DUBLIN — Roman Catholic Church leaders in Dublin spent decades sheltering child-abusing priests from the law and most fellow clerics turned a blind eye, an investigation ordered by Ireland's government concluded Thursday.
Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, who handed over more than 60,000 previously secret church files to the three-year investigation, said he felt deep shame and sorrow for how previous archbishops presided over endemic child abuse – yet claimed afterward not to understand the gravity of their sins.
Martin said his four predecessors in Ireland's capital, including retired Cardinal Desmond Connell, must have understood that priests' molestation and rape of boys and girls "was a crime in both civil and canon law. For some reason or another they felt they could deal with all this in little worlds of their own.
"They were wrong, and children were left to suffer."
There was a similarly shocking investigation into decades of unchecked child abuse in Irish schools, workhouses and orphanages run nationwide by 19 Catholic orders of nuns, priests and brothers.
That report in May sought to document the scale of abuse as well as the reasons why church and state authorities didn't stop it, whereas Thursday's 720-page report focused on why church leaders in the Dublin Archdiocese – home to a quarter of Ireland's 4 million Catholics – did not tell police about a single abuse complaint against a priest until 1995.
By then, the investigators found, successive archbishops and their senior deputies – among them qualified lawyers – already had compiled confidential files on more than 100 parish priests who had sexually abused children since 1940. Those files had remained locked in the Dublin archbishop's private vault.
The investigators also dug up a paper trail documenting the church's long-secret insurance policy, taken out in 1987, to cover potential lawsuits and compensation demands. Dublin church leaders publicly denied the existence of the problem for a decade afterward – but since the mid-1990s have paid out more than euro10 million ($15 million) in settlements and legal bills.
The report cited documents showing how church officials learned about some cases only when devoutly Catholic police received complaints from children or their parents – but handed responsibility back to church leaders to sort out the problems themselves.
Thursday's report detailed "sample" cases of 46 priests who faced 320 documented complaints, although the investigators said they were confident that the priests had abused many more children than that. They cited testimony from one priest who admitted abusing more than 100 children, and another priest who said he abused a child approximately every two weeks for 25 years.
Just 11 of the 46 ultimately were convicted of abusing children – typically decades after church leaders learned of their crimes – while two others are scheduled to face Dublin criminal court actions within months. Fourteen are dead and most of the rest have been defrocked or barred from parish duties. Just six are still active priests.
Three Dublin archbishops – John Charles McQuaid (1940-72), Dermot Ryan (1972-84) and Kevin McNamara (1985-87) – did not tell police about clerical abuse cases, instead opting to avoid public scandals by shuttling offenders from parish to parish and even overseas to U.S. churches, the commission found.
It was not until 1995 that then-Archbishop Connell allowed police to see church files on 17 clerical abuse cases. At that time, Connell actually held records of complaints against at least 29 priests, the report found. Connell later pursued a lawsuit against the investigators in an abandoned bid to keep them from seeing more than 5,500 files documenting the church's knowledge of abusive priests.
The report said all four archbishops sought "the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities."
The investigators lauded a handful of priests and mostly low-ranking police who pursued complaints and prosecutions, almost always unsuccessfully, from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Senior police officers "clearly regarded priests as being outside their remit" and handed "complaints to the archdiocese instead of investigating them," the report said.
"A few (priests) were courageous and brought complaints to the attention of their superiors. The vast majority simply chose to turn a blind eye," it said.
Ireland's police commander, Commissioner Fachtna Murphy, said he was "deeply sorry" to read that his force failed to provide victims of abusive priests "the level of response or protection which any citizen in trouble is entitled to expect."
The government also apologized for the state's failure to pursue Dublin priests accused of child abuse until recent years.
Justice Minister Dermot Ahern, who received the Dublin Archdiocese report in July but delayed its publication for legal vetting, vowed that the state would never again treat the Catholic Church with deference.
"A priest's collar will protect no criminal," he said.
But pressure groups representing more than 15,000 documented victims of abuse by Irish Catholic officials said the government was not doing enough to end the danger of Catholic child abuse – in part because the law still stops short of requiring bishops to report abuse complaints to police.
Maeve Lewis, executive director of an Irish abuse counseling service called One in Four, noted that not a single person in Ireland has been convicted for "recklessly endangering" children, a crime created in 2006 legislation.
Lewis said the archbishops, bishops, monsignors, police and government health officials who suppressed abuse complaints for decades had never faced criminal investigations "even though they are every bit as guilty as the priests who committed the abuse."
And she forecast that, because abused children often do not seek justice until they reach adulthood, children today were still being abused by priests. "It's very likely in 10 or 15 years' time that the children who are being abused today will bring forward allegations," she said.
"As Irish people we like to think we live in a civilized society," she said, "but we need to hang our heads in shame."
On the Net: