Transcript of testimony of Fr Gerry O’Hanlon SJ to the Royal Commission (in Australia) into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse

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We require regular councils or synods of the Church, which would comprise bishops, priests, religious, laypeople, men and women,

8 February 2017

Many interesting contributions at:

DR O'HANLON: My name is Gerard O'Hanlon.


MS FURNESS: You have a doctorate, I think?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, I have a Doctorate in Theology and I'm a Jesuit priest.


MS FURNESS: You are currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Theology at Loyola Institute in Dublin?


DR O'HANLON: At Trinity College, Dublin, yes.


MS FURNESS: What was your PhD in, doctor?


DR O'HANLON: My PhD was in The Immutability of God in the Theology of Hans Urs Von Balthasar. I did it in Queen's University in Belfast, in the Presbyterian faculty there, and stayed for two years with the Presbyterians at a time when the Northern Ireland crisis was at its height in the 1980s, so it was a very interesting experience non-academically as well as academically.


MS FURNESS: You have other qualifications, I think, as well?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, I have a masters in classics. I have a degree in philosophy. I have - well, that's enough to be going on with, yes.


MS FURNESS: You were ordained in 1978?


DR O'HANLON: Yes. MS FURNESS: That was in the Society of Jesus, Jesuits?


DR O'HANLON: Yes. I joined the Jesuits in 1965 and was ordained in 1978.


MS FURNESS: What work did you do with the Jesuits after you were ordained?


DR O'HANLON: Mostly teaching theology. We had an Institute of Theology in Dublin, which was the precursor to the Loyola Institute at Trinity College, Dublin, and I worked there from the mid-1980s until the late 1990s, when I became Provincial of the Jesuits for six years and subsequently worked in the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin until quite recently, when I've gone back to theology.


MS FURNESS: When did the issue of child sexual abuse by clergy and religious first come to your attention, doctor?


DR O'HANLON: I think it came to my attention probably in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and then obviously when I was Provincial from 1998 until 2004, it was a very important part of my responsibility.


MS FURNESS: Before it was part of your responsibility as Provincial, you had no doubt come across the fact that there were increasing cases or claims in relation to child sexual abuse in the Irish clergy?


DR O'HANLON: Yes. I think from the early 1990s on, it was becoming apparent that there was a huge problem in the Irish Church and, in particular, with regard to the clerical involvement in child sexual abuse.


MS FURNESS: When you became the Provincial in 1998, was it part of your job to deal with claims and allegations in relation to the Jesuits?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, it was part of my responsibility. In doing that, I set up a small committee, which comprised a psychologist, a legal person, a judge and a Jesuit, and they advised me throughout the time of my Provincialate on the various issues which came up. We tried, in addressing those issues, to combine what we called a pastoral approach with a legal approach. So on different occasions I met a number of the people who had been abused, and I think that was probably the best learning experience for me. I had read literature, I had attended conferences, but I think that the most relevant learning occurred when I sat down, sometimes for long periods, with people who had been abused and who told me their story.


MS FURNESS: What were the learnings you gained from those experiences?


DR O'HANLON: Among other things, the devastation it had wreaked on their lives, not just with regard to their own life, but the lives their families. I recall in particular one person talking to me about the impact it had had on his own family life and his difficulty, for example, in touching his own children and expressing intimacy in a physical kind of way, and the great relief that came to him when he found that he was able to do that with his grandchildren. But I was so struck by the fact that for most of his adult life, he had been imprisoned, if you like, in that inability to express himself in a most normal way with his own children. It struck me what an awful effect that had had on his life, and obviously he was one of many.


MS FURNESS: Did speaking to survivors like that one affect the way that you approached claims that were made to you?


DR O'HANLON: Well, we already had some very good people, as I've explained to you - the psychologist, the judge, the other Jesuit, who was a very fine person, who was working. They were advising me, and very often I wasn't in the frontline, if you like. But, yes, it did. We were already committed at that point to very strongly doing what we could to redress the terrible damage that had been done. But certainly from my own point of view, it added to my determination to do the very best that we could do to right the terrible wrong that had been done to these people by Jesuits.


MS FURNESS: You finished as Provincial in 2004; that's right?




MS FURNESS: What did you do after that?


DR O'HANLON: I took a year's sabbatical and then I joined the staff of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin, and I worked there up until late last year.


MS FURNESS: Of course, the Murphy Report was published in 2009?




MS FURNESS: I take it you would have taken a keen interest in the operations of that Commission of Inquiry?


