I welcome the publication today of the Second Annual Report of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCCI). I want to thank the members of the Board and the National Office of the NBSCCCI for their outstanding dedication, professionalism and commitment in supporting the sincere desire of Bishops and leaders of Religious Congregations to become exemplars of best practice in safeguarding children. I also want to thank them for holding us to account and for pointing out frankly and constructively those areas of policy, practice or attitude which require corrective action or further development. This has been a year of extraordinary challenge for the NBSCCCI with the publication of the Ryan Report and Murphy Report which made exceptional demands on the members and staff of the Board and the National Office.
I hope today’s Report will help to reassure everyone that while important challenges remain, the Catholic Church in Ireland has come a long way in addressing the failings of the past. I welcome in particular the Report’s two clear conclusions: “Firstly, that children should be safer today within the Church than they once were. Secondly, those that seek to harm children should feel much less secure.”
I also welcome the news that 2,356 individuals have been trained and are now acting as child safeguarding representatives in Parishes across the country, with coverage of all Parishes to be achieved in the coming months. This represents an extraordinary achievement by any standard and is a remarkable example of lay participation in the life and ministry of the Church. I want to thank all those who give of their time, talent and expertise in safeguarding children. Building whole communities that actively keep children safe, together with effective structures of accountability and transparency, is the key to the future of child safeguarding within the Church and, indeed, within society as a whole. Each one of us has to take responsibility for keeping children safe and for addressing the attitudes and practices which had such tragic consequences for so many children in the past.
There is no room for complacency. The tragic experience of the past reminds us that constant vigilance is needed as well as full adherence to robust, comprehensive and ongoing systems of accountability. As Pope Benedict XVI said to the Bishops in his Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, “Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives. This must arise, first and foremost, from your own self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal.”
I want to thank all those whom I have met over recent weeks as part of my own reflection on the next steps we might take. I listened firstly to those who are survivors of abuse. Some of these meetings were made known to the public while others were held in private at the request of those I was meeting. I thank them all for their generosity and courage in sharing their experiences and their wide variety of views with me.
I also listened to people from the Diocese, in Parishes and in Diocesan groups. I spoke with lay Catholics from across the country, as well as to many priests, religious and others. Again, I want to thank them all for their honesty and help and for the tremendous support and encouragement they have given me.
In the years that remain to me as Archbishop of Armagh, I am fully committed to building on the substantial progress made in child safeguarding in recent years and to working to bring about the healing, repentance and renewal set out for the Church in Ireland by Pope Benedict XVI. I am fully committed to the path that as a Church we must take to the truth that will set us free.
As part of this process, and as a sign of my personal commitment to the task of renewal that lies ahead, I am taking a number of practical steps:
• I have asked the Holy See to include the Diocese of Armagh among those Dioceses to be included in the Apostolic Visitation announced by Pope Benedict XVI.
• The distress caused to many survivors of abuse and others as a result of the drip-by-drip revelation of past failings has to be addressed. In 2009, I asked the National Board for Safeguarding Children to engage with all Bishops and leaders of Religious Congregations in Ireland to explore the possibility of a voluntary and comprehensive audit and review of safeguarding practice. The Board is now engaged with the members of the Irish Episcopal Conference, the Conference of Religious of Ireland and the Irish Missionary Union to explore how this process can be brought forward and completed as quickly as possible. I have asked the Board to prioritise the review and audit of the handling of cases and the implementation of agreed policies in the Archdiocese of Armagh. I commit myself to fully implementing the recommendations of that review and to sharing its findings in the first phased publication of such reviews proposed today by the National Board.
• To build on the excellent work already undertaken in recent years by the Child Safeguarding staff in the Diocese of Armagh, I will shortly be advertising for a full-time director of Child Safeguarding for the Diocese, who will have responsibility for handling all future suspicions and allegations of child abuse, for reporting directly to the civil authorities, North and South, and for supporting all Parishes and Diocesan organisations in ensuring compliance with civil obligations and Church policies in this area.
• I have asked the Child Safeguarding staff in the Diocese of Armagh to make all necessary preparations for our full participation as a Diocese in the work of the new Independent Safeguarding Authority, which comes into place in Northern Ireland later this year. In the future, it will be this statutory authority and not the Church (or any other organisation which works with children in Northern Ireland) that will decide who is permitted to work with children. As part of our registration with this new Independent Safeguarding Authority, Bishops in Northern Ireland will give a commitment to sharing ‘soft information’ held or known about any person working in a Church context, as well as all allegations of abuse, with the new Authority. I regret that this important statutory safeguard will only be available in that part of the Diocese of Armagh which is in Northern Ireland. I would welcome the establishment of a similar system for sharing of information on a North-South basis.
• To assist me in addressing the vital work of healing, repentance and renewal, including engagement with survivors of abuse, as well as the many other challenges and opportunities which confront the Diocese of Armagh and the Church in Ireland at this time, I have asked Pope Benedict XVI for additional support for my work, at Episcopal level.
In recent weeks, in my capacity as President of the Irish Episcopal Conference, I have encouraged Bishops, lay associations and ecclesial movements, youth groups, religious and clergy to continue the process of reflection and dialogue on the Pastoral Letter of Pope Benedict XVI to the Catholics of Ireland. In particular, I have asked for their proposals on the “new vision” that we need, in the words of Pope Benedict XVI, “to inspire present and future generations to treasure the gift of our common faith.”
I commit myself, with all my human weaknesses, to walk humbly with all in the Church in Ireland as a fellow pilgrim on this journey of renewal and to discern God’s will for the Church at this time. I will seek, as Pope Benedict XVI has asked us, to work ‘with courage and determination’ – and with humility, sincere repentance and careful listening – to address the many challenges which confront us. As a fellow pilgrim, searching with the whole community of faith for a clear way forward, I will do all I can to help sow the seeds for a genuine healing and renewal in the Church which, for so many of us, is our family and our home.