Wednesday, 5 February 2014

How the Catholic Church has protected child abusing priests.

Below are two chapters from Freedom From Religion by Noel McGivern which provide very clear evidence of how the Catholic Church has put protecting its interests before children abused by priests.

Chapter Six

 Child Abuse 

One of the most disturbing questions in religion is why loving parents would remain part of an organization which has leaders who have actively protected child abusers. It is fair to point out that paedophilia is by no means unique to religion. The BBC has, in recent times, been rocked by the terrible revelations about how the late Jimmy Savile, a radio DJ and popular television presenter rampantly abused young girls, and occasionally boys, for many years. Other radio and television personalities have been accused and, in some cases convicted of similar crimes. The crimes have been just as serious and the harm just as great as those Catholic priests have been guilty of. However, there are key differences between the BBC and Catholic Church. The BBC does not behave as a moral guardian of Britain or the world; it doesn’t claim spiritual authority over 1.3 billion people; it is not a primary human identity. Any organization can have paedophiles in it but what sets the Catholic Church apart is how actively it sought to protect them and itself. Throughout history churches have claimed the right to define what is good and evil. The treatment of the child abuse scandals has shown that not only is the Catholic Church completely unsuited to this task but, worse than that, it has been the belief in the goodness of priests that has provided a cloak for many of the most terrible of acts. Cardinal Seán Brady, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland (Archbishop from 1996, Cardinal from 2007) has a history that demonstrates the moral bankruptcy of the Catholic Church on this matter. In March 2010 Brady acknowledged that in his role as Bishop’s secretary in 1975 he had attended separate meetings where two victims of the paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth had been asked to sign an oath of silence as part of a Church enquiry into claims against the priest. The justification given for this oath was that it protected the integrity of the enquiry. What it did was to put the protection of the reputation of the Catholic Church above any due legal process and above the rights of the victims. “I didn’t have any decision-making power in it,” said Cardinal Brady. “The reason for the oath was to give it credibility and strength in law and robustness against any challenge because he was going to use the evidence which this inquiry would produce to take disciplinary action. That inquiry got under way. “In the space of two or three weeks he had the firm reasons which he wanted to remove Father Brendan Smyth and he immediately set out to Kilnacrott Abbey (where Smyth was based) and did so. That’s on the record.” This claim does not stand up to scrutiny. For a start the idea that Brady did not have a decision making power is nonsense. He had the power to decide to report Symthe to the police. The locations of Symthe’s crimes were such that he could have reported him either to the Northern Irish Police (The Royal Ulster Constabulary) or to the Police in the Irish Republic (The Garda Síochána). Not only could Brady have reported Symthe but that is what he should have done. His failure exemplifies one of the greatest moral failings of religion; the belief that religion is more important than human beings. Brady is responsible for what he failed to do. His belief that he followed canon law does not remove that responsibility. It demonstrates how harmful it can be to put religious rules before the interests of people and, in this case, children. That failure had serious consequences; Symthe went on to offend again. Yet in an interview with the Daily Mail on March 15th 2010 Brady claimed. ‘I did act, and act effectively, in that inquiry to produce the grounds for removing Father Smyth from ministry and specifically it was underlined that he was not to hear confessions and that was very important.’ : The truth is more children were abused because Brady and other figures in the Catholic Church set loyalty to their church above that to any civil authority and more importantly they put that loyalty before the protection of children. Symth was not arrested until 1991(sixteen years later) when he was charged with the abuse of four siblings on the Falls Road in Belfast. No one knows how many children he abused in the period between the “inquiry” and his arrest. He skipped bail and went on the run ending up at Kilnacrott Abbey in County Cavan in the Irish Republic owned by the Norbertine religious order he was a member of. The delays in his extradition to Northern Ireland led to the Irish Republic's Fianna Fail/Labour coalition government collapsing in 1994. It is to the credit of the then leader of the Irish Party Dick Spring that he forced the government to an end over the appointment of Harry Whelehan the Attorney General (a political post) to a senior judicial post. Spring’s concern was that the appointment put Whelehan beyond parliamentary scrutiny. An allegation was made by a member of the Dáil (Irish lower house) that the delay was due to the influence of the then Irish Primate Cardinal Cahal Daly. This was denied and, to be fair, the accusation does not seem credible for one simple reason. The Catholic Church had no need to put pressure on the government. The Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Albert Reynolds was a Conservative Catholic leading a Conservative Catholic political party. The 1937 constitution had enshrined the role of the Catholic Church and they had, and still largely have, a control of the school system. The reluctance of Harry Whelehan to extradite a priest to the largely Protestant Northern Ireland, and from Irish to British jurisdiction was predictable but wholly lacking in principle. It put politics and specifically the protection or an Irish Catholic identity before justice and the protection of abused children. It became a critical factor, though not the only one, that led to the rift between the Catholic Church and a large part of the Irish population. Smyth was eventually imprisoned and died of a heart attack, shortly after commencing his sentence Meanwhile the story of child abuse continued to play out in Northern Ireland. Throughout the long history of the Northern Irish “Troubles” the East Belfast district of Ballyhackamore was largely, through not entirely unaffected by the violence. The area had a certain kudos, as the childhood home of the author C.S. Lewis, and was immortalized in Van Morrison songs such as Cyprus Avenue and Madame George. There were a number of bombings and shootings but it didn’t go though the intense turmoil experienced in other parts of the city. Ballyhackamore was socially and religiously mixed. A large number of the residents were from the professional and business classes. While largely Protestant it did have a sizeable Catholic minority who lived side by side with them on amiable terms. In the mid 1970s a new curate was appointed to the Catholic Church of St Colmcilles. Fr Joe Steele, (Michael Joseph Steele), was in his mid thirties and set about making an impact. He organized discos in the parochial hall and set up a gym club for young parishioners. This even attracted an involvement from a small number of non Catholic kids. Steele cultivated the image of the ideal priest. However he had a very disturbing agenda. He inveigled his way into the hospitality of a family with adolescent children, where he became a frequent dinner guest. We can only speculate that the family felt privileged that the young popular priest gave them so much of his time. But what we can say, with certainty, is they paid a very heavy price for their hospitality. In 1991 three, young adult, siblings accused Steele of abuse in front of his parishioners in his new parish in Newtonards. That must have taken great courage and the victims had every right to expect the church to support their interests. Their concern was to prevent Steele from being allowed to work with children. They simply didn’t want others to go through what they had gone through. The church failed them. The Bishop’s immediate response was to order Steele to return to the headquarters of The Holy Ghost Order, of which he was a member. This was in Dublin, in the Irish Republic, and therefore outside the legal jurisdiction where he had committed the crimes. That Order at some point decided to export this paedophile to England. It is beyond comprehension how they could have thought that was OK. To simply send a paedophile as far away as they could, where more children would be vulnerable was moral bankruptcy. There can be no justification for such a callous lack of concern for potential victims. Yet it is a pattern which is found in the case of paedophile priest after paedophile priest. It may not have been the official policy of the Catholic Church but it looks like it was the de facto policy. It appears to have been implemented without informing either ecclesiastical of legal authorises at the receiving end of why the priest was being exported. Steele was eventually found five years later, while working as a priest in the South Yorkshire town of Rotherham. He had been spotted by a sister of one of his victims. Once again he returned to Dublin and, then no doubt persuaded by the knowledge of the Irish Governments extradition of Smyth, agreed to give himself up the RUC. In his first trial it was shown that he had abused the girls regularly over a period of five years. In total, on that occasion Steele pleaded guilty of sexually molesting