Abuse victim Kerry Lawless welcomes but also criticises St Patrick’s Cathedral statement
While welcoming a statement issued last Friday (18th November) by St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, regarding convicted child abuser and former Cathedral volunteer worker Patrick O’Brien, victim Kerry Lawless has also voiced deep criticism of the statement’s contents.
Kerry Lawless (44) both attended St Patrick’s Grammar School and was a member of the Cathedral’s Boys’ Choir. He suffered abuse by O’Brien from the age of eight. His abuse was notified to the Gardaí and to the Cathedral authorities in 1987, O’Brien receiving a suspended sentence for the abuse in 1989.
CHRISTIANITY IN THE WESTERN WORLD
In his book, The Evolution of the West – How Christianity has shaped our values (SPCK, 2016), Nick Spencer, Director of the London-based Christian think tank, Theos, underlines that it is too simplistic to see how we have arrived at Western life today solely in terms of the outworking of Christianity. He writes: “If Christians of the present think Christians of the past unanimously spent their time campaigning volubly for democracy, welfare, rights and the Scientific Revolution, they should spend some time reading the Christians of the past.”
The point is illustrated, as Spencer indicates, by observations of Samuel Moyn, Professor of Law and History at Harvard University, that the truth of the matter is somewhat two-sided. On the one hand, “Europe and therefore the modern world drew nearly everything from Christianity in the long term” while “it would be fictitious retrospectively to edit the long and tumultuous history of Europe, as if everything we liked about the outcomes were due to its hegemonic religion, while the rest was an unfortunate accident or someone else’s fault”.
The evolution of Western culture to where it is today is, thus, not a linear progression but, rather, a line with many twists and turns. Spencer sums it up well: “Christianity, or rather Christians, have been the vessel into which God has poured himself, but they hold that treasure badly: they leak, they spill, they contaminate. And yet, somehow, what they carry persists and pervades and heals and hopes.”
Today, western Europe and North America find themselves at a perplexing time, an unsettled context in which the way into the future has become less clear, less certain. The European Union arose from the ashes of World War II in a vision of a new, mutual life for Europeans sheltered, militarily, by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Now, quite apart from the UK’s referendum in favour of leaving the EU, the Union
faces an existential threat as a result of many internal challenges and tensions.
Across the Atlantic, it appears that, no doubt for many different reasons, the United States is retreating into itself. It has hardly ever before felt as though, following a Presidential election, the American future has been at such a crossroads shrouded in fog. It is not only hard to see the way forward but it is also hard to know the way forward.
The decline of Christianity in the West can be seen as a linear descent which will result in an inevitable demise of the Christian religion altogether, or it can be seen as a period of decline that will, in due course, reverse itself.
Spencer, in his book, reflects briefly on how Winston Churchill passed through a period in his life in which he was hostile to religion, going on to quote Churchill’s own explanation for how he returned to faith of a kind, if not entirely orthodox Christianity itself: it was due to Churchill’s “frequent contact with danger” in which “whatever I might think and argue, I did not hesitate to ask for special protection”. Describing himself more of a “buttress” than a “pillar” of the Church, Churchill did come to have a firm belief in both Divine providence and “Christian civilisation”.
These are times of deep uncertainty and, for that reason, danger. The sense of a global ‘old order’ passing away into an unknown ‘new order’ and of the unnerving loss of sure direction creates a truly vulnerable situation. Is it precisely at such a time that people in the West may increasingly be drawn, like Churchill, to seek protection and guidance from above? Certainly, the history of Christianity in the West is a line that is far from straight and simple. There are many factors but, with its history of twists and turns, setbacks and advances, Christianity surely can look forward in hope to new and effective reformations of itself, by God’s gracious providence.
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Letters to the Editor
I AM reluctant to write to the Gazette on the hot topic of same-sex issues, as I feel that personal conversation is generally a more effective way to further thoughtful and respectful dialogue in this area.
However, in defence of BACI’s Lent 2015 Bible Study booklet, Same-Sex Issues and the Bible, which I produced along with the Revd Dr William Olhausen and David Compton, I must point out that while the two ways of reading
the texts outlined there may appear mutually exclusive (as the Revd Trevor Johnston states them to be in his letter of 18th November), this does not mean that we cannot reach a deeper understanding and even a resolution of our differences by contemplating them both together.