DR O'HANLON: I did. I mean, just going back to the question you asked about the title, the esoteric title, of my doctoral thesis, many of us who were theologians had different interests in different parts of theology. Mine tended to be the whole theology of Christian anthropology, grace, the blessed Trinity, and so on. But once this whole devastation began to erupt with regard to the Church, more and more of us began to get an interest in ecclesial theology, so the theology of how the Church is organised. The Murphy Report - I suppose from about 2006 on, my work as a theologian working in the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice would have been focused mainly on ecclesiology, so looking at the way in which the Church has been organised in the light of the revelations that were coming out of reports like the Murphy Report, the Ryan Report, the Ferns Report - there were several reports, but the Murphy Report was the big one in Dublin.


MS FURNESS: What were your thinkings about the way in which the Church was organised with that information in mind about the devastation?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, well, in my written submission to you, I went back historically over the way the Church is organised, and I think in the first millennium, give or take - it is a very crude metric, but give or take - the Church was a more synodal Church, in the sense that there was a participation by a large number of actors, including laypeople, not the poorest of the laypeople, or often the wealthy princes and so on, but it wasn't the type of organisation that developed, sometimes for very good reasons, in the second millennium where it became more centralised, more monarchical, more vertical in its structures. That move meant that power was very much concentrated at the top. The Second Vatican Council in 1962 to 1965 tried to redress that, and they introduced the notion of collegiality to offset the monarchical mode, but my analysis is that while the theology was good and the enthusiasm was there, in fact, there wasn't the follow-up in terms of structural and institutional reform, and the Church was left very much with a top-down model of authority. That was particularly emphasised during the pontificate of John Paul II, who did marvelous things, added extra if you like, with regard to the Church, particularly with regard to relations with communism and solidarity, and so on, in Poland, but internally was very firm about the strong monarchical model of papacy and centralisation. I've understood that to be an unhealthy model and a contributing factor to the delay and the poor response of the Catholic Church to the emergence of the clerical child sexual abuse scandal.


MS FURNESS: Perhaps you can expand a little on that as to why you see it as an unhealthy model and a contributing factor?


DR O'HANLON: Well, it is allied with the fact that not just as governing but also as teaching, the Church was very top-down. In terms of its teaching, there developed a kind of - the Dominican theologian Yves Congar talks about a creeping infallibility. Everything that came from Rome was taken as gospel, and local bishops didn't take their own responsibility seriously enough; they looked over their shoulder all the time to Rome. This constant recourse to Rome and the fact that the organisation was very top-down and tightly controlled served the Church poorly when the issue of child sexual abuse emerged, because what happened there was that at the very top, certainly at the level of priests, a grievous injury was being inflicted on the Church, and the Church was poorly prepared to examine the complaints that were coming in because it was used to seeing the priest as in some way, if you like, above reproach and perceived within the Church, not just by priests but also by laypeople, as in some sense superior. So, in that sense, there weren't other voices being introduced. And I think allied to that - and it ties in with the business of a tightly controlled organisation - there was a real lack of freedom of speech and public opinion within the Church. So when people wanted to speak - and I'm not just talking about clerical child sexual abuse but about other issues in the Church that might have been considered to be controversial - if they weren't following what was perceived as orthodoxy, often defined in the very narrow sense, then they were liable to censure of one sort or another. That was particularly so in the area of sexuality and gender. So there was a particularly tight rein, if you like, kept on opinion in those areas. When priests or laypeople were accused of stepping out of line, the procedures for redress were not robust. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has a number of procedures which they have outlined in an instruction, which was updated in the late 1970s, with regard to a just way of proceeding with regard to complaints, but in fact most canon lawyers looking at that would say that they fail to meet the standard of ordinary secular justice and they don't give a good hearing to people. So there was an overall culture within the Church of lack of freedom of speech, deference to priesthood, bishops, if you like, almost a sense that they were right, and that was a very unhealthy situation, which Ladislas Orsy, the American canon lawyer, has referred to as a lack of a vigorous immune system within the Church.


MS FURNESS: You said earlier that the bishops were effectively looking over their shoulder to Rome rather than taking any initiative in Ireland. Was it the case that you understood that there were any particular instructions, not necessarily of a formal type, from Rome as to how the Irish should deal with this issue?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, there is some evidence during the 1990s of toing-and-froing between Rome - and qualifying what I said about the bishops not taking up their own responsibility, I think they were forced in the 1990s, not least due to media intervention and the intervention of public opinion - the bishops were forced to be more proactive about the whole situation. They did engage with the situation, and at a certain point, it would seem, in the toing-and-froing between them and Rome that Rome was certainly learning rather than the bishops learning. In other words, at some point during that period - and I would say lasting until the end of the 1990s and probably well into the 2000s - Rome didn't seem to quite get it. They were very reluctant, for example, to approve the proper reporting to civil authorities and there is evidence that a number of Irish bishops were very unhappy with that, and the Irish bishops went ahead, anyway, in their guidelines, and included that in their guidelines. So there was a dialogue going on between Ireland, the Irish Episcopal Conference, and Rome, and it would seem at different points that the Irish bishops were ahead of Rome in terms of the proper way to handle this issue.


