Time to end zero tolerance?

Mick Peelo tells Greg Daly how we need to be more creative in how we tackle clerical abuse

The rigorous approach of the Church to clergy who have sexually abused “isn’t as Christian as it should be”, says Mick Peelo ahead of ‘Beyond Redemption?’ a Would You Believe? special screened on RTÉ tonight, Thursday October 20.

It’s a surprising statement for a documentary journalist who has been reporting on the abuse crisis in the Church for over 20 years, notably alongside the late Mary Raftery in the 2002 documentary ‘Cardinal Secrets’. Over the years, he says, he had been consistently strong in advocating for the rights of victims.

“But niggling in the back of my head all the time was that this was not just a Church problem,” he says, describing how it was when he spoke to UCD’s Dr Marie Keenan in the course of working on his 2007 documentary ‘Unspeakable Crimes’ that his support for the Church’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy was called into question. 

Dr Keenan, author of Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church: Gender, Power and Organisational Culture, advised him to look beyond the Church and to start looking at abuse in a different way, less as a Church problem than as a societal problem.


“Part of me knew that,” he says, continuing, “I didn’t want to see it. Part of me knew it because I was a teacher in school – I taught religion in school – and I knew there was a problem with sexual abuse. One in four children are sexually abused, and I thought that issue’s not being sorted: it’s not clergy who are doing that. Most of that abuse happens in families. And I felt, why are we demonising clergy? It’s wrong.”

The one-in-four figure is an international standard and not something specific to Ireland, though it was borne out in Ireland by the 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report, which surveyed over 3,000 people and found that 27.1% of Irish adults had been sexually abused in one way or another during their childhood or adolescence. 

In practical terms, this would have meant that something in the region of 780,000 Irish adults at the time of the report had been sexually abused, with 1.7% of these abused by religious ministers and a further 1.7% abused by teachers who were members of religious orders. Most abuse, the report showed, was within the broad family circle, with 20.1% committed by neighbours, 10.1% by friends, 6.2% by uncles, 4.6% by babysitters and 4.4% by cousins.

Despite the horrors revealed by the report, it gained little media traction, with neither media nor people at large talking about it. 

“Because we can’t,” Mick says. “This is the hardest documentary I’ve ever had to make, ever, and I’ve made a number of very difficult documentaries. Nobody ever wants to talk about this.” He says that with one in four people affected by abuse, some simply don’t want to talk about, some don’t want to deal with it, some are afraid that people they love will be hurt or even jailed if they address it, and some simply shut it out because they don’t want to understand it. “Nobody wants to deal with this,” he says, continuing, “It’s like having an alcoholic in your family, in some way every family in the country has been affected with this. Every family. So nobody really wants to talk about it.”

Perhaps the most horrifying thing about the prevalence of abuse in Ireland, Mick suggests, is how much of it is committed by young people. “Forty per cent of people who sexually harm children are actually children, and that’s the big thing, that’s the thing that’s not spoken about,” he says, adding, “The children that are sex abusers – they’re not paedophiles. They’re not predatory paedophiles. They cause serious harm, but if we want to stop them from doing that we have to address this thing differently.”

Stressing that he himself is not a psychologist or a therapist, Mick ventures of adolescent abusers that “I suppose those who work in this field would tell you they haven’t developed sexually”. 

“They may have a series of victims, they need to be stopped,” he says, adding that those who work with abusers would agree that being sexually attracted to a child may be less a matter of paedophilia than of sexual development. 

Regardless of what drives such abuse, the fact remains that the prevalence of abuse within the broad family circle, especially as committed by adolescents, is one of darkest unspoken realities in Irish life. 

As Wexford priest Fr Paddy Banville put in in this paper five years ago, there was “nothing particularly unique in the Catholic bishop’s bungling attempts to deal with clerical abuse”. 

Arguing that concealment had been at least until recently “a typical response to child abuse right across the board”, Fr Banville said “a significant percentage of the population” was implicated in such a cover-up, with the Church reflecting the behaviour of Irish society as a whole. 

Why then was the Church singled out for blame? “It’s easier for us to point the finger at somebody else,” says Mick, adding that this is all the easier when that somebody “been holding the high moral ground for so long”. 

Harmful approach

Such an approach, however, is deeply harmful and profoundly dangerous. “It’s much easier to point the finger and demonise a person out there,” he says, “but by doing that we’re actually making sure that there will be more victims because the victim in here in the house that we’re living in is not going to come forward when we demonise the person who has victimised them. 

They know the person can’t live anywhere because society won’t accept them, so if they report on Daddy, or my brother, or my uncle, the family may be split up, and may not be able to live in the house they live in anymore.”

Arguing that there’s an immense amount going on in familial situations, he says that it is quite simply “too dangerous, too explosive” to raise such problems. 

Meanwhile, he says, the Church’s own approach to clerical abusers has become too harsh, driven by the “vitriolic” feelings of a society that will not look its own failings in the eye. 

In the past, he says, it tended to think of abuse as a sin committed by a sinner who needed to be reconciled with God, with abusive priests who sent back into parishes after seeing psychiatrists and psychologists, continuing to abuse in their new settings. 

“I couldn’t get my head around why certain bishops were behaving in a certain way,” he says, “but when Diarmuid Martin came into Dublin, with a very strong approach, I thought its response became really positive.”

The approach of the Vatican became similarly laudable, he thought. “The Church in Rome began taking a very strong, zero tolerance approach, spearheaded by the American Church,” he says, “and that was a response I was quite happy with. I thought that needed to be done.”

