Revisiting the Murphy Report

February 27, 2014 in News


“There is a need to right the record. Some rethinking of positions taken up in various quarters at the time of the Murphy Report’s appearance may be called for”. So writes Bruce Bradley SJ in his editorial in the latest edition Studies, which contains challenging articles all addressing the theme of ‘revisiting the Murphy report’, the Commission of Investigation: Report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. (Read the full editorial below).

Contributors to this edition include Marie Collins, survivor of clerical sexual abuse, Irish Times journalist Patsy McGarry, David Quinn of the Iona institute, Judge Fergal Sweeney, Gerry O’Hanlon SJ, theologian and member of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice and diocesan priest Fr Alan Hilliard.


This issue of Studies is entirely dedicated to ‘revisiting the Murphy Report’, the Commission of Investigation: Report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy and published in 2009. The commission, according to the document’s introductory paragraph, ‘was established to report on the handling by Church and State authorities of a representative sample of allegations and suspicions of child sexual abuse against clerics operating under the aegis of the Archdiocese of Dublin over the period 1975 to 2004’ (1.1).

‘Revisiting’ the Murphy Report is a delicate and even hazardous undertaking for at least two reasons. Regrettably, public debate in this country becomes quickly polarised. We readily tend to assume bad faith in those of a different view to our own, which seems to rule out the possibility of dialogue and demands that we try to shout each other down. (The often gross licence of on-line commentary has made things much worse). The second reason is because, to what looks like an unprecedented degree, the report has been presented in the media and elsewhere as simply beyond criticism, so that to raise any questions whatever in its regard is – as part of the pattern just mentioned – to be rejected out of hand as being all too obviously in denial.

To the extent that we can claim to be one national community, as we progressively redefine ourselves against our past (often, in the process, suffering a damaging loss or denial of the once-shared memories that might unite us) and, at the same time, as we increasingly embrace multi-culturalism (in itself a highly desirable development that challenges our insularity) – we badly need to learn how to listen to each other across ideological and other divides. We need to learn how to do this with openness and mutual civility and not simply to reject others out of hand, as if any sign of sympathy or understanding for their position might be seen as weakness or a betrayal of our own.

If this is true of the nation as a whole, it is especially true of those – and this is still nominally most of us – who profess themselves to be Christians. (So-called Christians can at times be put to shame, in this regard, by their more tolerant non-Christian neighbours, those with different religious convictions or even no overt religious convictions at all). At the beginning of his Spiritual Exercises, St Ignatius Loyola lays down the basic principle that ‘it must be presupposed that any good Christian has to be more ready to justify than to condemn a neighbour’s statement’ (#22). It is salutary to ponder that principle when we think of how the Murphy Report has been handled in public discussion since its appearance. And it is in the spirit of that principle that readers are invited to enter into dialogue with the reflections published here.

David Quinn writes in these pages, with reference not just to Ireland but to Catholicism worldwide, that ‘these scandals have left as indelible a stain upon the church as the Inquisition’. That is a large statement but it cannot be said too often that the abuse scandals are a shocking indictment of the church. Nowhere should have been safer for children or the weak or vulnerable or needy of any kind whatsoever than the church, the community of those who profess faith in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In the forefront of the picture, whenever this is discussed, must always be those who have suffered the appalling violation of abuse in childhood, a crime made all the more appalling, as we must acknowledge again and again, by the terrible betrayal of trust and abuse of power involved when the abuse is perpetrated by priests or religious, those whose trustworthiness and integrity others ought to be able to take absolutely for granted.

In this connection, Studies is honoured that Marie Collins, who has been such a perseveringly brave, dignified and honourable voice, nationally and internationally, for all survivors of abuse, has contributed to this issue. If the church is now a much safer place for children, with protocols and procedures that can be a model for other organisations and public bodies, credit has to go to people like Marie (the names of Andrew Madden and Colm O’Gorman, and his colleagues in Wexford, to name only these, also come to mind), and those in the media (most particularly, the late Mary Raftery) who helped to publicise the problem. Who can say how many defenceless children have been saved from harm by the courage and persistence of people such as these?