MS FURNESS: Was there any censure from Rome when the bishops got ahead of it?


DR O'HANLON: No. Well, to be fair, unfortunately a lot of this thing is done not out in the open, so one doesn't quite know what is going on. That's a critique, it seems to me, again, of the organisational culture of the Catholic Church, that not enough is out in the open to inform public opinion. I think there is a proper confidentiality which any organisation and any profession recognises, but that can too easily turn into a type of secrecy that's unhealthy. It seems to me that that has been, up until quite recently, the pervasive characteristic of the Catholic Church in recent history. I think Pope Francis has tried to change that, and in his own way of dealing and in his own, for example, impromptu interviews, I think that there is a change of culture happening in the Catholic Church. But certainly at this time, that wasn't so, and so it is sometimes hard to find out what exactly was going on behind the scenes. Certainly there was no public rebuke, to my knowledge, of the Irish bishops. But there was a visitation of the Irish Church. In the aftermath of that, Pope Benedict wrote a letter to the Irish people. Again, I think in the eyes of a lot of people in Ireland at the time, it was seen as an attempt to address the issue. It was rather overly spiritual in the sense of not taking account of the on-the-ground, often very messy realities in the Irish Church and perhaps harking back to a bygone age without proper examination of the changes that had occurred in our society and that the Irish bishops would have to respond to.


MS FURNESS: You have spoken about the secrecy as well as the deference to priests and, in turn, the deference of the bishops to the Pope. They clearly have had an effect the institutional response of the Church to allegations - you would agree with that?


DR O'HANLON: They certainly had a response at the early point. I think over the long run, what has happened is that the Catholic Church, certainly in Ireland - I can only speak for Ireland, but I also see signs of it happening in Rome as well - has come up with a very vigorous response to child sexual abuse, and their guidelines are recognised to be very progressive, and the resources that they have put in in terms of pastoral, psychological, legal, monetary, have been considerable. So, yes, it's undoubtedly the fact that the slowness of response, the poorness of response, was partially due to this organisational deficit I've spoken about and the deference given to priests and the secrecy. They were contributory factors to the poor response at the beginning.


MS FURNESS: You say in your notes for the Royal Commission: ... there was nothing inevitable in the particular organisational and doctrinal culture that prevailed in the Catholic Church until so recently. There were ample theological resources to imagine a different scenario ... Do you see where you have written that?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, I do, yes.


MS FURNESS: So are you saying that the way in which the Church responded was not a way that was required by any laws under which the Church governed itself but was in fact a decision by the leaders in the Church?


DR O'HANLON: It's more complex than that. When I said that there were theological resources to imagine a different kind of Church, I think that's referring back to the Second Vatican Council and the changes in ideas which occurred there in terms of a more inclusive, participative Church, with real listening to the voices of laypeople, with authority devolved at different levels. Now, in fact, in my understanding of what happened subsequent to that, there was a period of relative chaos in the 10 years after that, when what seemed like a monolithic organisation was challenged by these ideas. In those 10 years, some people decided, or tried, to retract into an older model of Church. Some pushed the boundaries very far. But when it settled down in the late 1970s, what took over, in fact, was an older model of Church, and so the institutional and structural undergirding of the theological insights of Vatican II weren't put in place. So, for example, you didn't have ongoing councils or synods in the Irish Church and in the Australian Church. The synod of bishops in Rome became quickly something that was organised by the curia and not by the bishops themselves, and it was rubber-stamping documents that came out from the curia. So there weren't those kinds of checks and balances. That's a complex reality. It looks like what happened was that the people who were put in charge of the reform post Vatican II were the people who were opposed to the reform in Vatican II. So there was a small minority which was very tenacious in its opposition to the movement in Vatican II towards a new kind of Church. They were predominantly part of the Vatican civil service, the curia, and they were put in charge of managing the reform. I think that with all good intentions and with a degree of competence, and so on, they were unable to effect that task. So we were left, in the 1980s and in the 1990s, very poorly equipped to deal with a scandal which had affected the top of the organisation, if you like, and left the lower ranks and the bottom of the organisation voiceless in expressing their concern, because there didn't seem to be any outlet for the expression of concern.


MS FURNESS: When you say that it had affected the top of the organisation, do you mean in terms of reputation or in some other way?


DR O'HANLON: No, I mean that it was priests who were involved in child sexual abuse. When priests were presumed to be almost a superior being - there is a whole theology of orders, which talks about an ontological change in the priest when he gets ordination, and that was very easily translated into a sense that the priest was superior in some sense.


MS FURNESS: So you mean superior in terms of the general community rather than the structure of the Church?


