Thirty-three years ago, an alternative weekly newspaper in Louisiana pioneered the unmasking of church cover-ups of clerical paedophilia. 

In recent days, Pope Francis urged his leadership team to recommend concrete measures to address similar scandals which are still engulfing the universal church.

In June 1985, American journalist Jason Berry wrote an extensive report for the US National Catholic Reporter (NCR) on Fr Gilbert Gauthe's sexual crimes against children.

He had condensed for the NCR three articles he had already penned for the Times of Acadiana (TOA), an alternative weekly in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Thirty years later, Berry recalled in an NCR look-back piece: "As I broke stories on four more priests, the appropriately named Daily Advertiser - housed a few steps away on Jefferson Street - attacked the weekly (TOA) and me as "vultures of yellow journalism." The diocesan lawyer lashed out at me in a front-page article, without contradicting what I had written.

In January 1986, I reported that the diocese had recycled seven predators over many years through a map of outlying towns.

After consulting Berry, the then editor at the Times of Acadiana, Richard Baudouin wrote an editorial calling on the Pope John Paul II ( who is now a saint) to replace the two bishops responsible for the cover-ups if they failed to resign.

"We must insist on the principle of justice, that officials of the church are not above the law, not above basic moral and ethical standards of the areas which they serve .... this newspaper, for one, will not stand silent at the outrages that have been perpetrated upon the people of this region," the editorial vowed. 


Berry recalls that the United States' national media ignored the editorial. From the evidence now available, it seems that Catholic Church authorities in the wider United States and the Vatican also ignored the NCR summary of the Lafayette scandal despite its being available to any senior cleric who would have wished to read it. 

For a generation, this "see no evil" approach has engulfed too many Catholic communities far beyond Louisiana’s Cajun country where the modern clerical child abuse scandal first unravelled. (For centuries, paedophile priests have been prosecuted under church law.)

This week Pope Francis formally launched the lifeboats. 

Twenty-five years ago next October, Ulster Television broadcast "Suffer Little Children", a chilling documentary by journalist Chris Moore on paedophile priest Brendan Smyth.

It revealed that Smyth, then aged 67, who had been based in a monastery just south of the border in Co Cavan had abused children as he criss-crossed the border visiting their homes where he had cultivated friendships with unsuspecting parents. Moore also revealed that Smyth’s superiors in the Norbertine order had known about much of his abuse but, despite warnings from their confrere, Fr Bruno Mulvihill, had failed to halt the reign of terror. 

As the programme was being prepared, Monsignor Seán Brady, a long-time resident of Rome and the then Rector of the city’s prestigious Irish College, was brought home by his bishop, Francis McKiernan, to lead the rural parish of Ballyhaise in Co Cavan. 

As Brady had handled the Smyth case for McKiernan in his capacity as diocesan secretary, there’s little doubt that he was tasked with limiting the damage the church saw hurtling down the tracks in the Smyth scandal. Within a year, Monsignor Brady had taken over as Archbishop-in-waiting of Armagh and assistant to Cardinal Cahal Daly, the outgoing leader of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

Among Chris Moore’s revelations was a failure by the Irish Attorney General to process nine warrants from the authorities in Northern Ireland for the extradition of Smyth. The warrants had lain on the desk of an official for seven months frustrating the Royal Ulster Constabulary to whom he had given the slip when they tried to arrest him in 1991.  

The broadcast contributed to the fall of Albert Reynold’s Fianna Fáil-Labour coalition and soon after that Smyth was extradited to the North where he was convicted and jailed for sexually abusing children and jailed for four years. On release, he met a similar fate in the Republic. He died in the Curragh Prison in 1997. 

It subsequently emerged that Cardinal Brady, in his time as secretary to Bishop McKiernan, had sworn to silence two male teenage victims of Smyth's.

He said he was simply doing his duty as a canon - or church - lawyer investigating the case and that he had passed on the results of his investigation to Dr McKiernan.