It was in the aftermath of the 2010 imprisonment of Tony Walsh – described in the Murphy Report as “the most notorious child sexual abuser” to have come to the commission’s attention, that Mick’s view began to change. Explaining how he had walked with one of Walsh’s victims who had spent 16 years trying to get justice, he said, “I basically felt that in the whole social attitude to it there was something lacking. We were demonising sex offenders, and I was doing the same: demonising them.”

Observing that this is “fundamentally wrong”, he says, “We need to actually reshape that. As somebody in the media who was shaping public opinion on this I felt a responsibility in this regard.”

Mick began talking about this with abuse survivors and specialists who work with abusers, and began to question the wisdom of ‘zero tolerance’ approaches.

“Actually demonising sex offenders and people who harm children and vulnerable adults endangers children and vulnerable adults – it does the exact opposite to what we want it to do,” he says, adding, “I also felt that the Church’s view was shaped by public opinion.”

Commenting that the Church’s natural instinct is to forgive sinners who sought reconciliation, Mick argues that the Church’s ‘zero tolerance’ approach is driven by the opinions of a public with no interest in a holistic approach that combines forgiveness with the serious systems of accountability and care.


“After ‘Cardinal Secrets’, and after the Ferns Report and the Ryan Report came out there wasn’t an appetite for people to hear this, so the Church possibly couldn’t even go there, he says, adding that even speaking for himself, “I didn’t have the appetite to listen to this, but that’s how I came around…”

Venturing that the Church’s ‘one strike and you’re out’ approach tars all clerical perpetrators of abuse with the same brush, Mick is sceptical about its failure to take the individual abuser’s own context into account. “He’s living a celibate life, he could have joined when he was 17, he might be sexually immature and never developed, he may have issues,” he says, asking whether it’s right to treat such a person as a predatory paedophile.

“That’s the way he feels he’s treated,” says Mick, adding, “Anybody working in the field with people who sexually offend and sexually harm, will tell you there are so many different types and reasons why people will sexually harm, and most, if they’re dealt with properly, don’t go on to reoffend. So the way we have been dealing with them, they’re telling us – in the psychological industry – is not the correct way.” 

Repeating the line that “zero tolerance is harmful, and anybody who works in this area will tell you that it’s harmful”, he praises the Capuchins, for instance, for their dedication to safeguarding, where members of the order who have abused are kept “with massive restrictions” in their communities in order to protect children, but says their approach is too broad, with such restrictions applying rigorously even to those who have committed a crime once. 


Mick cites the how a diocesan priest is interviewed in the programme, arguing that he is being treated like a pariah or vermin. Admitting that he had done something wrong and had rightly suffered for it, the priest says that while he doesn’t expect to be allowed return to ministry, he believes he would be a better minister now after what he done and how he had learned. 

“That isn’t even in the vocabulary of the Church at the moment,” says Mick, who says his old belief that abusers were beyond redemption was wrong. “The Church’s response isn’t as Christian as it should be,” he says, adding that with the vast majority of abusers – he says 90% – never having been convicted, “we have to another more holistic, more community, more Christian in response to this, if we want no more victims of abuse”.

A better approach, he suggests, is that pursued by Canadian Mennonites, who have begun taking in predatory paedophiles in their community, seeking to create supportive circles of accountability around them, creating an environment where they can start to see positive things in themselves. 

Describing how he interviewed two such paedophiles in Canada, he says the police had predicted that they would both reoffend within a week or a month of their release from prison, but that with one having spent 10 years and the other two in their new Mennonite context, neither has yet reoffended.

“I discovered that this Christian model that was coming out of Canada was being taken on by the powers of the State within the prison service and the probation service, adapting this model and creating this circle of support” Mick continues, saying that this is all being done discreetly in order to avoid public outcry.

“But they’re behaving in a more Christian way than the Church is,” he says. “The Church has policemen – or former policemen – in Dublin diocese supervising these guys. It treats them all with zero tolerance. They live holed out in little apartments somewhere. They may be laicised. There’s a group in Dublin that meets every week, and if you listen to those guys, you’ll hear stories that will – you’ll think, ‘wow – this is just how not to treat sex offenders’, because you’re actually isolating them, penalising them, treating them as if they’re vermin, as if they’re nothing, the scum of the earth. This is the Church we’re talking about – the Catholic Church!”

Meantime, he says, the other challenge is to prevent abuse by the many abusers and those attracted to children who live among us without us realising it. “But there’s still 90% of people out there who we know – we may not know they’re abusers, but they’re ordinary people. They’re not the demons – they’re actually the man in the street that we play soccer with, the coach from the GAA, the breadman, whatever – he’s the ordinary person,” he says.

“We need to provide these guys with a space where they can say, ‘I have a problem – I need help with this’,” Mick continues. “Who in God’s name would stand up and say ‘I have a problem’, because we know what he’s saying: he’s saying, ‘I might as well cut my throat’. Why would he come forward? We need to change that.”

Talking about this, especially in families, is “a Christian thing to do”, he says, saying this is about creating an environment for healing, and a way of preventing further abuse. 

“That’s very hard for victims,” he says. “This documentary’s hard for victims to hear, and it’s hard for everyone else to hear, because they don’t want to hear it and yet they want to stop sexual abuse. This documentary’s trying to say if you want no more victims you’re going to have to find a way to hear it.”