DR O'HANLON: Both, both, superior in the sense of occupying a role within the Church that gave them authority over others but also implied some kind of deference, due deference, on the part of others. Again, the Second Vatican Council, in its theology, had undercut that. It had said, look, the most important sacrament in the Catholic Church is baptism, and that means that we're all equal before God as brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. But that older theology of the priest as somehow above or superior to proved very hard to eradicate and lingered on, and I think it lingered on sufficiently to cause great passivity in the face of this egregious scandal which we now know was occurring.


MS FURNESS: Now, has that changed?


DR O'HANLON: Well, again, I refer elsewhere in that paper to the designation "paedophile priest". At a certain point certainly in the 1990s, there was a good study done by a sociologist, Harry Ferguson, in Ireland on this. That was the way priests were viewed. Almost all priests were viewed as paedophiles. So, yes, this has changed. It has changed primarily because of the child sexual abuse. And of course it's not just the priesthood, if you like; the whole image and the reality of the Catholic Church in Ireland has been severely dented and almost fatally destroyed by the abuse scandal. So certainly the image of the priest as in some way superior has changed radically. It's such a tragedy that it took this tragedy of child sexual abuse to effect what had already been theologically available to us in the Second Vatican Council and in the writings of many theologians before and since to bring about that change.


MS FURNESS: Is it the case that in Ireland, given the reality that you have said of the role and view of the priest having been so damaged, attendance at Church and confession and providing moneys to the Church have been radically changed as well?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, I think it's a factor and probably an important, significant factor, but it's not the only factor. In Ireland, in common with many certainly western European - and I think it may be the case in Australia as well - all Christian churches are experiencing a downturn in attendance. There is the issue around secularism and secularisation, the analysis of the sociologist in Spain - I've forgotten in his name - that for many people in today's world, God is missing but not missed. There is a sense in which the Canadian social commentator Charles Taylor talks about a social imaginary, a way of understanding our world symbolically and in other senses, which allows us to think of the world in purely horizontal terms. So people, maybe for the first time in history, many people, have come to the view that this life is all there is, and they feel no need for a sense of the transcendent. That's a very important factor as well. So it is not just the child sexual abuse scandal, but that has been significant, certainly, in Ireland.


MS FURNESS: Are you aware of what's happening in the seminaries in Ireland in terms of the sorts of teachings that are going on and the numbers of people joining?


DR O'HANLON: No, I don't have any first-hand knowledge of the seminaries. I know that the staff who would be involved are very fine people, and I would trust them to be giving a very balanced and substantive theological input. The numbers are certainly down. They are down considerably. The demographics of priests in general in Ireland - I don't have the figures to hand, but certainly the median or average age would be up around 70. It is very clear that parishes won't be able to provide priests. Bishops are trying to organise parishes into clusters. We're going in the direction of places like France, where you might have seven or eight parishes looked after by one priest. We still continue to get some very fine candidates for priesthood, but certainly the numbers are considerably down and it's not clear that the bishops are thinking imaginatively about that. It is clear, for example, in Brazil, that there they are finding the situation intolerable. They have asked for the ordination of married men. The bishop went to Rome about that. Pope Francis said equivalently, "Why are you always coming to me? Why not go back to Brazil, get together with your Brazilian bishops, think through the situation and come to me with a proposal?" That kind of blue-sky thinking, if you like - and, in my own view, it would have to be enlarged to serious consideration of the issue around the ordination of women - that kind of blue-sky thinking isn't common yet to bishops in Ireland. I don't know about bishops in Australia. So we're not at the point where we're thinking outside the box, and we're still asking for prayers for vocation, and very positive about prayers for vocation, but maybe the Holy Spirit is telling us something different and there might be a new model of priesthood about to evolve. I don't think we should be going down the same tracks as before, hoping to get different results. I don't think we're going to get different results and I think we have to think a bit outside the box.


MS FURNESS: You haven't heard of the current crop of seminarians wanting to go back to the old days of the liturgy in Latin and wearing the garb from pre-Vatican II?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, I have. I think that's a characteristic push in a number of countries. It is happening in Britain. I know it is happening in the United States. It is happening in Ireland. I can't judge the extent to which it is prevalent. I think it is probably a minority. But any of the literature around that would try to understand what is going on there. I think one of the things that is going on, probably, is that this post-modern world can be very confusing for young people. They have a poor sense of self-identity very often. They hark back - some of them, at least - to certainties and to old ways of doing things. They feel a bit lost. It would worry me considerably that candidates of that kind might not be capable to interact with their contemporaries in a fruitful kind of way. So whilst it may be understandable in the light of certain insecurity, I don't think it's at all desirable, particularly in people who are ministering, if you like, in an important position within the Church and attempting to be at the forefront of a dialogue between faith and culture. I don't think there is any way of being at the forefront of that dialogue by regressing to a model of priesthood or a model of Church that may have been appropriate for its time but is no longer appropriate.


