Tuesday 15 October 2019

For once, let's all just stop abdicating responsibility

James Downey

SHAKESPEARE'S 'Macbeth' said that he had "supp'd full with horrors". We may think that we have sated ourselves with the abominations detailed in the Ryan Report, but we have not.

Soon we will see another document on clerical sex abuse -- the report on the Dublin archdiocese. The disclosures have made Archbishop Diarmuid Martin weep. There will be more tears, more shocks -- and more repentance -- before we can lay this ghost to rest.

And not all the tears, nor all the genuine repentance, nor all the fine speeches such as those we heard in the Dail this week, will suffice to clear our national conscience. Only what the Church calls "a firm purpose of amendment" can do that.

In the first place, it should almost go without saying, we must allocate the responsibility and the due share of compensation to the victims from the State and the religious orders. This is the simplest part. We could argue forever about the relative guilt of Church and State, but that will avail us nothing. This time, the right way is also the easy way.

The financial burden must be shared 50-50. This means that the congregations must pay up over €500m. They can decide for themselves who pays what, and where to find the money.

Secondly, the payment must not go to the exchequer. It must be "ring-fenced", and devoted entirely to the comfort of the victims. And the decisions on how to help them must be made exclusively by the State. We have had enough of fudge and backstairs deals.

Of those deals, surely the most outrageous was the indemnity which left the orders with a liability of a supposed €128m (in reality much less) while the State took on an unknown debt which turned out at about €1.3bn.

That arrangement needs more examination. The negotiations were carried out in a most extraordinary manner. The ordinary citizen at odds with the authorities finds himself or herself confronted with the full force of the legal system. The compensation deal was as different as chalk from cheese.

Nothing new here, of course. At the time of independence, this country was ruled under a system which had its origins in the late 19th century: an alliance, spoken or unspoken, between the Church, the more prosperous elements of the middle class, and the big farmers. In time, the Church, as the best organised and most respected and with its iron grip on most of the education system, came to dominate it.

The strange thing was that the Church retained so much of its influence and authority, and continued to terrorise politicians, throughout a process of urbanisation and modernisation which transformed the country. In this it was aided by powerful and secretive conservative Catholic organisations which surfaced from time to time in the divorce and abortion referendums and in the debate on the Lisbon Treaty. Their day is over: must be over. And we must start with education.

In other countries, the State controls education. In the first place, it owns the schools. In the second place, it decides the curriculum.

A French education minister once said that at any moment of the working day he knew exactly what every one of the millions of pupils was learning. That may be a little too prescriptive for the Irish taste, but he who pays the piper should call the tune.

And whatever ministers may know, there are a great many things that you and I should know.

This week, Labour TD Ruairi Quinn complained that he had asked how many schools were controlled by the religious orders mentioned in the Ryan report and the Department of Education had refused to tell him. This secrecy should be dumped, along with sweetheart deals, in the dustbin.

But it is not enough to squeeze one little bit of information out of one government department. We must look urgently into the whole system of primary and secondary education.

The Church has already done that -- naturally and properly, from its own viewpoint. The bishops, and the orders, know that they cannot retain a universal grip. They will regroup. They will hold on to schools in which they can determine the ethos.

In fairness, that is precisely the wish of a great many parents, probably the majority. There is, at present, no appetite for a wholly secular system. But it is easy to determine the likely results, and they are disturbing.

We will continue to have schools which are all Catholic (a few all Protestant), all middle-class, and all white. We already have all-black schools. What does that say about integration and the pupils' chances in life?

These trends are occurring without any contribution, much less any direction, from the civil authorities. This is an abdication of responsibility.

And there is another responsibility which must be abdicated no longer.

I admire the victims who say that they have forgiven their tormentors and do not want them punished. But those who have broken the law must be brought to justice.

That will be immensely difficult. It will place a tremendous strain on the investigators. However, society owes it to the victims. Some may think they have found "closure" in forgiveness, but we cannot close the book until whatever measure of justice that can be achieved is meted out to the offenders.

This is something that society owes to itself.

And it owes itself one more thing. It has to ask itself how many were complicit, in however small a degree, because they "looked the other way" and handed over their most precious possession, their consciences.

jdowney@independent.ie

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