The Murphy Report, as Marie Collins writes, ‘showed that survivors had been telling the truth, it was a vindication. We were not isolated cases – there was a pattern in the way so many child sexual abuse cases had been mishandled. It showed survivors were not angry people making false accusations, looking for money or out to destroy the church, but honest people deserving to be heard and shown respect’. Now, at last, that has happened and for that we must all be very grateful.

At the same time, as David Quinn points out, it is greatly to be regretted that ‘it was left up to the media and the subsequent [state] investigations to find out what had happened’ and ‘largely left up to the media to force upon the church the sort of child protection systems it now has in place’. Would that the church – as might have been expected – had possessed what Ladislas Örsy, as quoted by Gerry O’Hanlon in these pages, has called ‘a vigorous “immune system”’, to protect it, and therefore everyone in its care, from the appalling horrors of child sexual abuse. Be that as it may, those systems are now established and gratitude is due to all who have made that possible, whether from outside (the Murphy Commission, for its painstaking work, not least) or from within the church itself.

Why, then, ‘revisit’ the commission’s report, as this issue of Studies does? Because, pace those who defend it without qualification or tolerance of an alternative view, it is not and cannot be allowed to be the last word. This is not, for a moment, to attempt to dismantle the essential, terrible, deeply shaming truth it tells about the damage and destruction done to young lives by people apparently working in the name of the church. But it has to be possible, without doing any such thing, to review the process of the report’s generation and promulgation and to look at some perspectives not previously given serious consideration, as well as to question some aspects of the report’s accuracy, fairness and fitness for purpose. An either/or approach – either you accept the report in its entirety or you are in denial of the reality of child sexual abuse by clergy – does not, and cannot, do justice to all concerned or serve the interests of truth for the community as a whole.

The Murphy Report – and, indeed, its predecessors, the Ferns and Ryan Reports – inevitably reflected badly on the church and badly damaged its standing, although this was already in decline from at least the 1960s. All kinds of social and cultural influences were at work to undermine its previously exaggerated position of authority and respect in Ireland, even before the revelations of its own grievous moral fallibility in the last decades of the 20th century. The crime of abusing children was unspeakably deplorable in itself. Added to that was the hypocrisy of preaching one thing and so grossly practising another. Great collateral damage was done by the impression which was allowed to circulate that most child abuse was perpetrated by Catholic clergy and that a majority of Catholic priests were abusers, both impressions a travesty of the truth. But perhaps the greatest damage of all to the church as an institution was the impression that allegations of abuse were handled not merely ineptly or unwisely but with culpable ineffectiveness, because those in a position to act and to know better were actually protecting other, self-serving priorities rather than the safeguarding of children, which must always come first.

A single priest-abuser is one too many. That said, on the evidence available, priest-abusers are a tiny percentage of the total number of priests and of the total number of abusers. Both these facts are important. Countless good men, the vast, vast majority of priests, serving faithfully in an increasingly difficult environment, are calumniated and defamed by contrary impressions that have gone abroad. And the – perhaps immeasurably – greater number of instances of abuse perpetrated by others, not priests, in circumstances which have absolutely nothing to do with the church, is left, dangerously, in the shadows. Last July, writing in the Guardian, Anne Lawrence, a barrister with expertise in child protection, asked: ‘When will [government] ministers understand that the sexual abuse and exploitation of children is endemic in our society, and that sex offenders are working within all institutions where they can access children: churches, schools, youth organisations, hospitals, care homes and social services?’ British society, grappling with the Jimmy Saville scandal, has, in fact, shown itself more mature and even-handed in addressing the problem than has ours.

The kind of scapegoating of Catholic clergy and the witch-hunting that have resulted here are the mark of a dysfunctional society and they are good for no one. For signal failure to put matters in some kind of perspective, much of the media – and the Murphy Commission itself – cannot be absolved of blame.

