National Board controversy serving the Church badly

There must be no deflection from safeguarding

One of the key things that has restored the confidence of Catholics in their Church's commitment to child protection is the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC). The National Board has emerged as a powerful independent watchdog capable of holding senior Church leaders to account. It is, therefore, a cause of deep concern when any issue that would dent public confidence in the National Board and its review mechanism emerges. Ian Elliott, the former chief executive of the National Board, has now raised very serious and troubling concerns about the review process.

Mr Elliott, who retired last June, has challenged findings of a child protection audit in Down and Connor diocese and has said he is considering a legal action against Bishop Noel Treanor.

Mr Elliott said the findings, released in December, "do not reflect the findings from the fieldwork" he had conducted last May. He said he was "deeply concerned at attempts by the diocese to attribute that review [audit]" to him.

Serious situation

This is a very serious situation. The sad reality is that the National Board had to be established because society at large and Catholics in particular, had lost confidence in the hierarchy's word that they were fully committed to ensuring that robust child safeguarding guidelines are in place in the Church. The National Board, through the process of regular audits of dioceses, religious orders, congregations and missionary societies, ensured that the Church could, with confidence, reassure people that the era of cover-up of abuse was in the past. Anything that calls in to question the reliability of these audits is potentially devastating. It is also disheartening for the thousands of volunteers in every parish in the country who are trained in child safeguarding and work hard to ensure that there is no place in the Church for those who would do harm to children.

Mr Elliott and Bishop Treanor have history. In 2012, Bishop Treanor was forced to apologise after he made an allegation that Mr Elliott was briefing journalists against the hierarchy. At the time, Bishop Treanor said "matters were brought to my attention by third parties and were then informally raised with the national board". A report carried out by former Supreme Court Judge Catherine McGuinness fully exonerated Ian Elliott and Bishop Treanor accepted this finding. Apparently, Bishop Treanor conceded at the time that he had been badly advised. This raises an immediate question: are those who apparently advised Bishop Treanor so badly in 2012 still in place? If so, why?

The controversy also raises other key issues that are at the heart of whether or not one should continue to have confidence in the review process: What response would the bishop or the National Board make to Mr Elliott's assertion that the findings of the field work do not equate with the report that was issued in December?


The fieldwork was done in May, the report was not issued until December. When was that report signed off on? Was it signed off in December, and if so why did it take so many months to reach an agreement between the diocese and the National Board?

So far the response from the dioceses has been hardly forthcoming. "The Down and Connor report was undertaken and prepared by the National Board team, including independent professional reviewers. Any questions regarding its contents and integrity should be referred to the National Board," a spokesman for Dr Treanor said.

The National Board, meanwhile, said that it "rejects any implication that any external pressure was brought to bear on the authors of the report”.

"The allegations made by Ian Elliot appear to question the professionalism and integrity of our board, our CEO and our staff. Consequently, we are seeking legal advice regarding our options and will make no further comment at this time," the board spokesman added.

Legal actions

So, the matter now seems destined to be bogged down in potential legal actions. This must not be allowed to deflect from the vital work of protecting children in the Church and assuring and reassuring people that the lessons have been learnt. The problem is, at things stand, every time a new controversy emerges (whether it is new, or just a new reporting of past events) people are given the impression that nothing has changed in the Church. This is profoundly sad since it is clear to any objective observer that a massive cultural shift has occurred where the Church has extremely robust guidelines and procedures in place that leave the State in the ha'penny place.


No place for past mindsets

Fr Tony Flannery, one of the founders of the Association of Catholic Priests provoked controversy last week by appearing to dismiss child abuse as "a mistake". In conjured up images of Bishop of Clonfert John Kirby who infamously described abuse as a "friendship that had gone astray or wrong".

Fr Flannery later stepped back from his original comments and insisted "I fully accept that the word 'mistake' was not the best choice of word in the circumstances". There's an understatement if ever I heard one!

Marie Collins, who was abused by a priest as a child, criticised Fr Flannery saying: "There seems to be a belief in the ACP that using the word 'historical' somehow magically turns a vile crime against a child into a mere indiscretion.”

Whatever Fr Flannery was trying to say it was a clumsy way of saying it. The abuse of a child or a vulnerable adult by a person in authority, such as a priest, is always a vile crime. There must be no complacency, no ifs or buts, no attempts to explain away. The Murphy Report devastatingly excavated a corrupt clerical culture that put priest-abusers ahead of children. Abuse was seen as a moral failing rather than a crime. There must be no going back to that warped clericalist mindset where priests and people in authority seemed to have immense compassion for the abusers but precious little for those whose lives had been destroyed.