Under pressure to resign as head of the church in Ireland, the Cardinal consulted members of his diocese and concluded that the church would be better served if he continued to improve its child protection mechanisms. 

In 2011, Co Louth-born Brendan Boland, one of the survivors concerned, settled a civil action against Cardinal Brady which related to his administration of an oath of secrecy to Boland when he was 14-years-old.

In September 2014, after reaching the mandatory age for retirement, Cardinal Brady was succeeded as Archbishop of Armagh by Archbishop Eamon Martin who, as Primate of All Ireland, is representing the bishops of Ireland at the Vatican’s child protection summit. 

In two months' time Irish society will have the opportunity to mark the 20th anniversary of the broadcast by RTÉ television of the first of a ground-breaking two-part documentary produced by the late Mary Raftery.

Titled 'States of Fear', it exposed decades of systematic cover-ups of sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children in Ireland’s residential industrial and reform schools. The outrage that followed the screenings prompted then taoiseach Bertie Ahern to apologise on behalf of the State to survivors of the abuse and to the families of deceased and living victims.  

The judge-led Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse – the Ryan Commission – which reported ten years ago, found systemic abuse and cover-ups within the institutions it reviewed, the vast majority of which were Catholic-run. The State, which had funded the schools also came in for strong criticism for not ensuring the children’s safety.

It paid €1.4 billion in redress to survivors and in legal and other costs. Controversially, the church has paid a small portion of the cost, estimated by the government two years ago to be €219 million.

The Government is continuing to try to realise assets offered as payment in kind by religious orders but, even if they can be cleared legally for transfer, the taxpayer will continue to bear the brunt of the redress bill.

In 2002, Mary Raftery's 'Cardinal Secrets', screened by RTÉ's Prime Time, exposed numerous cover-ups of clerical child sexual abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese, by far the largest in Ireland. 

Again a Commission of Investigation – the Murphy Commission- confirmed the programme-makers' findings. Its report was also published ten years ago. 

Other independent investigations have unearthed a pattern of abuse and cover-up in other Irish Catholic dioceses including Ferns and Cloyne in the south, and Raphoe and Dromore in Ulster. For two decades, newly appointed bishops in each of these areas have been trying to undo the damage.

Protestant abuse

The Church of Ireland has not escaped scandal. In 2016, the Dean of its national cathedral, St Patrick’s in Dublin, said he was dismayed that Patrick O'Brien, who had been the treasurer of the independent Friends of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral for 30 years, had been convicted years earlier for sexually abusing a pupil from the Cathedral school.

Dean William Morton made the comment after O'Brien was jailed for 13 years for sexually abusing 14 boys over a period of 40 years. Kerry Lawless, a victim who helped to secure O'Brien’s conviction in 1989, criticised cathedral authorities for not removing him from contact with children when his parents alerted them to the case.  

In recent weeks, the United States' largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Church, was found by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News to have more than more than 380 cases of sexual misconduct by church leaders and volunteers involving some 700 victims. 

The Southern Baptist Convention President JD Greear branded the abuse "pure evil," and apologised to victims, saying it was "unjust and tragic that you feel fear in the present". He confessed that the church had failed the people who had been abused. 

But the Catholic Church has been the main focus of statutory investigations in North America and Australia. It has also featured prominently in a wide-ranging official inquiry the UK. 

Recently, it admitted to widespread cover-ups in Germany and Chile. The late disgraced Cardinal Hermann Groer of Vienna and more recently, Theodore McCarrick of Washington DC have been implicated.

The American became the first in almost a century to be expelled from the exclusive College of Cardinals and was defrocked in the lead-up to the Vatican summit.

In 2013, the Co Antrim-born cardinal, Keith O'Brien of Edinburgh, was forbidden to vote in the Papal election after it was revealed that he had sexually abused priests and seminarians under his authority. He resigned from his diocese and has since died.


