By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — Church leaders made dreadful mistake in dealing with clerical sex abuse because they were so frightened of the law that they were rendered unable to actually listen to people, according to the Bishop of Ardagh and Clonmacnoise.
Writing about the dilemma for those in authority in a book, "The Church and Child Sexual Abuse," published this week, Dr. Colm O’Reilly said the tendency to drift into denial was not confined to offenders only.
"People like me can do so. We can pretend that offenders are not
really from our own world," he writes. "We all deep down long for it to be just some kind of passing nightmare. But this will not go away, ever, it seems."
Dr. O’Reilly confessed that when he first heard of a catalogue of crimes committed by clergy at a seminar in Cork, his reaction was one of disbelief. The seminar was addressed by a member of the staff of an institute where clergy of all denominations were being treated.
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"I was convinced that the like of what he described just could not be true of the priests I knew," he writes. "But now I know that we heard at that seminar was exactly the same as the scenario which would unfold in our own country and in our own church."
The bishop said that when the horror of the Fr. Brendan Smyth case hit the headlines "we all knew things would never be the same again."
His own response had been to write a letter to his priests and also one to be read to the people in which he apologized for the crimes committed and encouraged anyone with a need to be heard to come forward.
"Reactions varied. Some priests found the letter too difficult to read," he said.
He said people should not think that the worst news was that priests and religious had been found guilty of terrible crimes against children.
"The worst if that they offended and that innocent people were hurt," he said.
The greatest challenge facing a bishop in dealing with the problem is to hold in balance responsibilities which are in apparent conflict
with each other, he said, adding that bishops cannot choose their side like a lawyer but, rather, have wide pastoral responsibilities for the victim and the abuser, their families as well as parishioners and fellow priests.
The Galway-based Western Theological Institute commissioned papers from psychologists, theologians and a sex abuse victim for the book which is published by Columba Press.