The Murphy Report, Chapter 19: The Worst Case Yet?

The 19th chapter of the Murphy Report on clerical abuse in the Dublin diocese was published today, more than a year after the release of the original report. The publication of chapter 19 was delayed because it concerned former priest Tony Walsh, who was facing legal proceedings.

Eleven days ago Walsh was sentenced to 16 years in jail, clearing the way for chapter 19 to be made available to the public. I had recently begun to wonder if people on this island could become desensitised to the scale and severity of clerical sexual abuse. But Chapter 19 makes for still more harrowing reading; to the point that the Murphy Commission describes Walsh as the “most notorious child sexual abuser” it encountered. That’s saying something.

People already had a sense of Walsh’s crimes due to extensive media coverage of the court proceedings, including a particularly disturbing depiction of his abuse written by Patsy McGarry in last week’s Irish Times.

Today’s Irish Times report summarising chapter 19 is a sordid litany of serial abuse, coupled with details of how church authorities and the Gardaí conspired to protect Walsh and thus neglected their duties to protect children. Even after Walsh got psychiatric help, which he clearly needed, he was not closely monitored and was able to abuse again.

It has been a difficult year for the Catholic Church. These difficulties have been of its own making and the inability of most church leaders to demonstrate convincing sorrow and shame about the sexual abuse scandals has not helped matters.

But some voices from within the Catholic Church, such as Fr Enda McDonagh, have attempted to provide guidance on how the church might move forward in terms of healing people within its own ranks. These have included a 12-step recovery programme for the Catholic Church, published in March in the Irish Times, and further reflections in his book, Theology in Winter Light.

McDonagh has argued that the specific details of the abuse, as outlined in the Murphy and Ryan reports, should be required reading for clergy in their daily devotions and incorporated as reflections into liturgies at the parish level. He thinks this could produce solidarity with the victims and survivors, leading to repentance (on the part of those who need to repent) and much-needed acknowledgement and affirmation for the survivors.

Similarly, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s response to chapter 19 is frank. He said,

Chapter 19 provides additional specific evidence to the already horrendous narrative of the Murphy report. It reports the tragic and shocking story of how a devious, predatory paedophile used the priesthood to gain access to young children and abuse them and how no-one stopped him for years.

Over the last few days I have read and re-read this chapter of the report. What struck me particularly was the way in which parents came forward with no sense of vindictiveness towards the church, simply asking that the abuse stop, decisively and definitively. They weren’t out to “get the church”, but the church they loved and respected failed them.

… Chapter 19 adds to the Murphy report but does not bring it to a complete conclusion. One more chapter remains incomplete. The report chronicles a frightening moment in the history of the church in Dublin. As I have said on other occasions, in many aspects the Church in Ireland had allowed itself to drift into a position where its role in society had grown beyond what is legitimate.   It acted as a world apart.  It had often become self-centred and arrogant.  It felt that it could be forgiving of abusers in a simplistic manner and rarely empathised with the hurt of children.

The first step on the road to renewal is for our Church to recognise what went wrong to honestly acknowledge with no “buts” and no conditionality the gravity and the extent of what happened.

I think McDonagh’s recommendations are sensible, even inspired, but I have not heard of many cases were they have been implemented. Nor do I see much evidence that the rest of the church is ready, along with Martin, to ‘acknowledge … the gravity and the extent of what happened.’