two boys and three girls between the ages of nine and fifteen years of age. In a later trial he admitted to offences going back to 1967. He had committed many offences against both girls and boys. His sentencing on these charges was halted when he was declared dead from a brain tumour in January 2013. The question this raises is how did a priest with a largely affluent and well educated congregation get away with this for so long? I’m going to return to the subject of Joe Steele but first I’m going to address why priests, in Ireland, North and South got away with abuse and then how their power has been challenged in recent years. The desire for something that is seen as special is can be very strong in humans. Religions exploit that desire. Most religions, (there are a few exceptions such as the Quakers), create a special order of people, or in some cases, orders of people. They are the ordained and are usually treated with a degree of reverence. From Buddhist monks to the local Evangelical pastor this applies. One of the great dangers of religion is these people are given a special degree of trust and respect. They are seen as having a special knowledge and a direct route to the divine, or whatever the revered idea at the heart of the religion is. They are assumed to be morally better than other people. This is a symbiotic process because it is not just a case of the priest enjoying this status but also of the congregation reinforcing it. The Shaman, the Indian mystic, the pastor and priest all fulfil a desire to have a religious message conveyed by someone of a special status. In the Roman Catholic Church there is belief in apostolic succession. Catholic ordination is claimed to have been derived in an unbroken line from the twelve apostles and therefore from Christ himself. This means the priest is the inheritor of a sacred legacy. He is seen as having the power to transform bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. That alone makes a priest a very powerful figure. He is the keeper of a mystery. The priest also has a high social status within the community. He is seen as a trusted professional like a doctor, lawyer or teacher. Other professionals, within his religion, would see him as not just sharing that status but, because of his spiritual role, as have a pre-eminent status. That has meant a reluctance to question him because to do so would be to both question his spiritual and professional integrity. I often tweet on the topics I am writing about. I get frequent abuse from believers. The level of abuse I’ve had from Catholics on this issue has been very high indeed. They seem to desperately want to bury the issue. However, one of the strongest voices against the abuse came from the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny, when in July 2011 he attacked the Vatican over interference in an inquiry into clerical abuse of children in the diocese of Cloynes. Here are excerpts from his speech. Because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an Inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic…as little as three years ago, not three decades ago… Cloyne's revelations are heart-breaking. It describes how many victims continued to live in the small towns and parishes in which they were reared and in which they were abused… their abuser often still in the area and still held in high regard by their families and the community. The abusers continued to officiate at family weddings and funerals… In one case, the abuser even officiated at the victim's own wedding… Cardinal Josef Ratzinger [Then Pope Benedict XVI] said: ‘Standards of conduct appropriate to civil society or the workings of a democracy cannot be purely and simply applied to the Church.’ As the Holy See prepares its considered response to the Cloyne Report, as Taoiseach, I am making it absolutely clear, that when it comes to the protection of the children of this State, the standards of conduct which the Church deems appropriate to itself, cannot and will not, be applied to the workings of democracy and civil society in this republic. Not purely, or simply or otherwise. CHILDREN.... FIRST. The Vatican’s response was to deny that it had interfered in the inquiry. However, even if there was no direct interference for the Vatican, it is beyond question that elements within the church did seek to obstruct it. The simple truth is that again and again the Catholic Church has put its own interests first and only addressed the real harm when it has been forced to do so. This story has played out across the globe. What happened in the Irish Catholic Church happened in the United States, Australia and South Africa and many other places. The Catholic Church, and other religions, including Buddhists need to face up to the fact that the position of clergyman, minister, monk and in some cases nun has been used for cruel forms of abuse.   

