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Column: This wasn’t the Middle Ages, Bishop Kirby, it was the 1990s

Lisa McInerney asks why, if a senior member of the Catholic Church thought paedophilia was ‘crossing the line in friendship’, does the same Church think it can guide people on how to love and who to marry?

Lisa McInerney

BISHOP OF CLONFERT Dr John Kirby apologised this week in an interview on Galway Bay FM for moving two priests from one parish to another after they abused children.

An apology is always a positive move; Kirby expressed his “profound” regret at his actions and, at the very least, acknowledged that his part in the crime only exacerbated the culture of abuse and cover-up in the Irish Church and prolonged the misery for the affected children. But let’s not be too quick to commend his admitting he was wrong. His attempts at explaining his actions were baffling, at best.

Dr Kirby explained that at the time, he did not understand that his failure to protect these children would have devastating consequences, because he thought that paedophilia was “friendship that crossed a boundary line”.

The idea that a learned adult in a position of authority couldn’t understand the ramifications of paedophilia is incredibly far-fetched. Bear in mind that we’re not talking about a young clergyman fresh from the seminary, or someone from a secluded order who hadn’t seen the outside of his monastery since the orphanage left him at the gate, but an experienced, respected man who had, presumably through hard work and some semblance of intelligent thought, risen through the ranks of his vocation to reach a position of some influence. Also bear in mind that this didn’t take place in the Middle Ages; Dr Kirby facilitated the transfer of these priests in the ‘90s.

“That rational adults couldn’t fathom the havoc wreaked by paedophiles is nonsensical”

“[In] the mood of the time, very little was known about the insidiousness and the compulsiveness of child sexual abuse… I think that was true not only in the church, but in society at large,” said Dr Kirby, which again is a rather baffling statement. Ireland is an island, it’s true, but to suggest that otherwise rational adults couldn’t then fathom the havoc wreaked by paedophiles is completely nonsensical.

Why, a whole decade earlier, the world noted the hysteria surrounding mass allegations child sexual abuse in day care centres in the US. As a preteen in the ’90s, I remember checking out from my local, rural library YA novels clearly influenced by that moral panic. If I, at twelve years old, knew that sexual abuse was a terrible crime, it’s unfathomable that Dr Kirby wouldn’t have copped that it was much more insidious than crossing the line in friendship.

But it’s not difficult to see what’s going on here.

Dr Kirby is trying to excuse his failure by claiming that he just didn’t know any better. The word “excuse” is provocative on my part, granted; Dr Kirby did apologise profusely and didn’t place the blame on anyone but himself… overtly, at least. Instead, he framed his apology in a non-existent social context: that no one was aware just how much damage child sexual abuse could do.

That is nonsense. It is intended to share the blame that, in this particular case, is his alone.

“Much to his dismay, the predatory priests re-offended”

But we do have the option to take Dr Kirby at his word, no matter how irrational his excuses. We can suppose that Dr Kirby genuinely wasn’t aware of the ramifications of child sex abuse. He claims to have thought of it as friendship that overstepped its boundaries – a definition that insinuates that the child took an equal part, perhaps by being over-familiar and giving the adult priest the wrong signals. So he moved the misbehaving priests to another parish, where he could only hope there were no alluring minors. Much to his dismay, the predatory priests re-offended, so Dr Kirby reluctantly realised that the nature of paedophilia is rather more dangerous than he had thought.

In this scenario, the only crime of Dr Kirby, learned figure of authority, is that he was astoundingly stupid.

Can we forgive a man for being astoundingly stupid?

Can we believe that Dr Kirby was merely astoundingly stupid?

The clergy are obliged to remain celibate, and so perhaps Dr Kirby is asking us to consider that individuals within the Church really regularly underestimate the gulf between healthy sexual behaviour and deviant sexual behaviour. That they were, at the time, widely unable to tell the difference between friendship that became improper and the process of destroying an innocent child’s life.

Are we to treat the clergy as innocents? Are we to assume that neither the predatory elements within the Church nor their administrative superiors know how sexuality is expressed, know what sexuality is, know the power of an abusive adult over a tiny child?

“Isn’t this the Church that still assumes to tell people how and who to love?”

But isn’t this the Church that still assumes to tell people how to love, who to love, who to marry, and how to express their sexual identity? Isn’t this the same Church that owns the vast majority of the primary schools in Ireland, whose bishops act as patrons for the schools within their diocese? Isn’t this the Church that claims gay marriage is a threat to society and adults taking control of their own fertility is an affront to God?

Dr John Kirby, in explaining his failure to protect children from criminals, claims not to have understood the difference between right and wrong. And yet he represents spiritual authority.

So is Dr John Kirby – and, in turn, the Church he represents – all-knowing, or know-nothing? Or does he intend on alternating both hypotheses depending on which end of the accusatory pointed finger he finds himself?

How many more times do we need to examine the underbelly of this land’s biggest and most important church, only to discover that the organisation, and all its works, and all its promises, is as hollow as this bishop’s half-arsed apology?

Read previous columns on TheJournal.ie by Lisa McInerney >

  • Connect counselling is available to provide free telephone-based counselling and support to anyone distressed by the Child Safeguarding audits published this week. You can call Connect from 6-10pm, Wednesday to Sunday. Call freephone 1800 477 477 from the Republic of Ireland and 00800 477 477 77 from Northern Ireland and the UK.

Connect was established at the request of survivor groups to provide out-of-hours phone counselling and support service to people who have suffered abuse and is funded by the HSE.

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Lisa McInerney

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