Bishops in the Catholic Church failing to report rapist priests to the police and civil authorities is both a criminal matter and a moral matter.
That’s the view of Ian Elliott, the chief executive of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church [the National Board].
He made the comment as I asked him about the likelihood of Irish bishops being brought before the civil courts here. He said he couldn’t really comment on that other than to say that those in a position where they could have caused harm should be held accountable.
But, I asked, bishops non-reporting of a paedophile priest, a rapist priest…is that a criminal matter in your view, a moral matter?
“It’s both,” he replied, adding that it was also dependent on which jurisdiction it was in as the laws varied on both sides of the border. ”I’m aware of the issue which exists in Northern Ireland with regards to failure to disclose an indictable offence is an offence in itself,” he said.
Describing himself as a social worker who has spent his working life safeguarding children, he believes that the safety of the child is of paramount concern and that must always be recognised by all who are involved.
He added: “And if someone has harmed a child they should be held accountable for that, regardless whether they are a bishop or a cardinal or anyone.”
Mr Elliott who has had his difficulties with the Catholic Church hierarchy in the past, now believes the National Board has changed the culture of cover-up and secrecy to create a more open and accountable church that can speak with one voice on issues related to child protection.
And as he reflects on his five years in office, he is not afraid to speak out to criticise those in the hierarchy who have in the past created problems, such as Bishop John Magee in Cloyne. Ian Elliott says had Bishop Magee behaved in the way he should and implemented the recommendations required of him, then there would have been no reason for the State inquiry that took place.
And he has not been afraid to be critical of the way Cardinal Brady, the All Ireland Primate and Archbishop of Armagh, handled a secret church inquiry in 1975 that heard allegations against notorious paedophile Fr Brendan Smyth but did not report Smyth to the police or social services. Smyth went on to rape and assault hundreds more children until he was eventually jailed in 1994 after three years on the run in the Republic.
The past caught up with Cardinal Brady when he – along with the archdiocese of Armagh were successfully sued by a number of survivors of Fr Smyth’s rapes and sexual assaults. There was a woman in Canada who received €250,000, a young man in Drogheda and in November last year the settlement with Brendan Boland who very publicly criticised the Cardinal for refusing to publicly acknowledge and accept church failings in its handling of the allegations made against Fr Smyth.
Brendan Boland was one of the two teenagers sworn to secrecy in 1975 by Cardinal Brady during a Canonical inquiry into allegations made against Fr Brendan Smyth by the two young men.
Mr Boland was abused by Fr Smyth for three years from the age of 12. He spoke to a young priest at a youth club and that led to the church inquiry.
Mr Boland’s case was settled in Dublin High Court. Standing outside the court a solicitor representing Mr Boland read out a statement from his client in which Mr Boland said that after the ecclesiastical court his parents were assured Fr Brendan Smyth would not be allowed to associate with young boys or girls and that there would be no recurrence of the abuse.
In his statement, Mr Boland went on to say he was devastated to learn 20 years later that Fr Smyth had continued to sexually assault children after the 1975 church inquiry.
His statement continued: “I met other victims who were 10-15 years young than I who would not have been abused if the assurances given to me and my family and the youth club priest had been honoured. This un-kept promise was a further abuse of me.”
But there was something else that dismayed Mr Boland. He told me he was he was really upset by a short newspaper story published just after he settled his case.
What made him angry was an attempt, as he saw it, by Cardinal Brady to minimise his role in the 1975 church inquiry. The story was headlined: Cardinal Sean Brady – correction.
The paper said it had been asked to clarify a story in the previous day’s paper to state that the then Fr Sean Brady did not make Brendan Boland take an oath…rather he had been a note taker only and that the High Court settlement was with the Archdiocese of Armagh and not with him.
There’s no doubt the whole episode involving Cardinal Brady in 1975 brought further ignominy on the already discredited image of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
It was the classic case of cover-up. Bury the facts in a secret church inquiry. How many of these have taken place over the years? How many has Cardinal Brady been involved in?
It was precisely this kind of cover-up that Ian Elliott wanted to end. He wanted openness and transparency.
I asked him if there will ever be a repeat of the secret tribunal Cardinal Brady supervised in 1975 when two young men appeared in a Canonical court and were invited to sign oaths of secrecy. He said no.
There’s no doubt or shortage of evidence to show that the culture of cover up runs deep within the Catholic Church. For years the men of the hierarchy have run the church to suit their own canonical ends. And they have not been slow to bear their teeth when it suits – wherever in the world they feel it necessary.
But times are changing and it is those responsible for effecting changes in attitudes in the church hierarchy that sometimes find themselves on the front line. All things considered in a global sense, Ian Elliott has fared better than others in a similar position.
Consider the fate of Frank Keating in the United States. A former FBI agent and Governor of Oklahoma he accepted a post as chairman of a church appointed panel – a Review Board tasked with safeguarding children.
Very soon he began experiencing a lack of co-operation from the church and the hierarchy. Things became so bad he could no longer stick it and so he went public to express his frustration. In a statement he compared some bishops to ‘La Cosa Nostra’ suggesting they were continuing to cover up the extent of sexual abuse by priests.
The hierarchy responded like a grizzly bear disturbed during hibernation. Keating had to go. It was 2003.