MS FURNESS: Just coming back to the document you have prepared, you refer to priestly celibacy. What are your views on whether or not priestly celibacy or mandatory celibacy may have been a factor?


DR O'HANLON: I said in the piece there that the studies I have read don't seem to me to be conclusive. I just read yesterday, I think it was, the opening submission that you gave yourself about the figure of 7 per cent of priests. That struck me as very high. I'm not calling into question, of course, the figure. I'm talking about the Irish experience. We had a SAVI Report done by the Royal College of Surgeons back in the early 2000s. I think they estimated around 3 per cent, something like that. Any of the evidence I've seen, also in the United States, is not saying that there is a disproportionate incidence of child sexual abuse among priests. I do think that there are big questions around mandatory celibacy. Certainly, as you know, celibacy for priesthood isn't what we call a doctrinal issue; it's a disciplinary issue. It's something that can be changed, in other words. It's not at the level of Jesus Christ is God or that kind of serious thing. It's a different form of teaching. So I do think that the Catholic Church needs to look at mandatory celibacy, but what I'm not sure about is its importance as a factor here. It may be, and I'm not disallowing it, but I'm not clear that it is. What I do say, though, is that it's not a good situation in an organisation - and this pertains to the Catholic Church - where teachings around sexuality, celibacy and gender are almost 99 per cent in the hands of celibate males. I think there's bound to be some kind of an imbalance there in what comes out in the form of the teaching. If you take it that whilst there was no teaching here with regard to child sexual abuse which was wrong teaching, if you like, but if you take it that teaching on sexuality in the Catholic Church has been proclaimed in a very absolute wrong kind of way and that people have found it very difficult to question it, the fact that this teaching had its source in and was promulgated by a relatively small group within the Church seems to me to be another example of an organisational deficit, if you like, that isn't helpful or healthy to the body of the Church.


MS FURNESS: Are you aware whether the teaching now about matters of living with celibacy and sexuality is of a more enlightened kind?


DR O'HANLON: Well, the curious thing is that in a lot of the theological schools, I think there always was a much greater latitude, if you like, and a much greater sense of listening to people's experience. It has been in the official Church documents that a more hardline approach has been taken. I take great hope from the recent initiative of Pope Francis in convening a synod of bishops on the family, in which issues of sexuality were addressed in a very central kind of way. A consultation worldwide was instigated. It was clumsily carried out and I would say intermittently responded to, but it was a start, if you like. In the course of that two-year synod - it met in successive years and there was toing-and-froing in the intervening period - they found huge resistance to change in lots of areas, but the important thing was - and for me it was like a hole in the dike - they did move forward. They had a very, very strong position on the prohibition against divorced and remarried people receiving communion in the Catholic Church, and that was a very vigorous doctrine articulated as recently as in the papacy of Pope John Paul II. What happened in the course of this synod, and more so in the encyclical which came out subsequently, called The Joy of Love, from Pope Francis, was that leeway was given to imagine a situation where, after proper consultation and prayer and meeting with experienced people, a couple could decide conscientiously to return to the sacraments - the eucharist. Now, in one sense, that's a very, very small matter and it's even controverted. A number of very senior figures within the Church are fighting against it. But it's not insignificant. It's small but significant, it seems to me, because it's showing an openness, a greater openness, on the part of the official Church, at teaching level, to go along with what you are saying, to initiate a more enlightened view with regard to human sexuality and one that is more in tune with people's lived experience. I think I find great hope in that development.


MS FURNESS: You refer also to culture and context as being relevant to thinking of causal factors. What are you referring to when you speak of the cultural factor?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, I mean, I think this is the hardest one to explain, and I've tried to do it there as carefully as I can. I'm reminded of the novel by LP Hartley. It's The Go-Between. Some people may have mentioned it to you before. The opening lines of that novel are: "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." So there is a sense in which it can be difficult to project yourself back into 1950s Ireland, 1960s Ireland, 1970s Ireland in the light of the knowledge that we have gained since and the knowledge that has proven to be very valid since. So by "cultural factors", I am referring to the way in which people live at any particular time, formed by a commonsense culture which is an amalgam of ideas, desires, unconscious feelings, conscious feelings. So a whole strata, some of which forms a commonsense culture - this is the way we always do things and this is how we do things, and it's taken for granted to be the correct way of doing things. Then we look back 50 years later and we see, how did we ever get into that? So that's what I'm referring to about the cultural factor. I suppose I'm cautioning here that while there is no excuse and one can't exonerate Church people for what happened, what one can try to do is understand a bit better where they're coming from so that - so that - today we're not going to as easily be unaware of or fall captive to other cultural blind spots. I think there is always a danger of - I use that phrase which Lonergan has used - scotosis, this blind spot in any particular culture. It was present for a lot of human history with regard to the position of women in society; it was present in a lot of human history with regard to slavery. I think with regard to the Christian churches, they were quite content for a long time to teach that masters should be kind towards their slaves without critiquing the undergirding of the whole element of slavery. I think, then, that that whole idea of taking on board what literary people or social historians or social commentators can bring to this discussion, as well as theologians and judges and lawyers, is important, and I just notice I put that in the piece - that there is a commission meeting at the moment in Ireland to do with the mother and baby homes. This is another controversy that has arisen in Ireland. It is chaired by the same judge as before, Judge Yvonne Murphy, but this time it has a social historian on its panel, and they did that, I think, because they learnt from the previous one that it would be useful to have somebody giving them that optic, if you like, on the situation as it was back in those days, with a view to better coming up with recommendations for our own day.


