Irish bishops attacked over clerical sex abuse scandal

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A horrific saga of clerical sexual abuse stretching back four decades has been exposed in damning detail in an official report published in Dublin.

The report, the work of a former Supreme Court judge, strongly criticised two Catholic bishops as well as the Irish police for inadequately investigating complaints of abuse. It chronicled more than 100 allegations against 21 priests stretching back to 1966 in a single diocese, Ferns, centred on the east-coast town of Wexford.

The lengthy report details cases where a bishop sent two accused priests to the diocese of Westminster but later reinstated them in Ferns. Neither received any treatment, and one went on to become a swimming coach and college principal.

In another case, detailed complaints were made against a priest who was said to have assaulted 10 girls. The inquiry found that a senior police officer had instructed the investigating officer to hand over all notes, and to keep no copies. The file was quietly buried and no action was taken.

Although the report concerns a single diocese, it censured higher church authorities, including the Vatican. It said that any organisation aware of a serious problem within its structure with criminal and child protection implications had a duty to act on it.

The report said: "From the documents furnished to this inquiry by the diocese of Ferns there is no evidence that the growing awareness of this problem was communicated to church authorities in the diocese.

"The inquiry is concerned that the church authorities, either in this country or in Rome, did not properly alert their priests to the danger of child sexual abuse."

Although some of the events took place decades ago, the report said the inquiry team had been moved by "the hurt still borne by mature and fair-minded victims who gave evidence".

The report, which was commissioned several years ago following a television documentary, is having a major impact in the Irish Republic, even though the Catholic Church has had several previous hammer-blows following allegations of abuse. It is now universally accepted that many children were abused by priests and other clerics. The Catholic Church has acknowledged that, in many cases, genuine complaints were not acted on, leaving abusers free to continue.

One notoriously predatory priest in the diocese, Fr Sean Fortune, killed himself while facing 66 charges, including buggery. He left a note saying that he had "gone to heaven".

Such scandals have led to a significant reduction in the Church's authority in a country which was long regarded as having a Catholic hierarchy exercising an unusual degree of influence.

The Irish government accepted in principle the report's far-reaching recommendations yesterday. The authorities are set to introduce a new offence of "reckless indifference" towards those reporting abuse.

The report was particularly critical of Dr Donal Herlihy, bishop of Ferns between 1963 and 1983, and of his successor, Dr Brendan Comiskey. Dr Herlihy's responses to complaints were "wholly inappropriate and inadequate", it said.

Dr Comiskey had "failed to recognise the paramount need to protect children as a matter of urgency from potential abusers". He resigned after the television documentary, saying he had tried but failed to deal with people such as Fr Fortune.

The report concluded: "Church authorities, the medical profession and society generally failed to appreciate the horrendous damage which the sexual abuse of children can and does cause."