Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh has said accountability for the failure to safeguard children and vulnerable adults in the Church is primarily a matter for criminal and civil courts and should not be seen as dependent on a system or process in Rome.
The Primate of All Ireland was responding to a question about Marie Collins’ call for a centralised Vatican accountability tribunal for bishops and cardinals suspected of covering up clerical sex abuse.
Pope Francis backed the proposal for the tribunal when the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors first recommended it in 2015, but he appeared to dismiss the idea on the papal flight back to Rome from Dublin at the end of August.
A person who has abused is accountable in the civil law and the criminal courts, the Archbishop of Armagh said and he added that bishops or superiors who deliberately and knowingly cover up child abuse are also accountable to the law. It is only when the civil or criminal process is concluded, that accountability under canon law takes place.
He said “various mechanisms” on accountability are being considered by the church at the moment but he stressed that in Ireland, reporting of abuse is mandatory and it is the criminal courts which decide if somebody has failed in that regard.
It would be “a mistake”, he suggested, “to think that somehow a system or a process in Rome is going to keep our children safe or ensure full accountability”.
Archbishop Martin also underlined that child safeguarding and the safeguarding of vulnerable people depends on alertness and vigilance on the ground and involves everyone from bishops to priests to parents and the laity.
“My own experience of talking with survivors and people who are working to try to prevent abuse is that we need vigilance on the ground,” he said.
This was the strength of the systems and processes on safeguarding which the Irish church has put in place, which require everyone to be vigilant towards anyone connected with the church to ensure that children and vulnerable people are safe.
“There is a clear desire for accountability for those who are justly considered to have done wrong,” he admitted but he also warned against “trial by media” and “trial by public innuendo”.
Acknowledging that accountability is “key”, he told The tablet, “it is very important that accountability operates as part of a just system”.