 Chapter Seven


 I knew Fr Joe Steele. I should say I was not a victim of his sexual abuse. Though I had not known what he had been doing at the time, when his trial was reported in the papers in 1996 (I had been living in England for many years by this time) I immediately knew who some of his victims had been. It had always been obvious that there was at least one family he was especially close to. The parish was wealthy enough to provide a large house for each of its two priests. One was on the famous Cyprus Avenue (Ironically in close proximity to the residence of the Reverend Ian Paisley). That occupied by Steele, who was the more junior priest, was a large semi-detached house, in the grounds of the church and the primary school. Yes, Fr Michael Joseph Steele, one of the most notorious of paedophile priests, in the Irish Catholic Church, lived in the grounds of a primary school. My recollection, from something he had said, is he had chosen it rather than share the large Cyprus Avenue address with the other priest. It seems very clear that he had contrived a situation where he could be close to children and away from the gaze of the his senior colleague. It was to that house that, at the age of fifteen, I went to in distress on a wet night. My mother had died a couple of years before and I couldn’t cope with my father’s manic depression. I needed an adult to talk to. I needed someone I felt I could trust. I was one of the groups of teenage boys who used the weight training facilities Fr Steele made available in his Gym sesssions. That was why he seemed a natural person to turn to in my distress. He had appeared to be understanding. I have no idea if he had any sexual interest in me but it did later cross my mind that the fact he knew that the weight training had made me strong and physically confident may have deterred him. Steele may have ironically armed me against him. Back in the 1970s ideas such as emotional intelligence had no popular currency. Yet even then I had expected empathy. Instead of that expected understanding of why I was distressed over my father what I met from Steele was an astounding emotional blankness. At fifteen I didn’t have the words to explain such a complete absence of empathy. What I did understand was that he left me in no doubt that he had no interest in helping me. Even at fifteen I knew there was something wrong. Steele could play a part delivering his homilies and, no doubt, he had a formula for confessions but he had no comprehension as to how to deal with real human distress. The contrast between the public man and his apathetic response to me stunned me. It was the first time in my life I ever began to question the value of religion. In hindsight it was extremely fortunate that it completely destroyed my confidence in Steele. I was certainly no stranger to priests. I was taught by a number of them. The school I attended could not have been better connected to the Catholic hierarchy. The Headmaster was Fr Joseph Conway, the brother of Cardinal William Conway. He basked in the formal title of ‘President of the College’ but I even recall one of his fellow priests calling him by his nick name, Joe Boss. The school was not very large and he knew his pupils. I recall once being a caned, on my palms, by him, for getting into a fight. I was struck by the irony of being violently punished for violence. The school was in the parish of St Colmcilles. One of the priests who taught me often took services in the church. What he and the other priests who taught me knew about Steele I don’t know. The idea that they would not have put the interests of the boys they taught, many of whom were potential victims of Steele, first, seems unthinkable. It may be that Steele fooled some very bright men but I find it hard to escape the possibility that if a pupil had told the teachers at the school, of abuse by him, they simply won’t have believed it. The school did nothing to control teachers who repeatedly practiced corporal punishment. One Latin teacher, (a lay teacher, as most were), who we nicknamed “The Weed” would stand beside us as we declined a verb and demand we held forth our palms, when we faltered. He’d raise his leather strap as high as he could and bring it down, with all the force he could muster, landing four sharp slaps, two on each hand. It caused stinging bright red marks and we could do nothing but vigorously shake our hands to ease the terrible burning sensation. We considered ourselves fortunate if a number of others had been punished before us, as we knew the later swings of his strap carried less power. This cruelty was justified by Proverbs 13:24, which is often paraphrased as “Spare the rod; spoil the child.” It was, in fact, a remarkably stupid teaching strategy. If the approach had worked it would have done so as a deterrent. A strapped boy would have shown improvement. I know of no evidence that it improved anyone’s learning. I was and still am moderately dyslexic. In adulthood I’ve tried to learn the words of poem or song I have loved and have not been able to recall more than a line or two. I still can only rarely write a sentence without needing to correct it; if someone tells me their telephone number I can’t repeat it back to them. The numbers will jumble in my head, unless I slowly write them down. My brain is agile when it comes to making connections and I have no difficulty in grasping and countering an argument but learning by rote is simply not a skill I possessed