasis was placed on the situation of the accused priest and too little on the needs of their complainants. Judgements were clouded, due to the presenting problem being for example, alcohol abuse and an inability to hear the concerns about abuse of children, through that presenting problem. More attention should have been given to ensuring that preventative actions were taken … It is a matter of great regret to Bishop Boyce that his focus on victims’ needs was not greater in the past, and he now acknowledges that he has a very different appreciation of his safeguarding responsibilities as to when he first came into office.

In particular, there was nothing about Sean Brady. By now reactions to these scandals have become rather better informed. Many people have now grasped that these are not scandals about paedophile priests, but about bishops covering things up in order to protect their own positions, whilst claiming that they are trying to protect the Church from scandal.

Last Tuesday, the BBC broadcast an hour-long documentary on abuse in the Raphoe diocese put together by Darragh MacIntyre, who was brought up in County Donegal and knows it well. After various interviews to substantiate the extent of the suffering that the abuse by Eugene Greene had caused, it focussed on the role of Sean Brady.

At the press conference called by Philip Boyce in the wake of the Safeguarding report last November, MacIntyre asked him whether the absence of any criticism of the bishops meant that he thought they were exonerated. Boyce replied:

I am not saying that it exonerates everybody. It just shows that at the time the information on these terrible things that happened weren’t handed up as far as the bishop’s office, and word of that didn’t come to us. Because there was no reference whatsoever to any allegation in the files which I saw when I came in.

Well, he became bishop in 1995 and maybe the papers he inherited did not say much about child abuse by priests, but that does not mean that his predecessors and other bishops did not know about it.

MacIntyre duly interviewed Brendan Boland, who as a 14-year-old in 1975 told his parish priest about his abuse at the hands of Greene for two years when he was an altar boy (aged 11-13). A week later he was interviewed by Sean Brady, who still styled himself John Brady, and was the priest charged with investigating the matter. He was being fast-tracked to become bishop and working for the then bishop of Kilmore, Francis MacKiernan (bishop 1972-98, died 2005).

Boland gave a detailed description, recorded in Brady’s notes, which MacIntyre saw, including the names and addresses of other boys whom Boland thought were being abused by Greene or were at risk. At the end of the interview he had to swear on the bible not just that his evidence was true, but that he would never talk to anyone about it except to a duly authorised priest (also recorded in Brady’s notes and signed by Boland).

Oh, do not misunderstand this:

Yah, right. Brady duly passed reports up the line to MacKiernan and forgot about the whole matter. The other children were duly abused by Greene, as were many others, over the next 20 years. Nothing was done to warn their parents or restrain Greene.

The day after the program was broadcast, Brady issued a statement denying any wrongdoing. He claimed that his role was as a mere note-taker. That was a bare-faced lie. Yes, he had taken notes, but his handwritten notes also recorded that “I was despatched to investigate the complaint”:

In an Irish TV interview two years earlier, he had stated:

If I found myself where I was in the situation where I was aware that my failure to act had allowed, or meant that, other children were abused, well then I think I would resign. [Dec 2009 TV interview]

It turns out that this has been misinterpreted. He meant that he would resign if he had failed to carry out his responsibilities as a duly designated bishop with responsibilities under canon law to “manage a priest against whom an allegation has been made”. in 1975 he was not such a person. It was maybe MacKiernan, or McFeely or some other bishop now dead.

The program also had some interesting interviews with the detectives involved in the case. Such Martin Ridge, speaking with no heat, just apparent sadness:

People who knew about this [Eugene Greene’s abuse], I find them so revolting. Because it’s them that did something. I believe they protected an image, rather than protecting a child. And I believe that is where the whole fraud lies. That the premise of trust was used to bury the most graphic horror. This is not going to be tolerated in any civilised society. For any institution to use its power to bury this horror. I believe those people should be sent to jail, basically, for those great crimes. Until that day arrives when everyone is equal, then I think we are only shadow boxing with this.

I can see no excuse for Brady’s behaviour in 1975. Christ is unlikely to be impressed with the plea that I did nothing to help these children, not even warn their parents, because it was not my job. My job was to report to my bishop and forget about it.

His Wednesday statement also had a good deal of waffle about the absence of State and Church guidelines in 1975 on how to behave in circumstances like these. That is ridiculous. Do we need such guidelines in order to know how to behave? The correct behaviour surely was to warn the parents forthwith.

No doubt it is not quite that simple. The public hysteria over paedophiles in the UK over the last ten years, shows that people do not always behave sensibly when warned of danger. Sometimes, their reaction is way over the top. Equally, children do not always tell the truth. They can sometimes lie quite viciously in order to hurt others. We have seen that with false accusations of abuse against teachers. Careful procedures no doubt have their place.

The problem is in the motivation of those involved. There are two motivations that individual wannabe bishops, bishops and wannabe cardinals can suffer from, one bad and the other worse. The bad motivation is to protect the Church from scandal. In practice, that always seems to mean protecting the clergy from scandal, not the laity. Everyone realises that pretending every Catholic layman is saintly is absurd. But for some reason it is deemed desirable to pretend that priests, and especially bishops, are free from serious sin. Once you pause to think about it, the idea is absurd. It is flatly contradicted both by Catholic doctrine and by the historical record.

The worse motivation is to hush things up in order to advance your own career. More than in most walks of life, advancement up the Church hierarchy depends on keeping your nose clean, rather than on outstanding holiness or competence. Any bishop who is known to have a serious clerical abuse problem in his diocese is clearly unfit for further promotion.

Now who knows what conversations Sean Brady had back in 1975 with the various Irish bishops about the Greene case. Maybe he was told in no uncertain terms to keep his mouth shut and forget about it. Maybe the fault lay entirely with various bishops now dead. Maybe he argued strongly for warning the parents of the children at risk and for tougher action against Greene. Maybe he simply assumed they would not want to pursue the matter and barely pressed it. We are unlikely ever to know. It is, of course, dangerous to judge others, and particularly dangerous to attribute bad motivations to them. Only God knows the secrets of people’s hearts.

Some people are natural mavericks and have no difficulty being in a minority of one. Others find it almost impossible to contemplate. I doubt that the Church hierarchy enourages mavericks, so it may be wrong to judge Brady too harshly.

But although ultimately justice is a matter for God, we do have a responsibility to do our best. It has become abundantly clear that as a group the bishops were seriously at fault in the way they dealt with errant priests. Maybe the worst offenders are now dead, but those still alive should expect some form of sanction. It is surely time that the Church started systematically purging the bishops of those tainted by the scandal. They should be sent off to pray in monasteries or do other good work which has none of the glory and worldly status of a senior position in the Church. And they should be encouraged to make some rather more convincing apologies, that do not sound like elaborate self-justification and special pleading.

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