Pope Francis summoned the four-day conference on child protection last September shortly after his two-day visit to Ireland.

Invitations were sent to representatives of all national hierarchies, umbrella organisations for religious orders and congregations and to key Vatican officials. They were told to meet survivors of abuse in the church before convening in Rome.

The summit was prompted by a confluence of events which had overshadowed Pope Francis' Irish visit.

Firstly,  August's Pennsylvania Grand Jury finding of widespread clerical abuse in the state over 70 years, often carried out with impunity. Then there was the withdrawal of Washington DC's Cardinal Donald Wuerl from the Papal entourage over the grand jury’s  criticism of his failure, as a bishop in Pennsylvania, to report abusers to the police (Cardinal Wuerl later resigned as Archbishop of Washington DC).

And last and by no means least, there was Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano’s bombshell accusation that Pope Francis had lifted restrictions placed by his predecessor, Pope Benedict, on the disgraced McCarrick. 

In mid-summer it had been revealed that the then cardinal had been found guilty by the diocese of New York of sexually abusing an altar boy when he was a priest there.

On Saturday 16 February, in a heavily flagged curtain-raiser, Pope Francis announced that he had defrocked McCarrick, stripping a former Prince of the Church of his standing as a cleric. 

This followed a special papal investigation which included a trawl of Vatican archives which found the 88-year-old guilty of sexually abusing children and seminarians under his authority. Unusually, no appeal was allowed. We still do not know what the probe discovered about who facilitated the wrongdoer’s stellar rise to power in the universal church.  

On Wednesday, the eve of the four-day gathering, one of the summit organisers told hundreds of journalists at a packed news conference  that church leaders had to face the facts about child sexual abuse in the church because only the truth would make the church free. Another promised that the summit would give a voice to voiceless survivors.

While survivors' representatives who had travelled to Rome cautiously welcomed McCarrick's defrocking, they said criminal charges could and should be filed against him and church officials they accused of hiding his wrongdoing for decades.

After Wednesday’s news conference a dozen survivor-advocates met the summit's five organisers for two hours.

One survivor described the encounter as "a little confrontational and heated". His delegation demanded to speak directly to Pope Francis to press its demand for a global policy of zero tolerance of child sexual abuse in the church to be inserted into canon law.    

On Thursday, Cardinal Jose Horacio Gomez said the  Church had to "recognise that the enemy is within".

"The damage caused is so deep, the pain inflicted is so profound, the consequences of the abuses that have taken place in the Church are so immense that we will never be able to say that we have done all that can be done".

In Ireland, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin became the most senior churchman to report that many people were asking why it had taken so long to discipline McCarrick.

It's a question that will have occurred to many Catholics here who toiled with Dr Martin for over a year to ensure that the archdiocese would successfully host the World Meeting of Families and the accompanying Papal visit in the final week of August.

Both events were eclipsed by the McCarrick and Pennsylvania controversies as well as by protests about the church’s definition of same-sex sex acts as unnatural and sinful. And only 137,000 people attended the Papal Mass, much fewer than a half a million who had snapped up free tickets. 


The daily themes for the summit’s three working days were responsibility, transparency and accountability. 
Pope Francis’ brief opening statement warned the delegates that "the Holy People of God look to us and they expect from us not simple and inevitable condemnations but rather concrete and effective measures." 

He circulated a 21-point document urging them among other things, to devise child protection policies in all national churches. 

Anne Barrett-Doyle of the US-based abuse tracking group welcomed the pope’s emphasis on concrete actions but said that the fact that awareness-raising remained to be done among bishops was a measure of how low a priority clerical paedophilia had been in the Vatican.  

But in light of the pope’s opening remarks, she was prepared to wait and see what emerged.


In a pre-summit message, Archbishop Eamon Martin who represented the Irish bishops, and apologised to survivors for what he called "too many failures (by the church ) …to do what was right and just".