MS FURNESS: I'm sure you haven't had time, doctor, but the Royal Commission has commissioned a deal of research of the type that you have referred to about what the circumstances were in orphanages and the like back in the 1950s and so on, and that's available, if you are interested, on our website. I understand what you are saying about the social context. In your notes you refer to the issue of the bishops seeing what was a crime as a moral lapse, and the fact that they were too easily reassured by promises of repentance.




MS FURNESS: We've had some evidence about how sin and forgiveness worked in the Church to enable abusers to effectively be unimpeded by the process of being forgiven, is that something you have given thought to?


DR O'HANLON: Yes. I mean, I've put it together with a cluster of other things. So you have asked me in general about the cultural thing, and I have given you an answer there, but specifically what was the culture in Ireland - and you have mentioned one of the things there, it had to do with the bishops. But if I may, just to flesh that out because I think it may be important, I think there was that elevated status of clergy that I've mentioned before, and the very passive role of children, certainly in Irish society at the time, and poor children. It wasn't usual that poor children had a voice, and so for the most part, complaints by a child against a priest were not likely to be listened to, as much by the child's own parents as by anybody else. So that was one aspect of the culture of the time. I think that there was a lack of awareness at a more educated level about the nature of child sexual abuse and the nature of paedophilia, and that's going to relate to what you have said about the bishops. I would have thought, myself, that in my own theological formation we got a very vigorous and competent theological formation, and also philosophical formation, and I read a lot of secular literature - and I'm talking about the 1960s and the 1970s - and rarely did I come across anything on this particular issue. So I think it was something that psychology, sociology, other disciplines took a while to come to terms with. Then, in Irish society, to flesh out more about the culture at the time - and this may be peculiar to Ireland in a way that it wasn't so in a place like Australia - there was almost a taboo around talking about sexuality anyway. It was like something that you didn't talk about. There weren't the ongoing chat shows on the radio and television where these things were aired very freely, as they are now, and so there was a kind of culture, a culture of silence around the issue of sexuality. So with all those factors, it was very easy to stay in denial about what was going on, if you like, under the surface, and I would say that blind spot wasn't just peculiar to the Church. I would say journalists and doctors and health officials and family members and legal people, I think to some extent, shared that. And it wasn't that everybody shared it, and that's what gives me hope as well - that there were always prophets, if you like, who could escape from the cultural bubble, if you like, and speak out.

For example, there was a journalist in the Irish Times, who is still alive, Michael Viney, and he did a series of articles in the 1960s on the industrial schools and he identified some of this, but nobody followed up at the time, including the Irish times, so it wasn't. And then, coming to the bishops, yes, I think they were, through their training, if you like, tempted to view the issue in terms of morality rather than legality or psychology and there was, I think, too easily an assumption that if somebody told them that they were sorry this had happened and that it would never happen again, they too easily believed that. Of course, it is a very interesting area, because Pope Francis at the moment is stressing mercy all the time, and yet he can be quite tough on things, as you may know. There are posters up in Rome at the moment deriding his mercy by people who think he's too tough on certain elements. And so there is some discussion there, and I think around the time that that was most relevant, this focus on morality rather than legality or on psychology - I think that perhaps the psychological profession had its own problems around this area. Because I know for a fact that people were referred to psychologists, and sometimes to treatment centres; they came back with reassurances that the psychologist or the treatment centre viewed them as not at risk of offending again, and then they did offend again. So there was something going on there, I think, in the 1980s that was an unfortunate collusion, if you like, of assumptions that didn't prove equal to the reality that obtained.


THE CHAIR: Doctor, in discussing that issue you reflect a discussion that has happened in Australia as well, but I take it the activities that you are speaking of as having been seen as a moral lapse were always crimes in Ireland; is that right?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, they were crimes.


THE CHAIR: How could it be that the Church, or anyone, would see a crime against a child as a moral issue rather than just a crime?


