Bishop Dermot Farrell, the Bishop of Ossory, preached the following homily on Friday 26 October 2018 in St. Patrick’s Church, College Road, Kilkenny to mark the opening of the 2018 Annual Conference of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland:
I welcome you all to Kilkenny for the annual conference of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The First Reading and the Gospel, says to us do not be afraid for the Lord is with us. Never be afraid to work for the protection of children. Don’t be afraid to deploy the gifts of the Spirit that given in Baptism and sealed in us at Confirmation “to acknowledge and remedy, with evangelical honesty and courage, past failure – grave sins — with regard to the protection of children and vulnerable adults” (Pope Francis, Dublin 2018). Our Gospel says it is only when we listen to the Spirit of God and follow the lead of God’s Spirit that we begin to see where Christ is leading us, and what kind of Church community God wants us to be. The Lord is indeed working through us as we strive to protect children in our communities.
I am glad to be here because I want, first of all, to acknowledge the National Board’s contribution to addressing the grave issues, serious wrongs and tragic failures over the previous decades that have come to light in our land in and in our Church, as the scale and depth of the sexual abuse crisis in Ireland has been revealed. This terrible scandal has undermined the lives of many children and vulnerable people — young and not so young; it has eroded trust and goodwill, and hangs like a cloud over all who seek to witness to the Good News.
The exemplary safeguarding standards and the clear mechanisms provided by the National Board to protect minors, to prevent sexual abuse and to respond to complaints have enabled the Church to respond vigorously to this crisis. Since the mid-1990s the realisation of child abuse in the Church has been with us. The exposure of that reality and the concerted response to it, through inquiries and investigations has over time – albeit over a long period of time– led, to significantly improved practice. Through the development of robust safeguarding systems, an increased awareness through training and support, and the willingness of clerics, religious and lay people to grasp the gravity of the crisis, we have made very significant strides in protecting children to the point that one of the safest places for children to participate activities is the Catholic Church. In this regard a very special thanks is due to the ‘designated liaison persons’, the thousands of parish-based volunteers across Ireland whose vigilance has drastically reduced the number of cases since the introduction of the standards. You are the Body of Christ active in your local communities. Your commitment to safeguarding children in every parish greatly underpins public confidence in the Church’s role in this area. But we are keep children safe there is no room for any complacency.
The anger and dismay experienced by many in response to the recent developments in the universal Church regarding the sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy or religious communities and the hiding of those crimes is very understandable. Despite the many reports and serious findings in this area here in Ireland in recent years, these reports from overseas were nonetheless dreadful. They have negatively affected many many people, in particular victims and survivors of abuse, families and the community of faithful. It is still right, however, that the truth of these crimes would come to light, so that the abuse itself can be addressed and ultimately healed by a genuine response that is willing to go even deeper than the childhood terror inflicted on so many children. The Lord Himself never ceased pointing out that it is at the level of the heart that we pay attention to the motives for our actions. The courage of abuse survivors who first brought the horrific truth of sexual abuse to light must continue to be matched by our courage to listen to the survivors and, to respond in truth and in justice to all of them.
The questions that have again come to the fore in recent months not only focus the community on the seriousness of abuse, they are also an opportunity to call people to the mission of prevention so that the future will be different from our history. The National Board’s starting point is not to investigate abuses; its starting point is to prevent abuses.
In a meeting with Pope Francis, one victim of sexual abuse expressed the sadness and destruction of hope that follows in the wake of abuse: “Jesus had His mother nearby when he faced suffering and death. But my mother, the Church, left me all alone in my time of pain.” These profound words, this deep sentiment, reveal broader effect of the shameful behaviour on the part of the Church leaders whose role it is to care for and protect everyone in the Church. Complaints that were mishandled or ignored meant the victims felt “harassed and dejected, like sheep without a shepherd.” The words also express the horror of the heinous crime of sexual abuse of minors. They show how much the Church’s attitude and that of her leaders needs to change. Without the truth and a sense of the reality which pertains – both inside and outside the Church – there is little hope of healing or progress.
Today I acknowledge the gratitude of the community that is the Church for your vigilance, steadfastness and generosity in ensuring that this change happens and continues to happen.
The Catholic Church in Ireland has been dismayed because of the devastating harm that has been done to children and, for the way the leaders failed for whatever reason to respond, or responded very poorly, when in many instances there were grave indications that children had been abused. If such reports had been acted upon in a timely manner, rather than denying or covering up the abuse and the silencing of victims to prevent scandal, it would have prevented others from being sexually abused. We are now going through a period of rightful indignation, and necessary purification. It took far too long to arrive at a position where both sexual abuse of the most innocent in our communities and its cover-up in the Church will no longer be tolerated.
In his published Letter to the People of God in August, Pope Francis could not have been clearer:
“The only way that we have to respond to this evil that has darkened so many lives is to experience it as a task regarding all of us as the People of God. This awareness of being part of a people and a shared history will enable us to acknowledge our past sins and mistakes with a penitential openness that can allow us to be renewed from within.”
A change of culture is needed within the Church, among us all. On my own behalf and on behalf of the people I serve – especially the most vulnerable, I thank you, and assure you of our appreciation and prayer.
In the Gospel Jesus is depicted as welcoming children not only because they are endearing, but also because they are vulnerable and in need of the protection of others. That means following wholeheartedly Jesus’ call to put the most vulnerable ones at the core of our attention and mission. The protection of children must be a reflex in all our thoughts, planning and actions. The good parent has good reflexes; a healthy Church has good reflexes, especially for those who need support and protection.
The law alone will never solve the crime of child sexual abuse. Yes, we need standards and laws, both civil and canon. However, if the culture and the mentality does not change then trust will not be rebuilt in the Church and its leadership, nor will be victims be healed.
We know some people do not comply with the law (eg, they drive under the influence of alcohol, steal, although they know it’s wrong and will be punished). Why are they not compliant? Because they aren’t really convinced. With regards to safeguarding, there is an interplay between policies, norms, procedures and guidelines: civil and canon law on one hand, and on the other one’s attitude and willingness to cooperate – not because I am compelled to, but because I readily and spontaneously and naturally do whatever can be done so that young people are safe and those who have been harmed receive all the help and support they are entitled to.
In the Gospel Jesus holds insiders to a high standard. They must not harm the body and the spirit of other believers under any circumstances. A wall of institutional silence or ignorance is never an acceptable response when a complaint is received. We now know that when the wall collapsed it did irreparable damage to the faith of innumerable people in an already deeply wounded Church.
On the occasion of the World Meeting of Families in Dublin Pope Francis strengthened, confirmed, and challenged us to live our Catholic faith with the hope and trust that only the gospel can give us. He used that opportunity to speak about the importance of safeguarding children and ask “forgiveness for the cases of abuse in Ireland, the abuse of power, the abuse of conscience and sexual abuse on the part of the representatives of the Church” (Mass celebrated in Phoenix Park, 26August 2018).
The reaction of some clergy to this crisis is not to involve young people in Church related activities, such as altar serving. This approach undermines our pastoral ministry with and to young people. One should not be afraid of young people, they are a blessing to humanity and to the Church. Children enrich our lives. No wonder the psalmist prays, “May you see your children’s children” (Ps 127: 6). They are our way of looking into the future.
Again, I thank you for the work that you do in the service of safeguarding children in our Church. May I encourage you at this difficult time as you share with one another. And then return home to take up with your collaborators the task of safeguarding the most innocent and most vulnerable in society, recognizing it as an important ministry in the Church today. Amen.