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Carol Hunt: Innate deference to Rome still continues even now

Last week's RTE documentary showed a bemused rather than embittered Edna O'Brien explain how an anonymous letter was sent -- presumably by a concerned citizen -- to her mother. It's moral mission?

To inform the woman that her daughter was living with a (ex) married man who was also a communist. No doubt the sender persuaded themselves they were performing a civic and moral duty.

It reminded me of those anonymous complaints we now know were sent to Rome about good clerics like Fr Tony Flannery and Fr Brian D'Arcy, who were deemed not to be toeing the Vatican line. The senders obviously believe they are acting in the best interests of the Catholic Church and its hierarchy.

On the other hand there are clerics such as Jesuit theologian Fr Gerry O'Hanlon, who previously said: "It will not do any more for priests, bishops, cardinals, the Pope to simply tell us what to think, what to do. People rightly want a say."

That sounds suspiciously like Protestantism -- a heresy to suggest about an Irish priest, I know, but he's not the only one, after the latest revelations about what our Roman Catholic Cardinal did and didn't do in 1975 and afterwards; added to the gagging of many clerics, we're all joining in with the Protesting. Or at least, we're making all the right noises.

We point to Cardinal Brady and others like him; deplore his inhumanity; his past inability to recognise abuses against children for the crimes they so obviously are; we scoff at his dogged insistence that it was the times that were in it -- but in doing so we cleverly extricate ourselves from the mistakes of past and present: for actions which we as a society were/are complicit in and responsible for.

Surely that's a bit harsh, though?

How on earth can we be responsible for something as alien to most of us as Roman Catholic Canon Law?

The church's offensive response to the crimes committed by its members is a shame on it, not us, we argue. But the Church of course didn't act alone; its power didn't appear out of nowhere. It didn't suddenly become the monolith that controlled every aspect of Irish life. It was historically assisted -- initially for economic rather than religious reasons -- by our leaders, our educators, our legislators, by ourselves. The transformation of the Catholic Church into a great power -- post-Famine -- began under the reign of the Vatican-trained Cardinal Paul Cullen.

Most priests came from the larger tenant farms (as primogeniture had been introduced, the church was the only choice for many second sons), many taken from their families as early as age 12 or 13 and introduced into a Jansenist-style church which viewed 'sins of the flesh' as the greatest evil of all.

The Catholic Church provided the ideological basis for a new economic necessity that was to be called "permanent celibacy" (the financial need for fewer children). Combined with Victorian morality, this led to sexual repression on a massive scale.

This twisted, authoritarian refusal to discuss sexual issues in a healthy manner laid the groundwork for horrific consequences.

This became very clear to the Free State in 1930 when the Carrigan Report uncovered massive, shocking, widespread sexual abuse of children in Ireland.

The report was never published. When it was circulated to politicians on December 2, 1931, the Department of Justice attached a note advising against publication because "it might not be wise to give currency to the damaging allegations made in Carrigan regarding the standard of morality in the country".

"The standard of morality?" This was how the Department of Justice referred to serious crimes against children.

For at least a century the offices of State, assisted by the very great majority of civic society (dissenters were informed on), kowtowed and assisted in implementing the most cruel and unusual tortures a dysfunctional organisation was capable of imposing on the most vulnerable in society -- again, mainly for financial gain and corporal power.

Parents brought daughters to be locked up (some made pregnant by family, 'friends' or relatives) in laundries where they worked free for the church. The same ideology applied to the industrial schools as our Departments of Justice, Education and Health worked together to incarcerate the poorest of our young children as punishment for the 'sins of their fathers'. Anonymous letters were sent by concerned citizens denouncing as unfit 'immoral' mothers, whose children were then taken from them.

So yes, we, both civic society and State, have come a long way in exposing the cover-up of widespread child rape and abuse in the last century. We have also gone some way to admitting our own collusion. But we still seem to have a blind spot concerning the historically privileged position of the Roman Catholic Church.

As the first scandals were exposed, obstructions emerged from State offices accompanied by a misplaced deference toward clerical criminals.

For example: the 1994 debacle regarding the inexcusable delay in the extradition of Brendan Smith to Northern Ireland; Michael Woods's 2002 deal absolving the church of much of its financial responsibility for abuse committed within its institutions; and the resignation of Justice Mary Laffoy from the Commission on Child Abuse in 2003 because of a lack of official co-operation, most notably on the part of the Department of Education.

Even now an innate, almost unconscious, deference to Rome continues.

If it didn't, we wouldn't be discussing whether Brady should resign or not; whether Rome's' misogyny and homophobia should be obeyed or not; whether people who deliberately protected child abusers and allowed them to continue committing their crimes should be held responsible for their actions or not. There would be no absurd arguments about whether priests knew that child rape was actually a serious crime back in 1975.

The Irish people would have walked away en masse rather than waiting to see what crumbs of begrudging apology and perhaps -- if we're very lucky -- paltry financial compensation may fall from the Vatican table. And then we would have supported our protesting, dissenting clerics, our genuinely religious, men and women, gay and married -- who are appalled at the behaviour of the elites in Rome -- in establishing an Irish Catholic Church separate from the pomp, the privilege and the amoral machinations that the Vatican increasingly specialises in; a church with a hierarchy that works with the people, not against them.

We did it before, we can do it again. Perhaps we could announce it during next month's Eucharistic Congress? Any takers?

Sunday Independent