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Column Have we become numb to the figures on clerical child abuse?

I am one of the fortunate survivors to have secured a criminal conviction against one of two Spiritan priests who sexually abused me. Last week’s national audits of the Catholic clergy show others are not so lucky, writes campaigner Mark Vincent Healy.

THE RELEASE LAST week of eight more national audits of the Catholic clergy by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCCI) reveals a consistent trend that few religious perpetrators of the sexual abuse of children are being held to account by the Catholic Church or State in Ireland.

The audits of 22 dioceses and six congregations show allegations were made against 796 religious where only 48 priests, or 6 per cent, were convicted. The cold statistics utterly fail to portray what such figures represent to survivors and their families.

It is too hard to comprehend that 1,933 people raised allegations of abuse against 796 religious in 28 audits over four tranches conducted by the NBSCCCI so far.

The aggregate figures seem unable to shock or appal. They have all been heard before. People do not want to be reminded of that stomach churn and anger they experienced when such news was far more visceral the first time they heard it.

A 94 per cent chance of getting away with clerical child sexual abuse sends out all the wrong signals.

As a survivor, I would like to take a look at what’s in a figure; examine the differences between Diocesan and Congregational child abuse data; review missionary child sexual abuse and see if the future holds out any hope for survivors and their families.

What’s in a number?

First let us look at the figures – what’s in a figure, a single count or conviction? As a survivor, I have no wish to feed any prurient interest in the details of such abuse of children. Perhaps when one considers what a conviction actually means, it might help put some perspective on the gravity of what has been reported in the figures presented to the public concerning the participants in the latest audits by the NBSCCCI.

Figures matter, so let us look at the facts in the public domain behind the audits remembering each figure represents enormous distress and lifelong suffering.

In the St Patrick’s Missionary Society audit, there is one conviction reported, where in fact there should have been two. The single figure in the report represented the conviction of Fr Thomas Naughton and the missing figure represented laicised Peter Kennedy. Both men were convicted and reported in the news media.

On 17th December 2009, Fr Thomas Naughton, a 78-year-old member of the St Patrick’s Missionary Society, was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment having pleaded guilty to indecent assault of a victim, which began in 1982 when the victim was only six years old and Naughton was 51 years of age.

On 9th July 2013, former priest Peter Kennedy, a 74-year old former Kiltegan, was convicted and sentenced to ten years imprisonment having pleaded guilty to indecent assault of 18 victims in over 100 incidents between 1968 and 1986. One the victims was only eight years old when his abuse began. Kennedy was 29 years of age when he began abusing these boys.

Now read the St Patrick’s Missionary Society report where it says one priest was convicted. It doesn’t reveal the half of it; the bravery of the abused to seek justice, the devastation to the lives of so many, nor the fact when you increase the number from one to two for those convicted how many lives that increment by one represents. You suddenly are presented with 18 brave survivors and countless family members affected by such crimes and intergenerational lifetime devastation.

Survivors rarely obtain justice

In the eight dioceses of Derry, Dromore, Limerick, Elphin, Killala, Waterford and Lismore, Achonry and Archdioceses Cashel and Emly, there are now a total of 198 allegations against 109 priests for which there have been no convictions.

The fact none, or so few, are ever held to account would not encourage others to come forward – especially when one considers the high risks involved in doing so.

The question is simply this: would you take such risks, or even encourage someone dear to you to raise their complaint, in light of this information and the odds stacked against them? If you loved them at all, you would probably implore them to come away from such an action, fearing for them greatly.

Many times survivors are told how brave they are, how courageous they are but they are also described as ‘money grabbers’ or seeking attention for a failed this or that life. Their suffering is minimised or trivialised in the multiplicity of lifespan burdens, which are all too often theirs to carry alone, if they can carry them.

Have we become inured or numbed to the headlines and desensitised to the realities behind the figures? Can we no longer sense the heartache and life span devastation of those so abused and indeed their families and communities?