The clues as to how we can do this lie in the suggested Questions at the end of each Bible Study. The most compelling of these, to my mind, is simply: “Is THIS (21st
century committed same-sex unions) the same as THAT?” (the depraved and disordered sexual behaviour denounced by St Paul in Romans 1). I contend that it is not and I will continue to honour and support the admirable Christian same-sex couples I know, who enrich the lives of those around them.
Ginnie Kennerley (Canon Dr) Dalkey
THE LETTERS to the Editor remain an integral and enjoyable part of the Gazette. Yes, same-sex marriage, and related topics, appear regularly but most correspondents, when they differ, express their views charitably, and yet honestly.
The Revd Trevor Johnston (Letters, 18th November), in a lengthy letter, ends with a pretty silly swipe at Bishop Empey, referring to the Bishop’s initial letter on this
topic as “surely marking an all-time low for a bishop in the Church of God”.
As Archbishop of this diocese, and since then in his retirement, Walton Empey has consistently been a model of Christian charity, understanding and tolerance. For all who really knew him he was much loved and respected. Geoffrey Perrin
Barn Close Dublin 18
The O’Brien case
IN 2005, THE Church of Ireland stated to child-abuse victim Kerry Lawless that Patrick O’Brien’s work on the Church’s behalf was carried out in a voluntary capacity.
The Church therefore disclaimed responsibility for O’Brien’s abuse while acting in that capacity ( Joe Little, RTÉ 9.00pm TV News, 10th November; Patsy McGarry, Irish Times, 11th November, Victoria White, Examiner, 17th November).
That stance represents a depressing, if familiar, refrain.
Rejection of responsibility for abuse was an initial Roman Catholic Church and Irish Amateur Swimming Association approach also.
In its review of what went wrong, here are two issues the Church of Ireland should address.
First, O’Brien’s abuse of a St Patrick’s grammar school pupil and member of the cathedral boys’ choir resulted in a first conviction in 1989. The Church did not attempt to ascertain whether children in its care, other than Kerry Lawless, had been harmed. It should have.
Kerry Lawless brought to St Patrick’s attention in 2004 that O’Brien was again working with the Cathedral. The then Dean, Robert MacCarthy, terminated O’Brien’s association with the Cathedral.
That was 15 years after O’Brien’s 1989 conviction and 17 since Lawless’s
parents informed the authorities of his abuse.
In McGarry’s Irish Times report, Dean MacCarthy is reported as “recall[ing] how a woman in the congregation at St Patrick’s ‘whose son was abused [by O’Brien], kept on agitating about it’”.
It is not clear if Dean MacCarthy was merely irritated or if he acted on this information.
Again (the second point), why did the Church in 2004 and afterwards not attempt to ascertain whether additional children in its care had been harmed by a convicted child abuser? Was that not the correct and responsible thing to do?
Kerry Lawless did what the Church did not. He contacted other O’Brien victims and encouraged them to speak.
After O’Brien was sentenced on 10th November, the Church issued a perfunctory 52-word statement expressing “dismay”, praising victims who came forward, but without an apology or any admission of responsibility. Lawless called the statement “deeply wounding”.
On Friday 18th November, St Patrick’s issued a new statement. It “apologise[d] sincerely and unreservedly for the fact that […] victims and their families who needed and were entitled to care and support did not receive this”.
While Kerry Lawless welcomed this admission, he criticised omissions. There was no reference to O’Brien’s post-1989 re-entry into the Cathedral. The statement contained a “disingenuous” assumption that abuse was confined to the 1978-89 period. There was no reference to a failure to investigate abusive activity within the Church of Ireland community. Lawless’s abused former classmates were not even aware that O’Brien had been convicted of abuse in 1989. That information was conveyed by Lawless five years ago and lead to O’Brien’s November 10th 13-year sentence.
The Church must consider whether its inaction enabled Patrick O’Brien to continue his prolific abusive activities. Lawless observed: “This realisation ought to weigh heavily on the collective conscience of the Church of Ireland.”
The latest statement gives an impression still of damage limitation. That approach will be disastrous.
Only members of the Church of Ireland community can correct the course of events and should commence this work now.
Niall Meehan (Dr)
Faculty Head, Journalism & Media Grifth College Dublin
Gazette added report: Comments from Dean MacCarthy and Kerry Lawless
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