DR O'HANLON: Well, I suppose that's what I'm trying to come to here. One of the questions I asked myself at the start of my reflections on this was: how could people I knew to be good people, some of whom I knew personally, and I knew to be educated people - how could they have behaved in this kind of way, the kind of way you are describing? And so the position I have come to is that certainly bishops and other Church leaders were educated people, they had an intellectual framework which respected the civil law. In areas like traffic violations, theft, homicide, this would have been taken absolutely for granted. However, my hypothesis is that they, and many others in civil society, including very well educated people in different spheres, were in that kind of cultural blind spot with regard to child sexual abuse that has occurred in different forms in human history at all periods, and my hypothesis is - and it's an alarming one but not hopeless - that that kind of commonsense bias or cultural blind spot is relatively, though not entirely, impervious to formal education and professional qualifications. I think there's some kind of humility needed here on the part of we as educated people to recognise that even when, in a formal kind of way, we know certain things, those things may not be operative in the way we're understanding the world about us, and we may be, through our education, operating at some kind of bias, and I've given some kind of reason why in the Ireland of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s that was possible. There just at times didn't seem to be the language to talk about these kinds of things. People were uneasy about it, certainly, and they were deeply uneasy, but too easily, as well, they put it to one side, they went into some kind of denial. So I respect very much your question and it is one that I've asked myself many, many times. I suppose part of the benefit I can bring to your inquiry is to say that I have reflected as honestly as I can on what has happened. I have been very disconcerted by what has happened. I've been disconcerted particularly by this aspect of the issue, and I've tried to understand it as best I can, and what I've come up with is what I've described in my paper and what I've said to you just now.


THE CHAIR: Some people would suggest that the reason why the Church understood it as a moral issue is that to see it as a crime would have ultimately led to damage to the Church's reputation. What do you say to that? In other words, identifying it as a crime and obviously taking it to the authorities would have brought down the wrath of the society on the Church?


DR O'HANLON: Yes. Funnily enough, I mean, in talking to Gail about the whole moral issue and so on, I think certainly in Ireland, that would not have been the crucial thing. I think the loss of moral authority in Ireland, which had already happened once this scandal came out into the open, was altogether the crucial thing. I think where it might be argued along the lines you are suggesting is that for them to admit it was a crime, and in that sense go legal, they would incur all kinds of financial liabilities and so on, and I think there's certainly some possibility that that was a factor. But I've no hesitation in saying there was an institutional defensiveness around reputation. I think it pertained as much to the moral arena as the legal arena. I think it's a defensiveness that you will find in many other organisations. We are finding it, for example, in England at the moment with regard to as different a field as professional football, soccer. We find it in different organisations. But of course it was all the more egregious coming from an organisation which, if you like, in a good sense, prided itself on doing what was good and what was right and favouring the weakest. For an organisation like that to have been shown to be so at fault and so in error, I think the reputational damage was enormous, and that was so whether it was simply a moral issue or had also criminal ramifications, which it clearly had.


THE CHAIR: You speak of the psychologists who were called upon to advise and treat identified abusers. Were they psychologists who were working in Catholic organisations?


DR O'HANLON: Some of them certainly not, so again I can't give you chapter and verse on that. Some of the treatment centres certainly were under the auspices of, or at least were Church affiliated. But certainly in any of the reading I've done in terms of, say, psychological work done in America, it seems to me that up until the late 1970s - and this would be across the board, so it wouldn't just be in Catholic or Christian circles but in psychological circles in general - there isn't a robust literature on this issue. There isn't a robust literature in sociology on this issue. So it seems to me that we are addressing something which has, for one reason or another, a fairly recent history in terms of serious academic inquiry. But with regard to the specific question you asked, I know some of the psychologists were certainly not Catholic and may not have been Christian. However, the treatment centres - most of the ones I know did have some kind of Church affiliation.


THE CHAIR: I've heard it said that what this comes down to is the Church hoping that the issue could remain a moral issue in, effectively, avoiding the criminal obligations that were present. Do you understand? In other words, the treating of it as a moral issue and believing that it could be treated psychologically was a way of avoiding the real issue.


