Confession or Cover Up?

How do churches and Christian organisations respond when wrongdoing comes to light?

By Ruth Garvey-Williams

(From the January - March 2017 issue of VOX.)

We are no strangers to shocking revelations in this country. Faith communities and faith-based charities, religious orders, churches and individual clergy have all come under fire with accusations of sexual abuse, neglect, violence, cruelty and bullying as well as financial mismanagement and more.

The truth is that abuse and corruption can (and do) take place in all institutions. The church is not immune. But it is how a church or faith community responds to revelations of wrongdoing that provides the real test. Sadly, our track record in this regard is poor, to say the least.

Far too often, protecting the institution and its leadership, saving face, preserving a façade of respectability and even protecting the reputation of the abuser appear to take precedence over protecting victims or potential victims, or caring for survivors. Cover up rather than confession becomes the norm.

The recent case of serial paedophile Patrick O’Brien, a volunteer at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, has once again thrown up similar questions.

In 1989, Patrick O’Brien was convicted of abusing Kerry Lawless, who was a choirboy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and attended school there. At the time, Kerry and his parents informed the Dean about what had happened. O’Brien pleaded guilty to the abuse and was given a two-year suspended sentence. However, despite his conviction, he was allowed to continue as a volunteer (he was treasurer of the Friends of St. Patrick’s Cathedral) and as a member of the congregation until 2005 when Kerry (now an adult) visited the Dean and shared his concerns that O’Brien was still in position.

Eventually more survivors came forward. O’Brien was arrested in 2014 and pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual abuse over the course of the last 40 years. In November 2016, O’Brien (then aged 76) was jailed for 13 years for the rape and molestation of 14 boys in a number of different locations including the cathedral.

It felt as if they stuck their heads in the sand and hoped it would go away.

After O’Brien’s recent conviction, St. Patrick’s Cathedral issued a statement expressing regret, shock, revulsion and sadness at O’Brien’s crimes and emphasising that his role at the cathedral was as a volunteer. “St. Patrick’s Cathedral apologises sincerely and unreservedly for the fact that those victims and their families who needed and were entitled to care and support did not receive this.”

However, speaking to VOX magazine, survivor Kerry Lawless expressed concern at the cathedral’s handling of the case. “O’Brien’s role as a volunteer gave him access to boys. He should have been removed from having any role within the cathedral. The Dean knew about his proclivities - my parents and I told him - but O’Brien was allowed to remain in position even after his criminal conviction.

“There was no effort to make sure that the boys in their charge were okay,” Kerry said. “Eventually, in 2005, they did remove him, but there was no attempt to look into things and to contact parents or choristers. It felt as if they stuck their heads in the sand and hoped it would go away.

“There seems to be a lack of real empathy for the men concerned, and there has been no offer of counselling or support. You are talking about Christian values and Jesus, and yet here’s a bunch of guys whose lives have been destroyed. There is nothing Christian about it.

You are talking about Christian values and Jesus, and yet here’s a bunch of guys whose lives have been destroyed.

“Unfortunately, abuse goes on in all institutions. It happens. But rather than circling the wagons, [churches should] take it on the chin and deal with everything that needs to be dealt with.”

Kerry feels that the cathedral should contact all the boys who were choristers or attending the cathedral during the period in which O’Brien was a volunteer there. He urged anyone affected to come forward, to report what happened to the Gardaí and to get counselling.

“I still think there are people out there who may yet come forward. It is not necessarily in the cathedral’s best interests, but it is in the best interests of the survivors of abuse.” (You can contact Kerry by emailing

VOX magazine spoke to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and asked them to respond to the questions arising from this case. In a statement, the Church of Ireland press officer explained that it is difficult to determine why O’Brien was allowed to remain in position even after his conviction because the Dean and Dean’s vicar during the 1990s have both now died. There would have been no specific safeguards in place at the cathedral prior to the introduction of the Safeguarding Trust in 2006.

He confirmed that O’Brien was asked to leave following Kerry Lawless’ visit to the then Dean (Robert MacCarthy) in 2005.

He added, “St Patrick’s Cathedral is committed to ensuring that any former chorister who has suffered abuse and their families are supported and is currently exploring the best ways to deliver this in the imminent future.

“Today, someone known to have such a conviction would not be allowed to have any post, position of trust, responsibility or leadership in a church. Should someone seek to take up any appointment in a church, under Safeguarding Trust, either an Access NI or Garda check would be required before being able to do so. If the check showed up a conviction, then no appointment would be permitted.”

While new child protection policies, garda/police vetting and training have now been implemented widely across most Irish churches (such as the Church of Ireland’s comprehensive Safeguarding Trust mentioned above), questions remain about how churches and Christian agencies handle accusations of wrongdoing, especially those that predate the current policies.

At times, leaders talk about the risk of false accusation, protecting the ministry of a church or the importance of second chances as reasons for keeping quiet rather than dealing publicly with what has happened. Survivors of abuse describe the devastating effect of being silenced or being expected not to seek justice (because “we have to forgive”…).

What is the long-term effect of staying silent or “covering up” accusations - on victims, on potential victims, on the offender and on the reputation of the church? How does a church balance the call to forgiveness with the duty of care for those who are most vulnerable? What does it mean to “walk in the light”?

In this specific case, Kerry Lawless suggests a course of action that is “not necessarily in the cathedral’s best interest” - what is the risk of responding to wrongdoing in the way he suggests? How much does concern about legal action and insurance liability dictate the way churches respond to accusations?

Christian leaders in Ireland frequently speak out publicly about issues of morality in civil society. Will we ever see the same passion and commitment applied to tackling problems within the church? Until we do, can we truly expect our voice to be heard and respected in the public sphere?

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