A key here, and one of the more serious criticisms of the commission’s report, is the lack of social and historical contextualisation, without which the kind of phenomenon under investigation risks being inadequately understood. Other criticisms made by contributors to this issue include the commission’s alleged failure to adhere to its own terms of reference (both in regard to the naming of persons and to the use of an appropriate representative sample), its unpersuasive denial of a ‘learning curve’ on the part of the church (while conceding this to everyone else), and, despite the extensive technical detail about church structures in Dublin it proffers, its failure to understand how things really worked in the archdiocese and what it was like for those involved. Arguably more contentious is the question of whether there was, or was not, a ‘cover-up’ of abuse by officials of the archdiocese, but what looks like a preference to disbelieve their testimony about this and other matters (and favour that of other witnesses, whenever there was a conflict of evidence), which is flagged in the early pages of the report, does not inspire confidence in the commission’s judgement.

That the church’s handling of the problem (and we must keep reminding ourselves of the enormous suffering of innocent children which such impersonal words as ‘problem’ actually point to in the present context) was wretchedly inadequate is beyond question. To quote Marie Collins again, the Murphy Report and those that preceded it demonstrated that ‘the Catholic church had got things very wrong in dealing with the most vulnerable in society’. If abusing priests and religious failed so grievously, the systems within which they were functioning also failed – systems of selection and formation and supervision and, when the destructive frailty of those priests and religious was discovered, systems of response.

Of none of this can there be any doubt. But the question can still be asked: how culpable were individuals in all this? If we deny a ‘learning curve’ and assume that the church is a monolith, with open communications systems within its own higher ranks and a single, all-embracing, collective memory, then they must all be condemned, as, indeed, the commission has condemned them. If, in the light of supposedly possessing such age-old wisdom and recollection, they really should have known better, individually and collectively, than the medical and other experts who advised them, then they can have nowhere to hide. But is this a correct reading of the situation in which they found themselves? Is the commission correct about this? Speaking for myself, and having worked more or less closely with a number of bishops, it is inconceivable to me that any of those I have known would have deliberately moved an abuser-priest from one appointment to another, in full awareness that the priest in question would almost certainly abuse again in the next place to which he was moved.

Writing in this issue of Studies, Judge Fergal Sweeney observes: ‘It goes without saying that to be publicly condemned by this commission as someone in authority who could have prevented further instances of child sexual abuse, yet knowingly turned a blind eye to same, was always likely to bring a lifetime’s work down in shame and ignominy’. Although the deeply dismaying experience of Marie Collins recorded in these pages has to be kept in mind, the question can at least be raised as to whether any bishop or church official in Dublin ‘knowingly turned a blind eye’ in quite the callous and consciously irresponsible way suggested here.

The same writer rightly states: ‘Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the response of the Catholic church as an institution to allegations of child sexual abuse against their own priests can be seen to have been self-serving, hypocritical, cold and uncaring for the children concerned’. But he goes on to ask: ‘Does that mean that each of the clerics who appeared before the Murphy Commission and is “named” in their report was guilty of those faults and so was wholly unmeritorious?’ Key phrases here are ‘with the benefit of hindsight’ (irrelevant, of course, if no ‘learning curve’ is to be allowed) and the church ‘as an institution’. Have individual functionaries within the archdiocese, as distinct from a mythically monolithic, omniscient institution, faced in a moment of time with an unfolding disaster, been fairly judged?

To appear to defend them is, as noted earlier, to invite anger and ridicule. There is no doubt that some of the testimony from clergy which is reported by Marie Keenan and Alan Hilliard in the pages that follow can sound at times a little self-pitying and not sufficiently mindful of the suffering undergone by victims of abuse. Marie Collins is right to say that ‘reputation can never be more important than child safety’. Still, to have one’s reputation and, perhaps, a lifetime’s work thrashed unjustly, if that is what has happened, not to mention illegitimately, if Fergal Sweeney is right about the Murphy Commission’s erroneous interpretation of its brief, is, as one reported testimony puts it, ‘heartbreaking’. It is easy to be disdainful of such testimony and such apparently much lesser pain, when compared to the horrors of child sexual abuse. But the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins come to mind: ‘Hold them cheap / May who ne’er hung there’.

Everyone has need of redress in the face of perceived injustice and, indeed, it is this need which has driven all the official inquiries with which we are presently concerned. Some special pleading there may be. There is always the danger, when the kind of case at issue here is being made, that children once more – as happened all too often in the church’s response to the crisis in the past – fatally drop out of sight. But the fact remains that there is another story to be told about all this and it is, as the title of Padraig McCarthy’s book puts it, and pace Patsy McGarry, who robustly contests such a view here, in large measure ‘an unheard story’.

