The Roman Catholic Church in Ireland appointed a retired judge Thursday to oversee an investigation of its record in handling sex-abuse allegations — but said many internal disciplinary records already had been destroyed.
Archbishop Sean Brady said Gillian Hussey, a 65-year-old former judge, would have total freedom to appoint the rest of her seven-person commission. It was expected to begin investigating in September, publish its first report by February and its final recommendations in 2004.
“The purpose of the commission is to establish the truth about the extent of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Ireland, and the response of church authorities to complaints of such abuse,” Brady said.
“I am convinced that the work of the commission will remove the uncertainty which has undermined the confidence and trust of the laity in the church,” he said.
Brady said many internal documents into reported abuse cases had been destroyed in line with past church practice. He also predicted that some accused figures would turn to the Vatican ( news – web sites) for legal protection, though he hoped more would confess their sins.
“It is true, of course, they have rights under canon law, but I would also hope they appreciate that this is a serious matter for the church and will understand our efforts to arrive at the truth,” he said.
Revelations of widespread sexual abuse by priests, and its frequent cover-up by church leaders, has been battering the reputation of the church in this predominantly Catholic country for nearly a decade.
The failure to extradite one serially abusive priest to Northern Ireland triggered the collapse of an Irish government in 1994, and opened the floodgates for scores of criminal and civil actions against other priests.
Seeking to control their liabilities, the church’s teaching orders in Ireland in January made a landmark deal with the government to provide $125 million to a state-run fund for victims.
A new wave of allegations in April forced one of church’s most popular figures, Bishop Brendan Comiskey, to resign over his supervision of several pedophile priests in his diocese. The church’s remaining bishops staged an emergency conference and decided they must establish a fact-finding commission to assuage public anger.
Hussey, who brings to her appointment a reputation for outspokenness, open-mindedness and energy, retired earlier this year as a criminal and civil-court judge.
Her new job looks daunting. The church says she should identify the extent of abuse in each of Ireland’s 26 dioceses and examine, case by case, what bishops and other supervisors knew and what actions, if any, they took. Some allegations go back to the 1950s.
The commission is also supposed to assess how each diocese has been observing new rules introduced in 1996 designed to encourage the public to report allegations against priests and other church officials.
The church specified one restriction on the commission’s findings: It “should not identify or render identifiable” any victims or abusers.