On Friday, the archbishop was questioned by journalists about complaints from some of the 25 survivors he met in preparation for the summit. They had criticised the Congregation of Christian Brothers for dragging out of victims’ civil suits in the Irish courts.  He responded that the church must allow the survivors concerned to get due restitution.

Dr Martin, who is also Primate of All Ireland, said: "The church simply cannot afford to do that (put obstacles in the way of due process and natural justice)" and must allow what he termed "these dear members of the Body of Christ to receive due restitution, justice" and whatever personal and spiritual help they ask for. 

In response, a representative of Day School Victims’ Action Group called on the Christian Brothers to enter mediation with the survivors concerned rather that prolong their defence of the law suits. 


Slightly less than 200 people are attending the gathering which ended today with mass at in the Apostolic Palace off Saint Peter's Square.  About 150 are presidents of national hierarchies, and the remainder are Vatican officials, experts and heads of religious orders of priests, brothers and nuns.

Their preparatory meetings with survivors may or may not have prepared them for video messages from Catholics abused in the church, which were played shortly after the pope had spoken.

An anonymous African woman told the gathering that her priest rapist forced her to have three abortions over a dozen years after he started violating her at age of 15.

Chilean survivor and campaigner, Juan Carlos Cruz, spoke of being isolated and treated as an enemy of the church when he reported his abuser to ecclesiastical authorities. He accused many bishops of murdering souls instead of being physicians to them.

A Columbian Cardinal warned that the conference participants could all face jail if they let abuse go unpunished, a message driven home by the Cardinal from Mumbai who cautioned that the church was never above the law of the land.

Investigation demanded

Yesterday, a prominent victim and advocate demanded an investigation into the admission by Germany’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx that some Catholic Church leaders had shredded abusers' case files.

Peter Isely of the Ending Clerical Abuse (ECA) association called on the churchman to name  those responsible for the destruction which he branded "illegal".

Mr Isley, who is also a psychotherapist and a Harvard divinity graduate, was commenting after the Cardinal’s speech to delegates which also criticised the failure of some church leaders to keep files on their paedophile subordinates. 

The German prelate said scandals going back some 50 years have shown the public that such policies of concealment allowed known abusers to continue preying on children.

"What he didn't tell us is... Who did it? Where did they do it? And what did they destroy?" Mr Isley asked as 300 fellow survivors and their supporters marched to the Vatican holding signs accusing Pope Francis of being deaf to their cries, and urging the expulsion from the church of abusers and their enablers. 

Last September, Cardinal Marx apologised personally to thousands of victims who had been abused by clergy within the church in Germany, saying the perpetrators must be brought to justice.

He told the summit that instead of the perpetrators, the victims were regulated and that silence was imposed on them.

"The stipulated procedures and processes for the prosecution of offences were deliberately not complied with," he complained.

'No passing storm'

A Nigerian nun accused the church leaders in the auditorium -  95% of whom were men - of hypocrisy.

Sister Veronica Openibo, who has worked in Africa, Europe and the United States, told the delegates the storm would not pass.

"We proclaim the Ten Commandments and parade ourselves as being the custodians of moral standards and values and good behaviour in society. Hypocrites at times? Yes! Why did we keep silent for so long?" she asked.

She told the pope, sitting near her on the dais, that she admired him because he was "humble enough to change your mind" referring to his apology and thorough investigation and follow-through demand for resignations after he initially defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse. Over the past year, the bishop concerned and eight others resigned from the Chilean hierarchy.

"How could the clerical Church have kept silent, covering these atrocities? The silence, the carrying of the secrets in the hearts of the perpetrators, the length of the abuses and the constant transfers of perpetrators are unimaginable," she said.

She spoke of her shock when she watched the 2015 Oscar-winning film Spotlight, which showed how Church leaders in Boston moved predator priests from parish to parish instead of defrocking them or turning them over to civil authorities.