Missionary child sexual abuse

If the average rate of accountability is only 6 per cent for clerical child sexual abuse that lowers to only 4.6 per cent for missionaries who are convicted, compared with 7.8 per cent for diocesans recorded in 22 of the 26 dioceses in Ireland.

Not all survivors involved are from Ireland as revealed by missionary audits and reviews. Missionary child sexual abuse presents enormous complexity. For this reason, I have felt compelled to raise awareness of missionary child sexual abuse notwithstanding the enormous good in the world achieved by most missionaries for which the Irish people can be rightly proud. However we must not shirk any responsibility to offer ‘Rescue Services’ and ‘Safe Space Provisioning’ which I am calling for to those survivors abused by Irish missionaries at home and overseas.

It has been very difficult to report on missionary child sexual abuse since the RTÉ fiasco, “Mission to Prey”, aired on 23rd May 2011. Following the release of the programme, the former head of the Irish Missionary Union, Fr Eamon Aylward said it would be difficult to investigate crimes in 83 different countries, but that in Ireland 99.9 per cent cooperation with state authorities is in place.

To date there have been six missionary orders audited where a total of 452 priests have had 1,208 allegations raised against them but only 4.6 per cent or 21 priests have been convicted. This is a very sad reality which ought to raise calls for investigations into clerical sex abuse in Africa by Irish missionaries.

In the audit reports to date, seven of those brave enough to come forward were from Africa where the risks are far greater to them in coming forward due to the very unsympathetic reception facing survivors of missionary child sexual abuse in Africa. Three are reported to have come forward in the Kiltegan report and four came forward in the Spiritan (Holy Ghost Fathers) audit report in the last tranche.

One particular case involves an African who reported his abuse by a member of the Spiritans to the National Board for Safeguarding Children in May 2012 but it was not recorded in the audit report issued in September 2012 some five months after notifying the auditors. Only due to pressure to publish a correction was the error and oversight recorded on the NBSCCCI website in an amended Spiritan report. The number of priests against whom a complaint had been raised was incremented by one to 48 but notification to the Gardaí or HSE has not been incremented.

Indeed it has only been reported that the safeguarding board has “no remit” to deal with abuse by Irish priests abroad. Not only are these African victims bereft of any justice by and large, but their legal rights are not protected where they have been contacted directly by agents for the religious orders involved.

As a survivor, I would think it is not the place of the religious orders or their agents to compromise any survivor’s well-being or take high risks of re-traumatising them in the guise of support for them. Investigations are for the civil authorities due to the risks involved to any victim, both legally and medically.

Conviction rates for sexual crimes

Obtaining a 6 per cent conviction rate for clerical child sexual abuse actually seems high when you consider that the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre noted in its Annual Report for 2012 that only three cases of rape out of 322 known cases actually succeeded in a criminal conviction. This shows that the crime of rape in general has less than a 1 per cent chance of a conviction for 2012 in Ireland.

If anything, these odds are a frightening and powerful argument against personally reporting such abuse where justice demands so much from the victim and their families. Certainly, from a perpetrator or facilitator’s perspective, the policy of denial, collusion and cover up, pays too big a dividend in deferred minimal sanction imposed on perpetrators and an enormous financial gain over decades in accrued reputational standing to a diocese or congregation earned at the expense of sexually abused children. It is this sort of ‘return on deception’, which can motivate the facilitation of such heinous crimes against children. Financial restitution is the very thing that is so begrudgingly offered, if at all, and is invariably the cause of further humiliation and re-traumatises victims who seek what they most justly deserve.

Safeguarding policy may well be improving and for that, mandatory reporting is needed – but so too then are ‘Rescue Services’ and ‘Safe Space Provisioning’ for survivors. Safeguarding should mean far better services to survivors and their families not just abuse prevention.

Mark Vincent Healy is a survivor campaigner seeking ‘Rescue Services’ and ‘Safe Space Provisioning’ for survivors of clerical child sexual abuse.

Read: Just 12 Christian Brothers convicted after 870 allegations
Read: Abuse victims’ group has “serious concerns” over safeguarding review
Read: Safeguarding board has “no remit” to deal with abuse by Irish priests abroad

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