Page last updated at 12:15 GMT, Friday, 19 March 2010

Abuse scandal tests relations between church and state

Jim Fitzpatrick
By Jim Fitzpatrick
BBC NI Politics Show presenter

Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were asked for their opinion on the Catholic church sex abuse cover-up
Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were both asked for their opinion

When Martin McGuinness said Cardinal Brady should consider his position, he was essentially giving his opinion as a member of the Catholic church who also happens to be deputy first minister.

Hence, Peter Robinson, who isn't a member, refused to be drawn on the matter of whether the cardinal should stay or go, but was willing to deal with the issue of child abuse and the state's role in protection.

"We will make a determination of whether there is a case for a similar kind of inquiry that was held in one diocese in the south.

"That is as far as it is the business of the state. If there are matters beyond that, they are matters for the church and I would not dare to speak on those matters," he told reporters in Washington.

The SDLP weren't quite so reticent, with Alban Maginness telling Radio Ulster he "expected the cardinal will resign".

Church and state

At the heart of this issue is the fundamental relationship between church and state and it's clear that much confusion still exists in the minds of priests, politicians and the wider public as to what that relationship is, or should be.

The Catholic church has its own law - canon law.

This apparently takes precedence over state law, according to canon lawyer Monsignor Maurice Dooley.

He says if a priest learns about paedophilic behaviour during a confidential investigation under canon law, he cannot go the police with the information.

Secret investigations

This is the defence he offers for Cardinal Brady's actions in 1975 when he took part in secret investigations into child abuser Brendan Smyth.

The state authorities were not informed and the notorious paedophile went on to abuse many more children before he was finally arrested two decades later.

It's probably the kind of defence the cardinal can do without because it suggests that the Catholic church operates within its own laws, oblivious to the law of the land.

The man in charge of the Church's National Board for Safeguarding Children, Ian Elliott, has contradicted Monsignor Dooley.

Cardinal Sean Brady is coming under pressure to resign
Cardinal Sean Brady is coming under pressure to resign

He says strict protocols now in place require everyone to involve the state authorities.

The wider public doesn't quite know who to believe.

A fact recognised by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin who suggested that every diocese in Ireland may have to go through the same sort of external investigation as his did in order to get the truth out.

Outside the law?

In a democracy - as opposed to a theocracy - lawmakers are elected politicians and it is their law that takes precedence.

The state cannot allow any organisation to operate outside of its law. It is also the state's responsibility to ensure that all its citizens enjoy the full protection of that law equally.

It now seems inevitable that the Executive will launch an inquiry into how the Catholic church has conducted itself, options are already with ministers. Its scale and remit will have been given added focus following the recent revelations

Previous arguments from the SDLP that any inquiry shouldn't focus entirely on the Catholic Church may now fade, and it could likely become a cross-border endeavour.

Law of the land

Roisin Shortall, of the Irish Labour Party, was another politician who had nothing to say about Cardinal Brady's position in the Church.

Unfortunately for the cardinal, she had plenty to say about the law of the land.

"Under the Offences against the State Act 1939, it's an offence to give an oath for the purposes of covering up a crime.

"The Labour Party is calling for a Garda investigation into the role of Sean Brady in this entire affair," she said.

That's an unprecedented statement from an Irish politician about the most senior Catholic cleric in the land that marks a seismic shift in the relationship between church and state.

On Sunday's Politics Show we explore the options for an inquiry into these matters, and examine the role of the Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland and how devolution of justice could bring more accountability.


PS - Congratulations to David Ford for winning the Sport Relief Stormont Mile. It wasn't a race, as such, but the 59-year-old left younger men in his wake as he powered up Prince of Wales Avenue on Tuesday.

Poor Gerry Kelly, he'd been told it was a run down the hill, when he arrived a bit later than others and spotted the crowd heading towards the bottom he sprinted his way down only to be told by yours truly that we had to run back up again!

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