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Missionaries of the Sacred Heart: Priests admitted abuse but authorities weren't told

Summary of the main findings of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland into the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.

The School of the Sacred Heart in Carrignavar, Co Cork. Six of the 17 missionaries accused of sexual abuse are connected to the school.
The School of the Sacred Heart in Carrignavar, Co Cork. Six of the 17 missionaries accused of sexual abuse are connected to the school.
Image: Google Maps

THE SOCIETY of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart was aware that some of its members had admitted to the sexual abuse of children – but failed to report those admissions to the legal authorities or even to other Church authorities, a report has found.

The National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCC) report found that in several cases, members who were accused of abusing children had admitted to that abuse but that these admissions were not reported to the Gardaí or HSE.

In some cases, when admissions were forwarded to Gardaí, the society did not forward any more details – such as admissions about the frequency or form of the abuse – which hampered the ability of Gardaí to investigate it, the report said.

In at least one case, crucial information about a priest who had admitted to abuse had not been passed on to other Church authorities under whom that priest was now looking to work.

In some cases, when asked about the abuse allegations against them, priests not only admitted to those cases but also named other children who they recalled abusing. In one case, this included details of the form and frequency of the abuse.

There is no record of this information being forwarded to legal authorities, and “little evidence that any appropriate preventative actions” were taken by the society in respect of those priests, the report said.

This was the case even though the society’s files showed that senior members of the order were aware of the allegations and had discussed them with officials in Rome.

“The picture that emerges from the files is that important child protection information that was held by the Society was not passed on to those who needed to know it. As a consequence it was not taken account of by them,” the report states.

This failure to communicate was not only directed at the Garda Síochána or the HSE but also applied within the Society itself. As a result, a misleading impression held currency amongst members of the Society as to what the true incidence of abuse allegations was.

Their awareness bore no relation to the true situation that existed.

17 alleged abusers, but an unknown number of victims

Allegations of sexual abuse were made against 17 of the society’s members are various times between the late 1940s and early 1990s.

The bulk of the allegations made in the report focus on three members who worked for several years at Sacred Heart College, a secondary boarding school in Carrignavar, Co Cork. A total of six priests who worked at the school have been connected with abuse allegations.

One of those six was subsequently convicted of abuse in a diocese in the Irish midlands, where he had been moved after allegations of abuse were made against him while he worked in a highly-regarded boarding school run by the society in England.

Of the 17 members accused, six are dead, seven are out of ministry and three have left the ministry. One member – against whom one allegation was made – remains in active ministry, as the congregation has it had not been substantiated. Of the 17, nine have admitted to abuse.

The total number of alleged abuse victims has not yet been fully established, however, as the figure is continually growing due to new complaints being received. As of May 21, a total of 61 complaints had been received.

The report discusses how victims said the response of the society was “uncaring and aggressive” – a response that took its toll.

At least one victim died by suicide where it was noted that clerical abuse was a contributing factor, if not the main cause, in his death. Other victims have been known to engage in self-harm. Another was warned of potential legal action against him if he persisted with an allegation.

The report says it is not clear if “sufficient attempts were made to respond to victims in a pastoral way”.

Response of the society ‘deeply flawed’

The practice of the Missionaries in dealing with allegations was “deeply flawed”, the report said, with leaders failing to “discharge their responsibilities to protect vulnerable young people” who had come into contact with members who had admitted to abuse, or against whom credible allegations were outstanding.

“They appeared to maintain a culture of secrecy which allowed known abusers to continue to live within the community without the full extent of the suffering that they had caused to vulnerable young people being known by their fellow members,” the report said.

There was no adequate attempt made by anyone to manage risk that was known to exist relating to the placement of offending members in the society. Other members with whom they would have contact were not even informed of the fact that they were a risk.

Even the society’s own child protection policies were not adhered to in some cases, or were compiled with only “in a nominal way”.

In at least one case in 2004, critical information about the past history of an alleged offender was not shared with the society’s Advisory Panel, “and a decision was made that the Gardaí would not be informed of new concerns about him” – apparently because this would disrupt the running of a school in which the alleged abuser was working.

[A] great deal of suffering [...] could have been prevented but those who should have taken action to prevent it either chose not to do so or were effectively blocked from doing so by a wall of secrecy which did not permit child protection information to be shared.

People who were aware that some priests had admitted to abuse “saw no need to report that fact to the Garda Síochána” – and though discussions were held with the society’s Superior General in Rome, these were purportedly only verbal in nature.

This is given as an example of a lack of understanding of the gravity of the allegations being made, the report said – holding up the society as an excellent example of why the current safeguarding policies have been adopted and must be adhered to.

Society said all allegations had been reported – but was wrong

The report also notes that the Society had been incorrect when it declared last summer that all allegations of sexual abuse known to them had been reported to the appropriate legal authorities.

The order had been catapulted into the public eye after Fianna Fáil senator Mark Daly named one of its members as having had allegations made against him in the Seanad chamber last July – remarks which were protected by parliamentary privilege.

When inspectors reviewed files of the order’s headquarters in Terenure the following month, it became clear “in a very short period of time” that its files contained admissions by priests of alleged abuse – with no indication that the admissions had been passed on to Gardaí or the HSE.

“It was also clear that important gaps existed in the case records. Documentation that related to important meetings was not in the files. This made it impossible to understand why decisions had been taken,” the report states.

At one point the NBSCCC review was suspended to allow members search for missing materials, but none were found. Subsequently, more information and complaints had come to light which gave grounds for the Gardaí to undertake formal investigations, which have begun in the meantime.

Recommendations

Seven recommendations are made for the society, namely the following:

  1. Co-operate fully with Gardaí and share all supporting information which could help investigations of abuse;
  2. Create a risk management plan with the HSE to deal with each known member against him a credible allegation has been made, or who has admitted to abuse;
  3. Appoint a delegate to provide support to a new leadership team as they seek to address the matters addressed
  4. Prioritise the support of victims and find ways to reach out to them to provide redress and support
  5. Create a coherent and fit-for-purpose safeguarding framework which complies with that adopted by the Catholic Church nationally
  6. Notify the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Holy See’s top theological watchdog, about all members who are the subject of credible allegations, in order to decide how to deal with each allegation
  7. Agree a date by which a further investigation, reviewing its progress, should be undertaken.

The images below show tables from the NBSCCC report analysing the Order’s performance in meeting the national standards for safeguarding.

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Society offers unreserved apology

The provincial of the society has admitted that the congregation failed in its attempts to engage with many people who reported allegations of sexual abuse against its members.

“While efforts were made in recent years to provide counselling, to meet with victims and report allegations to the authorities, it is abundantly clear that we failed in our attempts to reach out to many people who reported allegations to,” Fr Joseph McGee said, offering an unreserved apology to victims.

We express our deep and sincere sorrow to all those who did not receive a proper response from us after they had shown the courage to report abuse or to express concerns about the possibility of abuse occurring. [...]

Some of our members have breached a sacred trust and caused deep hurt for individuals and their families. We will do everything possible to deal openly and honestly with this. We recognise that we have also let down many people who have put their trust in us and been part of our work over the years.

“What is revealed in this report causes a sense of outrage among our dedicated and hardworking members who must live with the reality that some of our colleagues have abused children,” Fr McGee said.

In full: The NBSCCC report into the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (PDF)

Diocese of Clonfert: “No written procedures for management of allegations”>

Diocese of Cork and Ross: Delays “in some cases in informing the statutory authorities”

Diocese of Limerick: ‘Prompt referral of allegations to the statutory authorities’

More: Findings of child protection reviews published

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About the author:

Gavan Reilly

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