Head of Church's abuse watchdog criticises 'friendship gone too far' comment

Ian Elliot

A long-serving bishop has sparked a storm of controversy over his fitness for the job after revealing he used to think paedophilia was friendship gone too far.

Ian Elliot, head of the Catholic Church’s child abuse watchdog, called into question the competency of Bishop John Kirby over the remarks following his audit of the Diocese of Clonfert.

“Care needs to be taken when appointing a bishop that you do not appoint a bishop with these attitudes,” Mr Elliot said.

“These are basic competencies that everyone should have in authority. I’m not calling for anyone to resign but, for me, that’s an absolute basic requirement.”

Bishop Kirby, in charge of the diocese since 1989, made the ill-judged revelation on the back of apologies to survivors of two abusive priests he moved from one parish to another in 1990 and 1994.

Although he signed off the transfers, he also notified gardaí of the allegations.

Bishop Kirby claimed he did not understand paedophilia in an attempt to explain why he adopted the standard church response of the time to transfer clerical child abusers.

“I saw it as a friendship that crossed a boundary line. I have learnt sadly since that it was a very different experience,” he told Galway Bay FM.

Clonfert was one of seven audits carried out by Mr Elliot’s National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC).

“It’s disappointing to have something of that nature being stated,” he added. “I started social work in child protection in 1974, I knew and understood at that time that child abuse was abhorrent. I did not need to be told.”

Seven audits uncovered allegations against 146 clerics relating to 378 complaints of abuse. Twelve convictions were secured, it stated.

The review, phase two of a nationwide inspection, found a markedly higher level of abuse allegations in religious orders than in the church dioceses.

The congregations were responsible for 89 clerics who faced a total of 267 accusations, with six convictions secured, the audit found.

Rights campaigner Andrew Madden, a survivor of abuse, said he would be wasting his breath calling for Bishop Kirby’s resignation.

“I have no confidence in Bishop Kirby’s management of child protection in the dioceses on Clonfert,” he said.

The audit uncovered grave issues in two Religious Orders, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the Congregation of the Holy Spirit.

Six brothers at the Sacred Heart College in Carrignavar, Co Cork, were abusing youngsters. Three priests were working in the school from the 1970s to 1990s but evidence of a paedophile ring has not been confirmed.

The Congregation of the Holy Spirit, formerly the Holy Ghost Fathers who ran prestigious schools such as Blackrock College, Muckross, and St Mary’s in Dublin, had serial abusers in its ranks yet failed to report any abuse until 1994.

“The case files make very sad reading,” said Mr Elliot, who headed the NBSCCC audits.

The Sacred Heart audit had to be suspended the day after it began when Mr Elliot found complaints had not been passed to gardai.

Mr Elliot raised concerns over the higher level of recorded abuse in religious orders and the inability or lack of willingness among leadership to deal with it.

In Limerick, Bishop Donal Murray, who resigned in 2009 for an “inexcusable” approach to child abuse allegations while serving in Dublin, was praised for putting in place robust protection measures.

A separate review of the suicide of clerical abuse victim Peter McCloskey in the diocese in 2006 two days after meeting former Bishop Murray is to be complete within the next few weeks.

It is intended to be given to the man’s family and the diocese. The NBSCCC said it will not publish it.

In Cork and Ross, concerns were expressed about priests retiring to Co Cork from Britain, including three with convictions for child abuse.

It warned that information from their dioceses in the UK was “not as forthcoming as it should have been”, leading to a lack of awareness of potential risk.

Elsewhere, Mr Elliot has raised the issue of sharing of information on abusive priests between dioceses.

He has spoken to colleagues in the Conference of American Bishops on how dioceses can share detail on priests more effectively.

Under 2001 rules, the complaints on suspect priests should be sent to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) but this does not always happen.

“It does not always happen that the information is given to the CDF, but it should be. The Vatican issues guidance with what it expects to happen but it does not always work,” he said.

Frances Fitzgerald, Children’s Minister, said she has planned a series of meetings with Mr Elliot and also leaders of the congregations to discuss the audits.

“To think that such a culture and mindset continued to exist among sectors of our society until as recently as 12 months ago, is bitterly disappointing, it is deeply worrying and it is quite simply unacceptable,” she said.

The NBSCCC has another 16 dioceses to audit and 162 congregations and missionary unions.

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