"We must acknowledge that our mediocrity, hypocrisy and complacency have brought us to this disgraceful and scandalous place we find ourselves as a Church. We pause to pray, Lord have mercy on us!" 

Jump start

The summit is seen as a bid by Pope Francis to jump start a widespread assault on the  crisis that has dogged the Catholic Church during the pontificates of Saint Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) and the now-retired Pope Benedict (2005-2013) who resigned amid mounting financial scandals in the church.

Following over three decades of scandals principally in North America, Australia, Ireland and other European countries, the latest scandals have recently hit Catholic-majority nations such as Chile, the pope's native Argentina, Honduras and Poland, the homeland of Saint Pope John Paul II. 

The Polish pontiff is widely blamed for turning a blind eye to the serial abuse perpetrated by Fr Marcial Maciel and some fellow-leaders of the rich, influential and highly conservative Legionaries of Christ.

It was finally investigated on the orders of Pope Benedict and Maciel was found to have fathered children with a number of women while also abusing children and numerous seminarians and priests in the order. 

The Vatican Promoter of Justice who investigated the Legion of Christ scandal, the Archbishop of Malta, Charles Scicluna, was one of the organisers of last week’s summit. Last year he also led the investigation of the Chilean scandals. 

Irish crisis

During his abnormally long pontificate, Saint Pope John Paul tilted the church towards the right, particularly on issues of sexual morality. A hero in many Catholic homes here after becoming the first Pope to visit Ireland, he was slow to address this country’s clerical abuse crisis after it exploded in 1994 with the Ulster Television’s exposée on Brendan Smyth.

In 1998, the then Archbishop of Dublin Dr Desmond Connell thumped the table during a meeting with a senior Vatican official, Cardinal Castrillion Hoyos, after the Prefect of the Congregation for Clergy (1996 - 2006), told him it was church policy to defend the rights of an accused priest above all.

Hoyos was party to the Vatican’s rejection of the Irish bishops’ request for an official recognition of their guidelines on reporting suspected priest abusers to An Garda Síochána and the social services.

The bishops were too loyal to blow the whistle on the arch clericalist. And that’s what Pope Francis seems determined to teach bishops they are duty-bound to do where wrong-doing is being fostered in the church. 

'If I don't move, maybe I won't feel anything'

On Saturday the summit heard testimony from a woman who was repeatedly raped by a priest when she was just 11.

"Engraved in my eyes, ears, nose, body and soul, are all the times he immobilised me, the child, with superhuman strength," said the woman, who remained anonymous.

"I de-sensitised myself, I held my breath, I came out of my body, I searched desperately for a window to look out of, waiting for it all to end.

"I thought: 'If I don't move, maybe I won't feel anything; if I don't breathe, maybe I could die'."

Survivors campaigning for zero tolerance to be written  into church law may not be satisfied with the immediate outcome of the summit.

But the testimonies from survivors which Archbishop Eamon Martin told the gathering had brought them "to their knees", may not be easily forgotten by the almost exclusively male church cadre charged with leading their fellow bishops into a new era of willing compliance with children’s, women’s and subordinate’s rights. The alternative was spelled out to the summit by a veteran Mexican journalist who has reported from the Vatican on five pontificates.  

Valentina Alazraki, 64, the doyen of the Vatican press corps, told the bishops she was speaking as a woman and mother as well as a journalist.

"For a mother, there are no first or second-class children: there are stronger children and more vulnerable ones. Nor are there first and second-class children for the Church," she said.

"(The Church's) seemingly more important children, as are you, bishops and cardinals - I dare not say the Pope - are no more so than any other boy, girl or young person who has experienced the tragedy of being the victim of abuse by a priest," she said forcefully in Spanish.

Ms Alazraki told the bishops they could no longer "play ostrich" and bury their heads in the sand.

"If you do not decide in a radical way to be on the side of the children, mothers, families, civil society, you are right to be afraid of us, because we journalists, who seek the common good, will be your worst enemies.