A devout Catholic he stood by his Mafia comments even though he had to resign. What he said was this: “To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organisation, not my church.”
What Frank Keating had run up against was the kind of Catholic Church leadership typified in 1997 and 1999 when a cardinal in the Vatican communicated his displeasure to the Irish bishops. These communications only emerged last year, 2011.
Columbian Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos retired in July 2009 but not before causing controversy in 2001 when he was in charge of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy. He sent a letter to a French bishop congratulating the bishop for not denouncing a sexually abusive priest.
He later justified the letter by stating that after consulting with the then Pope John Paul II, “I wrote a letter to the bishop congratulating him as a model of a father who does not turn in his children.”
Only last year did it emerge from secret church files that in 1997 Cardinal Hoyos told Irish bishops of his concerns over their ‘Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response.’ It appears the church was preparing to put greater emphasis on informing the civil authorities about child molesting priests and Cardinal Hoyos told them to stick to Canon law. He then followed that up in 1999 by telling Irish bishops to be ‘fathers to your priests, not policemen.’
During our interview Ian Elliott reflected on the attitudes of the Catholic Church from the top down: “I think the Cardinal Hoyos’s letter to the Irish Bishops, I think in 1997 which, you know, got a lot of publicity as well, I think that that would be recognised as being something that shouldn’t have occurred. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now. And we need to say very clearly that it’s wrong and make sure that people act accordingly.”
Ian Elliott has had to contend with outdated attitudes in the hierarchy – similar in mindset to that of Cardinal Hoyos. This brought him into conflict with certain elements in the Irish hierarchy…so much so that at one stage just last year he considered resigning. He told the Irish Catholic he was irritated by a lack of co-operation from the church but he also said he was staying put because he was sure he was making a difference for children.
Today he says everyone has ups and downs at work and he was no different to what many people have to cope with at their place of employment. Nevertheless, his entrance into the world of the Catholic Church in July 2007 was always going to be tough.
For him this was, as he puts it, “a massive challenge, and it remains in many ways a major challenge as well.”
He went on: “I went in, perhaps being quite naive really, in relation to the task. I didn’t know a great deal about the structure of the church, or how the church operated and how decisions were made and how things got done.
“And so I had to learn very quickly what was the reality. And most people refer to the Catholic church as if it is a single entity. In reality of course, within Ireland, the island of Ireland, there are 188 different church authorities which are all separate and distinct in their own right. Twenty six diocese and 162 religious orders, religious congregations, missionary societies and religious institutes. So it’s a massive body, 4.3 million members. And there was nowhere where the leaders sit down together and talk to each other.”
Ian Elliott’s challenge was to end the mindset of so many member of the church hierarchy who put the good name of the church above all else, even child sex abuse. He saw the immediate challenge was to find a means of getting the church to adopt a single strategy, a single approach.
“It was an objective that we set and with the adoption of the safeguarding standards and guidance in January of 2008, that I think was a major step forward for us,” he told the Detail.
“It was really a major achievement, because it allowed us then to argue very forcibly for, if you like, compliance right across the board. And of course, the review process is the means by which we insure that’s happening.”
He accepts that survivors of rapist priests will still take some convincing that genuine change has been implemented – that they will struggle with the concept that nowadays the church puts civil law above Canon law.
But he said: “I have already stated that we would make sure that the appropriate authorities, ie the PSNI or the Gardai, were informed, were told. If we have knowledge of a crime and that information has not been shared with the appropriate authorities, we share it. So it’s not something that the church has any ability to hold back, if you like, or filter. We do it and we make sure that that information, and then it’s up to the appropriate authorities to act on that.”
As the authorities here prepare for a start to the government sponsored inquiry into institutional abuse this summer, there’s a growing clamour for a State inquiry into clerical abuse in Northern Ireland. There’s great admiration for what has been uncovered in the Republic by robust State investigations.
But Ian Elliott is not in favour.
He said: “I have to declare a bias here and say very clearly I’m not a supporter of statutory inquiries, for a number of reasons. Firstly, they are very costly. Secondly, they take a long period of time to come to conclusions. And, thirdly, they basically end up usually telling you what you know already.
“So I think there are other ways of doing it. That’s not to say that these aren’t matters that shouldn’t be inquired into.”
But what about the success of State inquiries in the Republic? The facts were eventually dragged out of the church authorities presenting the public with a very unpalatable truth. Is that good reason to have one in the north?
“I think I would argue that point,” he told me. “I really believe that many of the changes that have taken place have taken place, may well have taken place any way even if the statutory inquiries had not taken place in the way that they have. I think there are other ways of doing it.”
Mr Elliott says it is not just the Catholic Church that has to look forward to the major challenge society faces in how it properly protects the next generation of children from sexual predators.
“This is a very big question,” he said, “a major challenge, a major challenge for the church. It’s a major challenge for society as a whole. We have to ensure that risk, wherever risks exist in society as far as children is concerned, is appropriately identified, assessed and managed.
“And that really requires that there is a level of resourcing for services and a clear understanding of the task. It’s very important also I think that government has a role to play here in terms of ensuring that legislation enables all of the organisations that have, and should play a part, to do so and to do so freely.”
Ian Elliott is 65 next month but has a further year to run on his contract with the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church and so there’s no question of retiring just yet.