'Suing the Pope' and Scandalising the People: Irish Attitudes to Sexual Abuse by Clergy Pre- and Post-Screening of a Critical Documentary
journal contributionposted on 22.11.2019, 15:33 by Michael J. Breen, Hannah McGee, Ciaran O'Boyle, Helen Goode, Eoin Devereux
The Sexual abuse of children became a significant public issue in Ireland in the 1990s, with frequent media reports about the issue. In the main these focused on the issue of abuse of children by members of the clergy and religious orders. Headline cases included the abuse perpetrated by Fr Brendan Smyth, a priest of a religious order who was convicted of multiple counts of sexual abuse of children and subsequently died in prison, and Fr Seán Fortune, a diocesan priest, who committed suicide before his court trial for abuse. While child sexual abuse by clergy was widely exposed in the early 1990s, a subsequent additional scandal was the failure of the institutional Catholic Church to respond adequately to earlier complaints of abuse, and, in particular, to respond adequately to those who experienced abuse. As part of its response to the problem, the Irish Catholic bishops commissioned an independent research agency – the Health Services Research Centre (HSRC) at the Department of Psychology, Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) – to undertake a programme of research on its behalf. Part of the remit to the research group was to examine the effects on the general public of child sex abuse by clergy. This was done by means of a national telephone survey (N=1,081), full details of which are reported elsewhere (Goode, McGee & O’Boyle, 2003). The survey itself took four months to complete. About half-way through the data collection period in 2002, the main UK public service television channel (BBC2) screened a documentary entitled ‘Suing the Pope’ which dealt in detail with complaints made to Church authorities about Sean Fortune and the alleged subsequent mishandling of those complaints. This programme was reported in some detail in the Irish media before its showing, and had a high number of Irish viewers since UK channels are accessible in Ireland. The documentary was also reported extensively in other media after screening and was subsequently re-shown on Irish public service channel RTÉ. The first TV screening provided a point of differentiation within the survey, with some 600 participants having responded before the screening and 481 afterwards. It also served as a ‘natural experiment’, defined as a ‘naturally occurring instance of observable phenomena that approach or duplicate a scientific experiment’ (Mathison, 2005:271). This paper examines the differences that exist between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ groups by way of examining the role of such a documentary (and related media coverage) in forming public opinion around the topic of child sexual abuse by clergy.