Investigators say the Church has done an 'excellent' job in implementing stricter child protection guidelines

A Vatican investigation of the Church in Ireland has concluded that bishops, clergy and lay faithful are doing an “excellent” job in creating safe environments for children today.

The investigators said there had been serious shortcomings in the handling of clerical abuse in the past but that they had been “struck” by efforts across the country to implement stricter child protection guidelines.

“In the four archdioceses, the results of these efforts were judged to be excellent,” they said, adding that safeguarding staff had brought “the highest level of professionalism” to the Church.

But the investigators also called for regular updating of child protection guidelines, the establishment of “more consistent admission criteria” for seminarians, and the formulation of policies on how best to deal with clergy and religious accused of abuse.

In a summary of findings published on Tuesday, the investigators spoken of a “fairly widespread” tendency among priests, religious and laity to hold unorthodox views.

“This serious situation requires particular attention, directed principally toward improved theological formation,” the visitors found, stressing that dissent from the Church’s teaching authority would only hinder its renewal.

The eight-page summary consisted of findings and recommendations to four archdioceses, religious institutes and seminaries in Ireland. Fr Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said there was “no large, more extensive document” giving details of the visitation.

Rather, he said, “the summary is a synthesis of all the reports, materials”, observations and recommendations made by the visitors as well as further observations made by the Holy See and relevant Vatican offices.

“The Holy See re-echoes the sense of dismay and betrayal which the Holy Father expressed in his Letter to the Catholics of Ireland,” the summary said.

Through their many face-to-face meetings with members of the Church, including victims of abuse, the visitors saw “just how much the shortcomings of the past gave rise to an inadequate understanding of and reaction to the terrible phenomenon of the abuse of minors, not least on the part of various bishops and religious superiors”, the summary said.

But investigators said they were able “to verify that, beginning in the 1990s, progressive steps had been taken toward a greater awareness of how serious is the problem of abuse”.

The report said that abuse guidelines must be updated in accordance with the doctrinal congregation’s 2011 mandate, that regular audits be carried out, and that the guidelines be re-examined periodically to make sure they stay effective.

The report said that a shortage of canon lawyers in Ireland called for a reorganisation of Church tribunals to speed up cases of abuse still waiting for a resolution. In addition, the National Board for Safeguarding Children should be supported by Church authorities and continue to receive adequate funding, it said.

Aspects of seminary life that still require improvement included: formation “rooted in authentic priestly identity” to prepare men for a life of celibacy, “better governance of seminaries by bishops”, “more consistent admission criteria” and a more thorough examination of a candidate’s suitability for the priesthood; and child protection education as a part of seminarians’ academic studies.

In regard to religious institutes, the Vatican recommended that bishops lead a “process of renewing dialogue and concrete collaboration in the field of safeguarding children, while also seeking to bring about a more effective and deeper communion” among the different religious orders.

The orders also “should perform an audit of their personnel files” and regularly monitor their implementation of national child protection norms.

Bishops, religious superiors and members of the board for safeguarding children should continue to update policies on dealing with priests and religious falsely accused of abuse, dealing with suspected abusers when civil authorities decline to prosecute and determining where and under what conditions convicted offenders should live.

Benedict XVI ordered the visitation in response to an abuse crisis which Irish government reports said had gone on for decades within a “culture of secrecy”.

The investigation, which began in November 2010 and ended last spring, was not meant to deal with past or present allegations, but to monitor how anti-abuse guidelines established in 2009 by the Irish Church were being followed, and how effective they had proven.

At a press conference in Dublin Cardinal Seán Brady of Armagh said: “In expressing true sorrow and regret, we make our own the heartfelt plea for forgiveness from the victims, and from God, for these terrible crimes and sins.” He also praised the fact that the report notes the “continuing vitality of the Irish people’s faith… the human and spiritual bonds among the faithful at a time of crisis… the exemplary way in which many priests and religious live out their vocation and… [the] remarkable level of lay involvement in the structures of child protection” within the Church.

The abuse victims’ support group One in Four criticised the report, insisting that “the Vatican is still not accepting responsibility for its role in creating the culture of purposeful cover-ups of the sexual abuse of children”.

Visitors included Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Cardinal Seán O’Malley of Boston, Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto and Archbishop Terrence Prendergast of Ottawa. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, New York, led the visitation to seminaries.