The McCabe affair in context

The McCabe affair in context

Lucy Sullivan

The release of the last part of the 2009 Murphy Report on the Catholic Church's failure to expose and prosecute the predatory activities of Fr Patrick McCabe, casts new light on the response to child sexual abuse within the Church in Ireland.

The Murphy commission investigated the handling of clerical child sex abuse allegations by Church and State authorities in Dublin's archdiocese between 1975 and 2004. Much of Chapter 20 of its report had been withheld pending the trial of former priest Patrick McCabe, which ended last March.

It reminds us that the past is another country, and appeal to the law was not available then as it is now, for child sexual abuse had not yet been clearly defined as a crime.

There were other, to us obvious, crimes in the same no-man's land - physical abuse of children by their parents and domestic violence.

This was, I believe on the evidence of social statistics, because up until the mores of the permissive society took effect, they were sufficiently rare to be dealt with privately, restrained by the stern disapproval of public opinion.

The first appearance of sub-categories in national demographic statistics is a marker of their having for the first time reached a level of public visibility that cannot be ignored.

In Australia (I cannot speak for Ireland), these categories of crime have not even now fully attained that status, so difficult are they of public ascertainment and criminal prosecution without creating collateral harm.

Obligatory reporting of child physical abuse by parents and of domestic violence was only fought for and finally achieved across the 1970s and into the 1980s.

Previously doctors treated the injured child brought for treatment by an obviously abusive parent as a privacy issue: to report it was regarded as a breach of patient confidence and it was a police rule of thumb not to intervene in cases of domestic violence.

Even today these crimes are handled poorly by government authorities - children continue to die at the hands of their "carers", and the AVO (Apprehended Violence Order) has had to be devised as a half-measure to control domestic violence.

Child sexual abuse within the broken or blended family is similarly out of control.

The case for the Church was of course different - it was not a case of abuse conflicting with significant relationships of attachment and dependence, although the Church, like any institution that puts children in the lengthy charge of persons not their parents, offered opportunities for the abuse of these children.

Today action against abuse in such situations can be (although somehow it rarely is) swift, public and decisive; but this was not the case in the 1970s and 1980s, and the Murphy Report makes patent, without giving recognition to, the disabilities under which the Church authorities (and the police) laboured in those years.

It shows them trying to deal with this problem in their midst in the absence of clear guidelines as to its status as an offence in the wider society (after all, Lolita, written by Vladimir Nabokov, describing the seduction of a 12 year old girl by a much older man, was an acclaimed novel of the period) and of support from the criminal justice system.

Archbishops' actions

Reading through the list of actions taken by the archbishops one sees that, far from being unconcerned, they were at their wits' ends, trying one action after another, without success.

Once aware of McCabe's activities, action was swift. Without legal prompting he was sent to England for psychiatric treatment in 1981 and then to New Mexico in 1982.

But treatment was found not to have been effective, and he was brought back to Dublin when "inappropriate conduct" was reported.

A further offence brought to the attention of the Irish police showed them as little able to help when they referred the case back to the Church.

Without public prosecution he was free to return to the US at his own volition, and to return as he did in 1987. On hearing that he had taken a post in a boys' school in Dublin, the Church authorities acted conscientiously to achieve his dismissal.

When he offended again in January 1988, a special meeting of bishops was held and urgently petitioned Rome to reduce him to lay status (the limit of Church authority) and he was again sent for psychiatric treatment, this time in Dublin.

Again, police notification failed to elicit legal intervention, so he was free to return to a job he had himself obtained with homeless adults in the US (which was a step in the right direction for a child abuser and appears to be the end of the story).

Nor should the police be made villains for failing to give the Church the backup of State authority.

They were similarly placed at that time, in a legal limbo, and without guidelines that would allow them to step in where Church authority was powerless - to prosecute, curtail movements, publish what was not yet a statutory felony.

Imputations of police and Church collusion are naively vicious.

It is absurd to treat the non-reporting of exchanges of Church personnel and the police, simply because they were known to each other, as devious protection of an offender or an institution, for it is legitimate practice for police not to record complaints for which no categories as criminal or civil offences are in place, nor is it evidence of non-concern.

Far from following the movements of sex offenders and making their identities public, the State still, with all the powers of established law behind it, battles with the demands of civil rights in dealing with them once they have served their prison terms.

Dr Lucy Sullivan's book, False Promises: Sixties Philosophy Against the Church: A Sociological Memoir Enhanced by Statistics 1903-1993 (Windrush Press, 2012), is available for sale from Freedom Publishing, at:

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