then or possess now. The ability to think, was eventually to get me a place at university, but was useless for remembering Latin declensions. I got strapped day after day, and year after year, for an inability that was not my fault. It was punishment for the sake of punishment and I cannot escape the perception that it was punishment for the joy of punishing. Those of us who were strapped at the beginning of the academic year were invariably still being strapped at the end of it. We were strapped for being lazy and stupid but what could conceivably be more stupid than to have continued year after year to do something that had no result? All the beating in the world could not have given me the skills I did not have. How stupid and lazy is it to not question a teaching strategy that fails, fails and fails again? It is hard to imagine how anyone could have had a more stupid and lazy approach to teaching than that of The Weed. He deserves to be addressed by no other name, than that. He used the strap as a substitute for intelligent teaching methods and didn’t question its qualifications for the task. He showed no respect for the victims of his mindless cruelty. While being regularly strapped had no effect on my learning it did, however, have one important outcome; it beat every last trace of Roman Catholicism out of me. That is the only thing I thank The Weed for. When I was fifteen this punishment eased off and I began to question my treatment. The myth of a religion of love made no sense to me. It had been contradicted every time the strap had fallen. My anger at what had happened to me gradually grew. I abandoned the religion at the age of sixteen and have never wanted to call myself a Roman Catholic or be in any way associated with that church in the years since. That was, however, far from the end of my journey with religion and spirituality. Even if I were not eventually to become an Atheist a religion that treated me so cruelly would have forsaken any right to a claim on me. I more than once had the experience of a teacher who expounded on the theme of how loving and forgiving God was, and yet could not grasp that beating me for my incapacity to learn by rote was cruel and a the denial of every principle of love. Jesus supposedly said “By their fruits do ye know them”. The fruits I found in Roman Catholicism were stupidity and cruelty. I do not mean by that that the school was poor academically. Far from it; in spite of the cruelty it had some excellent teachers and excellent academic results. It is an irony that one of the best of those teachers was a priest by the name of Fr John Forsythe. We called him Bruce after the Television entertainer Bruce Forsyth. He protested there was a difference. He had an “E” for excellence at the end of his name. He had not been long out of the seminary, when he taught us, and brought a keen understanding of textual criticism to his lessons. When I began later to dissect the Bible my memories of his lessons gave me a good starting point. I left the school as soon as I could and did my “A” levels at a further education college. I do not call myself an Ex-Catholic. I never joined Catholicism but I left as soon as I was able to. It is not an institution I would have ever voluntarily joined or recommend to anyone else. The Catholic Church presumes to teach morality yet had no comprehension of the harm it was doing. The futile vindictive punishments where bad enough but worse was the contempt they signified towards the pupils. That told boys so very clearly that they’d not be believed if they reported sexual abuse by a priest. That was not the intention of the school’s brutal disciplinary regime but what other outcome could there have been? I have no reason to believe other than that, John Forsythe was, and is, a decent and intelligent man. I hope he would have acted effectively had he been told of abuse by Steele. The problem is that religion demands that loyalty to it comes first. It claims sacred authority for that loyalty. The clergy are very dependent on it, especially where it provides not just their income but their housing, (I recall Forsythe stating that teaching priests are required to forego a high percentage of their income to the church). The church could have brought great pressure to bear on a priest who made statements that were seen to damage its interests. The Catholic Church wants to see child abuse by priests and nuns as simply an issue of some very bad priests and nuns. What it needs to understand is that the nature of religion compounded the problem. It allowed priests to have a status that placed them above suspicion. It fostered a myth that celibacy meant purity. It had schools that enforced authority by beating children, and taught that authority figures should not be questioned. Men like Symthe and Steele will have understood the esteem in which priests were held and seen themselves as untouchable. They had every reason to, as the Catholic Church did a great deal to defend and enable them.  

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1 comment:

  1. Very interesting blog to read. There is a huge difference between religion and faith. Faith is what brings us to a belief in a loving, forgiving and amazing creator and God, Religion is an institution that Jesus the Christ himself spoke very openly and clearly against. My heart tells me you have much to let go of, I hope you find the peace and love you seek. Blessings upon you. Judith Doherty (nee McGivern)