The issues raised by Judge Sweeney and others in these pages are, in fact, not trivial and will have to be addressed sooner or later for the good of all of us, including John McDonagh’s concern about the technical matter of representative samples. There are clearly problems about the way commissions are liable to transact their business under present conditions. The fact that, under these conditions, those who feel themselves poorly and even unjustly treated by the procedures and findings of a commission are, in a sense, left in limbo for thirty years, because of the secrecy clause in the 2004 Act, and have little or no recourse, is unsatisfactory, to say the least. The apparently resolute refusal of the media, wedded to a particular dominant narrative, to entertain what is at stake, for individuals who feel themselves unfairly impugned, for the church as an institution (singled out for public condemnation as the unique, or at least the very worst, offender, despite all the evidence to the contrary), for constitutional propriety (which affects us all), largely if not completely disregarding the interventions of Mr Sweeney, Fr McCarthy and others in their efforts to bring other considerations and sides of the question not hitherto explored to bear, is quite simply a dereliction of duty on their part.

Gerry O’Hanlon writes of how Archbishop Diarmuid Martin ‘must have had to endure immense pressure in the lead-up to and after the nightmarish time of the Murphy Report’. ‘How could anyone prepare for what was to unfold?’, as one of Alan Hilliard’s respondents put it. Dr Martin himself has testified to the disgust and despair he all too understandably experienced in trawling through the files. (It has to be acknowledged that the Murphy Commission must have had something of the same doleful experience).

It is important, and only fair, to stress with utmost clarity the size of the challenge the archbishop faced with such resolution and what he achieved by responding to the challenge as he did. He gave huge confidence to survivors and the general public, which had a bearing, in turn, on the overall standing of a very beleagured church. He was, in so many ways, caught between a rock and a hard place. If he seemed to try and defend in any way, or even explain, what had happened, he risked being dismissed as simply in denial – the point that has been made here earlier – and adding, perhaps hugely, to the trauma already suffered by victims. By choosing sweeping condemnation, however, he faced the problem of being seen to abandon his colleagues, who had laboured long, even if unsuccessfully, in the field before his arrival.

There is need to right the record. Some rethinking of positions taken up in various quarters at the time of the Murphy Report’s appearance may be called for. At the same time, we must acknowledge what Fergal Sweeney has rightly called ‘the vast amount of very valuable work done by the Murphy Commission’, without overlooking the defects in its report or its unfairly damaging impact on the lives it has placed in the unforgiving glare of the spotlight. And, certainly, we must not make the mistake of thinking that, although safeguarding procedures within the church have now vastly improved, the danger of abuse has once and for all disappeared, a point which Dr Martin is keen to stress. Those improvements have to be maintained without let-up, whatever the cost. And nothing less will persuade a still sceptical public that the corner has been well and truly turned and that there is absolutely no prevarication in the church about the way forward.

There must be no relaxation of vigilance. But there is also need to move on. For David Quinn, the church’s ‘massive loss of authority’, owing to the scandals and all that has followed, has not just been bad for the church, which, after all, does not exist for its own sake in any case: ‘As a practising Catholic, I believe that loss of moral authority is society’s loss, because I believe society can only benefit from the Gospel’. Studies emphatically believes that, too.

The advent of Pope Francis has given many people hope, in this country – despite all that has happened – and around the world. There are particular challenges for the Irish church now, cogently expressed in Gerry O’Hanlon’s piece. One man, as he well says, cannot change the whole body, even if the inspiration of his words and example can be and are a powerful stimulus to his fellow-bishops and to all of us. As we move forward (speaking now both of the wider nation but also of the church), we have – to return to the point made at the outset – an overwhelming need to listen to each other, and to be mutually reconciled, even in the midst of disagreements. In the remarkable document he published in November, The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium), Pope Francis wrote: ‘We must never forget that we are pilgrims journeying alongside one another. This means that we must have sincere trust in our fellow pilgrims, putting aside all suspicion or mistrust, and turn our gaze to what we are all seeking: the radiant peace of God’s face’ (#244).

Bruce Bradley SJ.