Ms Alazraki, who was applauded at the end of her speech, also spoke of cases of corruption where religious orders and Church officials hid abuse because "money, compensation, gifts" or other illegal or unethical activity.

Her words dovetailed with those of Cardinal Marx who earlier had told the gathering that "the rights of victims were effectively trampled underfoot, and left to the whims of individuals."

He added that it was essential that victims felt they could "trust the system".

"There are no alternatives to traceability and transparency," he said, admitting that efforts to cover-up scandals had badly undermined the Church's credibility.

Pope Francis has told his bishops he wants "concrete measures" drawn up against child sex abuse. But survivors have lambasted the centuries-old institution for not releasing the names and case files of priests convicted of abuse or possessing child pornography.

The Vatican has in the past refused to hand over internal documents about child sexual abuse cases to civil authorities investigating paedophilia.

In 2011, Ireland closed its embassy to the Holy See ostensibly as an economy measure. But the move by Enda Kenny’s Fine Gael-Labour government was widely interpreted as a response to the Vatican's refusal to co-operate with the judge-led Commission of Investigation into clerical child sexual abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese.

Both former President Mary McAleese and former foreign affairs minister Dermot Ahern have revealed that while the commission was sitting, on a visit to the Vatican they were approached by church officials who sought their co-operation in keeping church files on abuse cases secret. Both said they terminated the conversations immediately. 

The commission found that successive Archbishops and their assistant bishops respectively led and were complicit in cover-ups of scores of cases lasting over three decades up to 2005. This had involved known priest abusers being assigned to parishes whose congregations were kept in the dark about the danger posed to their children.

Only one of the auxiliary - or assistant bishops concerned, James Moriarty, resigned swiftly citing his failure to do more to protect children in the church. His action anticipated by a decade the spirit of this week’s summit. 

In 2008, Cardinal Desmond Connell, the Archbishop of Dublin at the time of the commission's establishment, threatened  to challenge in the courts the decision by his predecessor, Dr Diarmuid Martin, to hand over thousands of documents to Judge Yvonne Murphy's  review.

But Dr Connell dropped his threat at the last moment. It had been based on what he regarded as the confidential bond between bishop and priest. This is likely to be the reasoning behind the destruction by bishops and leaders of religious orders of the documents Cardinal Marx referred to at the summit.

The Murphy Commission's 2009 report said that while Dr Connell had been "clearly appalled by the abuse" it took him some time "to realise that it could not be dealt with by keeping it secret and protecting priests from normal civil processes."

The report said he had shown "little understanding of the overall plight of victims" some of whom found him "remote and aloof" and some "sympathetic and kind." However, and "on the other hand he did take an active interest in their civil litigation against the Archdiocese and personally approved the defences which were filed by the Archdiocese."

Liability for injury and damage "was never admitted." His strategies in civil cases, "while legally acceptable, often added to the hurt and grief of complainants."

With an example like this, why would other dioceses and religious orders not use the church's deep pocket to wear down survivor-litigants?

Archbishop Eamon Martin who, while attending the summit has effectively urged the Christian Brothers to settle claims by survivors where abuse has been proven to have taken place in institutions and schools, will be faced on his return home with the task of ensuring that his empathy with victims is translated into "concrete" - to use Pope Francis' word of the week - restitution.

It's fair to point out that the Catholic Church is not alone in being exposed for systemic concealment of child sexual abuse. 

One experienced therapist who counsels survivors here, Maeve Lewis, Executive Director of the One in Four advocacy group, says that in Ireland, the Catholic Church’s child protection policies, introduced over the past two decades in the face of a rash of scandals, have resulted in its parishes becoming among the safer places for children.

She points out that in 2002 the independent SAVI report found that almost half of all victims here were abused by a close family member.

She wants the Government to devise and implement a national action plan to tackle the scourge of child sexual abuse.