Wednesday, May 02, 2012

A Stick to beat the Cardinal with...

The latest Church news in Ireland is a continuation of the ongoing controversy regarding the involvement of Cardinal Sean Brady - then part-time secretary to the Bishop of Kilmore - in the Church investigation into the actions of the now-notorious child abuser Fr Brendan Smyth. This article from the Irish Times gives a summary of the contents of a televison programme which brings to light further detail of how the investigation was conducted in 1975.
In particular, the programme makes it known that in addition to hearing the experiences of some children who were abused by Smyth, Fr Brady also received information from them about other children who were victims of Smyth. The program claims - and I see very little reason to doubt this - that this information was not used to warn either the parents of these children or the civil authorities, and therefore the abuse continued.
 By any standard, the neglect and incompetence of Church authorities in deal with Fr Smyth are self-evident and appalling. The fact that Smyth ever had access to vulnerable children after Church authorities became aware of his abuse is inexcusable. With the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that he should have been reported to the civil authorities as well. As we know, that was not often done in those days - sometimes out of a desire to protect the image of the Church, sometimes out of the belief that the Church had the primary responsibility for dealing with the issue, sometimes out of a concern that it would not serve the welfare of victims to go down the criminal route. However, even if the Church authorities at the time made the mistaken decision that they should be primarily responsible for dealing with Smyth and protecting vulnerable children, it is evident that Fr Smyth's superiors proved inexcusably negligent in the responsibility they assumed. Those who suffered because of this failure have every right to bring the truth to light and have every justification to be as angry as hell with anyone associated with this failure. At the very least, the mishandling of Fr Smyth was sinfully negligent.
However, there is also a duty on us to look at what happened seriously and forensically. Because of his involvement in the investigation, the demand has been made of Cardinal Brady that he resign as Archbishop of Armagh. The case is made that he heard the accounts of abuse, that he received the names and addresses of those who had been abused and that therefore he should have made a report to the civil authorities and stopped the abuse there and then. I have no doubt but that Cardinal Brady - and pretty much everyone in Ireland - wishes that he had done so.
Given what we have seen about how abuse cases were mishandled within the Irish Church, I know for a fact that if I was even tangentially involved in a Church investigation into a child protection issue, I would be documenting everything and checking & double-checking that the civil authorities had been notified. I wouldn't want any error to lead to the harm of young people. I'd be chasing, chasing, chasing everyone else involved to ensure that things were handled properly. (To be frank, I'd also be half-terrified of landing myself into trouble if everything wasn't done correctly.) However, if I didn't have benefit of hindsight, if I didn't know how badly things were done in the past, I wouldn't be so scrupulous and suspicious in my approach. And that's the situation that Fr Brady found himself in. He conducted the interviews according to the best of his ability and reported everything to Bishop McKiernan in the expectation that Fr Smyth would be dealt with properly. Indeed, his only link to this case is the fact that he was asked by his bishop to take those witness statements. He only became aware of Fr Smyth's abusing ways because his bishop involved him in the investigation. Fr Brady's error was that he assumed that the investigation - and in particular Bishop McKiernan and Fr Smyth's superior - would deal with the case properly and ensure that Smyth was locked away. That didn't happen. Smyth was able to abuse again and untold damage has been done to the lives of innocent people.
And, yes, things could have happened differently if Fr Brady had made a report to the civil authorities. However, the question must be asked whether Fr Brady could have had the extraordinary foresight to mistrust his Bishop and mistrust the Church investigation which would have led to him making that report.
In my opinion, it's not reasonable to expect Fr Brady to have made that decision. So, it is right to examine this sorry case. It is right to question Cardinal Brady's role in it. It is a sacred duty to respect and honour the voices of Fr Smyth's victims. However, I cannot bring myself to conclude that it is reasonable to demand Cardinal Brady's resignation. Many in the media and public life are using the pain of child abuse victims as a stick to beat the Cardinal with.