DR O'HANLON: Yes, well, again, I - I don't know, is the short answer there. As I've said already, already as a moral issue it has proved an absolute disaster for the Church. So in terms of its reputation, it seems to me that it would have been unwise for the Church, if it wanted to maintain its reputation, to put its eggs into that particular basket, because it has evoked great shame and great mistrust and so on. With regard to the legal, I do think that for whatever reason - my hypothesis has been that kind of blind spot - there was a reluctance to go to civil authorities. It is true, I think, that if the Church had been left to its own devices, they probably would not have done so. I think they owe a lot to the voices of the survivors, the voices of those who still describe themselves as victims, and the media for putting the kind of pressure on that allowed the Church, in the end, to do the right thing and to understand in a way that formally they may have done so, but operatively they hadn't done so, the intrinsic and legal implications of what was involved. Certainly in Ireland, it's no longer an issue. Things are reported to the legal authorities very, very quickly. Going back, then, to the conversation I had with Gail and this notion of culture, why I'm a little bit insistent on stating this - one of, it seems to me, the contemporary cultural blind spots around this issue is precisely the obverse of what had happened before in the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s. In the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s, the voice of the child would not have got a proper hearing. Now what I'm hearing is priests are now - it's a very small minority, because, as we know, most of the allegations made against priests are shown, it seems, to have been true. But in a small number of cases, they have been shown not to be true and this has been proven in courts. For a priest who has been alleged to have been a child sexual abuser, there is a huge presumption of guilt from the start. There is a public naming and shaming. His life is absolutely destroyed. So going back to what you said, judge, just about the reputational thing, there is another sense in which I'm terribly afraid that bishops may continue to tick boxes, and now the proper thing to do is to report, and quite rightly, but they haven't still introduced a more open culture into our Church, which would allow for vigorous debate and toing-and-froing and safety valves and checks and balances, which would more easily allow for the non-scapegoating of any particular group of people.


MS FURNESS: You refer to the need for a healthy immune system in the Church. What are the components of that healthy immune system, in your view, doctor?


DR O'HANLON: I think they are very well articulated by Pope Francis himself, which is ironic, because a lot of theologians have been speaking about the need for the kinds of realities which Pope Francis himself is now articulating and which previous Popes seemed to have set their faces against. First of all, a very clear decentralisation of authority and power within the Catholic Church - he has again and again articulated that. That would require, then, that, for example, in the Irish Church and the Australian Church that there would be regular councils or synods of the Australian Church, which would comprise bishops, priests, religious, laypeople, men and women, but they would be prepared for by parish and diocesan councils, that there would be an open toing-and-froing of public opinion, the voicing of opinions, so a kind of change of culture and organisation. I think the culture is not enough, but neither is the organisation enough. So, again, the kind of critique of clericalism which Pope Francis has been very vigorous about, the kind of assumption that "Father knows best", that the Church is in some way geared around the priest - that's a very passe, old kind of theology, but yet it retains its grip on people's imagination, so we have to move to something different, it seems to me, and the "something different" will hopefully produce this more robust immune system.


MS FURNESS: You will be aware, doctor, of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland?




MS FURNESS: Have you had anything to do with that body?


DR O'HANLON: No. My successors as Jesuit Provincials have had ongoing contact with them, but, no, I haven't had anything to do with them.


MS FURNESS: Have your successors as Provincials said anything to you about their interactions?


DR O'HANLON: No. Anything I've heard is positive.


MS FURNESS: Part of the operations of the board is that they provide child safeguarding reviews if a Church authority requests it, and those reviews are conducted by independent reviewers - presumably independent of the Church. Is that sort of system one that you think would work towards checks and balances and more open speaking?


DR O'HANLON: Yes, I do. I mean, when I talk about change in culture and organisation, and I think beyond the kinds of synods I'm talking about, I do think outside help would be very important. So on this particular issue, I do think it would be very important because, curiously enough, and I mentioned that in our phone conversation last week, organisational theorists have this maxim, and it's a kind of pithy thing and it contains some truth, not all truth, but they say culture eats strategy for breakfast. What they mean is that it is very easy to bring in new rules and new structures and so on, but basically when you are trying to sell it to your constituency, they will be saying things like, "Well, this is how we do things around here", and so there is a constant need to monitor whether the new rules are actually being implemented and whether the culture hasn't proved more resistant than would be proper. So I do think some kind of external review would be a very appropriate way of ensuring that the best interests of survivors, and ultimately, of course, the best interests of the Catholic Church, are safeguarded.


MS FURNESS: And presumably that there be made public results of reviews and other audits in relation to the Church, particularly the board in this case that monitors change, so that old culture doesn't creep in?


DR O'HANLON: Yes. I mean, I can't say, obviously, what is appropriate for the Catholic Church or for your own inquiry in Australia, but I know we have ongoing reviews in Ireland by the board, and they do make their review report public and that is helpful.


MS FURNESS: I am sorry, doctor, to talk to you when you are clearly unwell, and I won't ask you any more questions, but thank you very much. It may well be the Commissioners have some questions for you.


DR O'HANLON: Thank you.


THE CHAIR: Doctor, there is also a barrister here representing various Catholic bodies. I am going to ask her whether she has any questions.


MS NEEDHAM: There are no questions.


THE CHAIR: She has no questions. I don't think there are any other questions. Doctor, thank you very much for giving us your time both today and last week. It is very helpful. I am sorry that you speak to us under such travail, but I trust that winter is soon passing in Ireland, is it?


DR O'HANLON: It is. Thank you very much indeed