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Column: If clerical abuse was a car crash, we’d still be looking for the victims

The Catholic Church should be actively looking for victims of abuse and offering support, writes survivor Mark Vincent Healy.

Mark Vincent Healy

Mark Vincent Healy was abused while he was a student at St. Mary’s College, a Dublin school run by the Congregation of Spiritans (formerly the Holy Ghost Fathers). He has been campaigning for years for the Catholic Church to actively seek out more victims of abuse so the correct rescue response can be administered.

IT MAY SEEM obvious that in the aftermath of a serious accident or natural disaster, the necessary emergency and rescue services should respond. But strangely, that is not what has happened in the case of clerical child sexual abuse in Ireland.

Clerical child sex abuse can be compared to a crash – except there are thousands upon thousands of victims at the scene. Already, the Ryan Report published in May 2009 showed that 15,000 children came forward out of the estimated 120,000 to 130,000 children sent to the various Irish institutions examined by Justice Ryan.

The only figures on the numerous organisations of the Irish Missionary Union have now been published, representing even more victims. The National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church have completed their audits on child protection for the Congregation of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), the Congregation of Dominicans and the Congregation of Spiritans.

There were 91 members in the three missionary congregations against whom allegations have been made between 1 January 1975  and the date of the review. The total number of abuse allegations raised was found to be 255. These figures only represent what is included in the files kept by the orders.

The figures of the numbers abused cited in those audits are, if anything, understated. It would be wholly unreasonable to assume that there were only, on average, three victims abused per religious member against whom allegations have been raised. It is reasonable to assume the figures are significantly higher.

What we need now

Reaching out to victims and their families with a ‘rescue service’ to seek and find the survivors and bring them into ‘safe space provisioning’ across a number of interrelated dedicated support services is what is called for.

If ever there was an urgency to scramble rescue services with safe space provisioning, this is the time. Actually, it’s the second time. The first time was the revelations of the Ryan Report into institutional abuse of wards of state. And now it seems children in private education have also fared very badly with regards sexual abuse. Though I, as a survivor of missionary congregational abuse, would not liken it to the physical brutality suffered by those in Irish institutions. Nonetheless children from whatever background never deserved to suffer these indignities and damaging effects to their lives.

In the national audit conducted by Ian Elliot into the Spiritans/Holy Ghost Fathers, the recommendations state that the “Provincial Leadership Team must extend an invitation to people to come forward who have not yet disclosed their abuse”. This is an extraordinary recommendation and the first time a direction has been issued to seek those who were abused by members of the religious orders, so that “these complainants should be offered counselling and support”.

Premature deaths and suicide among victims

I would go much further and have already advocated rescue services and safe space provisioning as all too often, abuse victims have not made it. During the second tranche it was reported that one victim who had been abused by a member of the MSC committed suicide – a death attributed to his childhood experience of sex abuse. Another survivor of abuse by a member of the Spiritans, Fr Henry Moloney, saw his abuser successfully prosecuted in 2009 but he died prematurely during the national audit.

There is clear evidence emerging to show survivors of child sexual abuse are more likely to die prematurely or from suicide. In Australia, some 40 victims of clerical abuse in Victoria died by suicide and that prompted a parliamentary inquiry which has recently confirmed 620 cases of abuse.

I began my call for rescue services and safe space provisioning with Archbishop Diarmuid Martin back in December 2009, under appeals for the moral extension of ‘pastoral care’ missing in the response by the Catholic Church towards victims. The moral imperative for a humanitarian response was completely lacking in a frightened Church leadership which was hiding behind legal defence rather than engaging in honest and open dialogue with survivors, their families and the wider Church.

Archbishop Martin was the first to support my call and, indeed, mentioned it in his speech at the Marquette University in April 2011, entitled The Truth Will Make You Free: A Personal Journey.

“Statistics are too often offender-focused,” he said. “We have to set out from the standpoint that the person who was at the epicentre of abuse was not the priest, but the victim, a child. A restorative justice approach would have to reorient the way we draw up not just our statistics but our pastoral care.

One victim constantly reminds me that the stern words of Jesus in Saint Matthew’s Gospel (Mt 18:6) about the “great millstone” to be fastened around the neck of anyone who becomes a stumbling block for the “little ones”, are quickly followed (Mt 18:12) by the teaching on the Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one who has been lost.

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“This victim reminds me that it is the lost child, the molested child who should be at the centre of our attention. The Church should be actively seeking out victims to embrace them with the healing power of Jesus Christ. Certainly, so many victims are left with the impression that they are being ‘dealt with’ rather than being sought after and reached out to.”

I have reiterated this message repeatedly in opportunities I have had in meetings with Cardinal Sean O’Malley from Boston (as Apostolic Visitator to Dublin) and with the Papal Legate to the International Eucharistic Congress, Cardinal Marc Ouellet. In Cardinal Ouellet’s letter follwoing his return to Rome I received the following encouragement:

I want to thank you in a particular way for telling me about the work you are doing to seek out and assist others who have been abused, and I agree with your thoughtful proposal that there be some special outreach and ministry offered to them so that they know of the Church’s pastoral care for them. They are indeed God’s children and our brothers and sisters in the Lord who, along with their families, deserve to be treated with dignity, justice and compassion.

Following the release of the audit reports on the diocesan and congregational websites, I have sought a response from the Irish government – specifically the Minister for Children, Education, Justice and Foreign Affairs – but I have received no response to date on this urgent matter. I have issued my own observations and recommendations in a separate report.

I was invited to meet with the Irish Provincial for the Spiritans (formerly the Holy Ghost Fathers) on Wednesday 19 September, and initial discussions show promise, as the issues of rescue services and safe space provisioning are firmly on the agenda. Talk is not about if they will be dealt with – instead, their delivery is being dealt with under the headings what, how and when.

I also expressed a hope that such leadership in taking up this call could be of great benefit to other missionary congregations with whom I would also like to engage. There is not only a national issue to address, but an international one also. I very much hope that the lessons learnt in the Irish context will be extended rapidly to those who were abused on overseas missions.

In the course of my quest for truth, I came across something that showed me the truth’s power to heal. It was a father who disbelieved his son’s claims of abuse when he was a boy some 40 years ago. The father was only recently presented with the proof of that boy’s story. A father in bitter tears asked his son to forgive him – which he did – and a sacred bond between father and son was restored. The proof provided was from my own case, successfully prosecuted by the DPP in the Irish criminal courts. The father and son are from Sierra Leone in West Africa thousands of miles away. I have never met them.

Mark Vincent Healy is a campaigning abuse survivor. Read his full report and response to the NSBCCCI audit into the Holy Ghost Fathers here.

Read: Child protection reviews reveal 378 abuse allegations about 146 individuals>

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Mark Vincent Healy

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