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Complicity, collusion and cover-up in the Catholic church

2012 May 9

It is defending the indefensible to suggest that the Archbishop of Armagh, Cardinal Sean Brady, should not resign over the latest revelations on clerical sex abuse. His friends say that he is a good and humble man. I have no reason to contradict them. But the case illustrates perfectly how this scandal is tainting the Roman Catholic church like a systemic poison.

In 1975, we now know, a 36-year-old canon lawyer Dr Brady was involved in an investigation into the activities of Fr Brendan Smyth who eventually pleaded guilty to 74 charges of indecent and sexual abuse of boys and girls over more than 30 years. Dr Brady was one of a group of priests who sat on revelations that Smyth had abused five named children. They did not report the matter to the police, to the children’s parents or take steps to prevent Smyth from continuing to rape and bugger two of the children, the sister and four cousins of one of the victims and as many as 30 others for more than 15 years afterwards.

A BBC documentary chronicling the cardinal’s involvement last week was followed by publication in the Sunday Mercury of a letter showing that, a decade later, the Archbishop of Birmingham, Maurice Couve de Murville, tried to move another paedophile priest, Fr James Robinson, to Los Angeles. The letter lauded the errant priest’s talents and said he wanted to get out of the country to avoid “a man with whom he had an unwholesome relationship about 13 years ago”. It made no mention of the charges allegations for which a judge would later describe Robinson as “unimaginably wicked”.

The church authorities consistently claim such offenders are isolated “bad apples”. But what is most damaging is not the devious deviants themselves – though God knows they are bad enough – but the consistent evidence of complicity and collusion in cover-up by the church authorities.

Excuses abound. Cardinal Brady has claimed he was just a note-taker in 1975 but the BBC showed documentary evidence that he conducted part of the investigation. One Irish bishop this week insisted that Dr Brady “conscientiously” behaved as a young man should in an intensely hierarchical organisation. That defence did not work for Adolf Eichmann. Dr Brady may have had a lesser responsibility under canon law; but under civil law he had the same duty as his bishop, and Smyth’s abbot, to report the crime to the police. And he had a clear moral duty to tell the victims’ parents so they could keep their children away from the abuser.

The terrible truth is that, faced with a choice between protecting its own reputation and protecting young children, the church repeatedly chose to protect itself. The recent assertion by Vatican’s senior prosecutor, Monsignor Charles Scicluna, that Dr Brady acted correctly, shows that the problem still goes all the way to the male-dominated top. What appears to outweigh all other considerations for Rome is the fear that allowing secular pressure to force Cardinal Brady’s resignation could risk a domino effect across the world.

The repeated defence that in 1975 there were no church or state guidelines about how to deal with child abuse rings hollow. The church had the grim admonition in Matthew’s gospel that it would be better for those who offend children to be drowned in the depth of the sea with a millstone hanged about their neck. Yet repeatedly the church did not even use its arcane and secretive internal processes to stop offenders privately. Instead it persisted with a policy of what the Americans call “negligent child endangerment”.

The affair of Cardinal Brady is symbolic of Rome’s wider failure. A major survey of the Irish people by the Association of Catholic Priests last week revealed how profoundly that has damaged faith in the leadership of the church. And the poison has spread far wider than that.

The Church Times

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