Burt Priest, Fr Gerry Sweeney said he was “horrified” the first time he heard a priest had abused a child.
Speaking with the “Journal” yesterday he welcomed the current rolling out of the Derry diocesan child safeguarding strategy, as a “positive framework that will, hopefully, allow everyone, people and priests, to feel included, safe and part of the whole Church.”
Fr Sweeneysaid: “I was shocked, horrified and sickened when I heard about Fr Brendan Smyth. That anyone could abuse a child was bad enough, that a priest could abuse a child was horrendous.
“After all, the protection of the innocent and vulnerable is the mission of the Church, going right back to the Old Testament. The Prophet Isaiah spoke about the moral imperative of caring for the widow and the orphan. In those times, if a woman was widowed, she and her children would have ended up homeless and living on the street. Jesus echoed Isaiah’s words. He spoke about our obligation and duty to protect the defenceless.
“I reflect on this. It is central to my belief and faith. In the face of our shared humanity, I do not understand how anyone could hurt another human being, especially a child.”
The case of paedophile priest, Fr Brendan Smyth shook Irish society to its core and brought down Albert Reynolds’ Fianna Fail / Labour coalition government in 1994. Smyth sexually abused and indecently assaulted 20 children in parishes in Belfast, Dublin and the United States.
Since his conviction in 1997, there have been four major enquiries into clerical child abuse in the Twenty-Six Counties. Following publication of the Ferns, Murphy, Ryan and Cloyne reports, the Executive in the North initiated the Historical Institutional Abuse Taskforce.
Fr Sweeney revealed early on in the child abuse crisis, it had been suggested children should not be allowed to become altar servers.
He said: “I disagreed with this approach. Children are an integral part of the Church. They have as much right to take part in the liturgy as you or me, more so. It is crucial that we now provide, as we always should have provided, a safe and welcoming environment for them.
“Children love being altar servers. That is their job. Why should they be victimised? Altar Serving plays a big part in the formation of their Catholic faith.”
Launching the Derry Diocese’s ‘Safeguarding Children Policy and Procedures’, Bishop Seamus Hegarty said the inspiration behind the document was “the care for children, which was evident in the life of Christ, is the model for every Christian and an encouragement to wider society.”
Bishop Hegarty went on:”’Safeguarding Children Policy and Procedures’ originated from a guidance document issued by the National Board for Safeguarding Children.”
He added the Derry Diocese then tasked its safeguarding personnel with formulating new standards “in accordance with legal requirements in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as well as safeguarding best practice in both jurisdictions.”
Fr Sweeney again: “If the Church had been true to its mission we would not be in this situation. Sadly, child abuse happened because of pure evil. The Church was lacking in the past. In certain aspects people were not doing their duty. Priests were moved on. This should not have happened. The violation of a child is wrong and should have been reported there and then. In an extremely misguided attempted to protect the Church, people have damaged it severely.”
Explaining the new child sfeguarding arrangements, Fr Sweeney said he is delighted the policy is in place.
He said: “It is brilliant that the laity are centrally involved in protecting children. If anyone has a concern about the current safety of a child involved in parish or diocese activity or wishes to make an allegation of a previous experience of child abuse, s/he should contact either of the Diocesan Designated child safeguarders: Mary McCafferty (0044 7514265252) or Fr John Farren (0749384037). They will liaise directly with the Garda and the HSE.
“Each Parish now also has at least two Local Safeguarding Representatives, as does every diocesan group. These volunteers will promote awareness of child protection; facilitate access to the Diocesan Designated safeguarders; and support and facilitate parish / diocesan groups working with children and young people and / or vulnerable adults.”
Fr Sweeney feels the Church needs to make amends for the past.He said: “We need to help in the healing process. We need to learn from the survivors of sexual abuse, listen to their stories, be with them. Survivors need to know that they are not alone, forgotten or shoved to one side. I go back again to the Old Testament and the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur.”