Friday 24 May 2019

How much have we really learned from the suffering of the children?

The lessons of the past week's awful tales still need to be taken on board in at least one area, says John Crown

John Crown

LIKE many Irish people of my generation who received often excellent and generally compassionate educations courtesy of the Catholic religious orders, I was perplexed, saddened and horrified by the recent disclosures of systematic abuse in religious-run institutions -- abuse which occurred with the fawning acquiescence of the State.

While there is a world of difference between the life experiences of the day pupil like me, who returned home from school every evening to the comforts of hearth and kin, and those of the family-less resident of a bleak orphanage or industrial school, it is hard for many of us to understand how the same organisation which gave so many of us successful launches in life could behave so badly to other less-fortunate children who were entrusted to their care.

While saddened and horrified, I must admit, however, that I was not shocked, nor even particularly surprised. While this was partly due to the constant drip-feed of revelations of abuse over the last decade, it also stemmed from two lessons of history.

Lord Acton's famous aphorism about the corrupting nature of power applies here. It was the absolute power of the "carers" in these institutions over their inmates that corrupted them. This was the proximate cause of the abuse. The act of taking religious vows does not suspend human nature, which unfortunately contains some dark impulses together with the undoubted brighter components.

Any human who is given absolute power over others, in a situation where there is no oversight, and where those who might be expected to police your actions have been taught from childhood to believe you to be incapable of wrongdoing, is at risk of abusing that power.

The second lesson of history is that Church and State need to be separated rigorously.

Theocracy makes for bad government, but it has survived. Even today we see examples. The Middle East still has confessional states where rape victims and adulterers can be stoned to death, and where morals police can arrest unmarried couples who are sitting together in a cafe.

Apologists will claim that these excesses must be seen in their historical context and that the Church has reformed. However, as happened with the modern revelations of abuse, it was not some moral awakening by the perpetrators or an internal drive for ethical reform which ended these great evils, but rather the growth of responsible civil power and control over the activities of the Church.

The degree to which that civil power has succeeded will be tested by the debate concerning renegotiation of the redress deal. There is still a sneaking suspicion that both sides of the original negotiation were in fact conducted by representatives of the Church.

Have we learned these lessons? Certainly not in health care. Two of our leading and entirely state-funded hospitals have Boards of Management which are appointed virtually entirely by the Catholic Church. While there are no nuns working on the wards, their orders and their nominees exercise complete control over senior management appointments, and the composition of the hospital ethics committee.

This has in the recent past resulted in cancer research protocols being denied to dying patients out of concerns regarding the wording of contraceptive requirements.

Similarly, is it appropriate that a majority of the Board of the Dublin Academic Health consortium, a union between UCD medical school -- an entirely publicly funded organisation -- and its two constituent religious-owned hospitals are again appointed by nominees of the orders?

I'm not so sure.

Professor John Crown is a consultant oncologist

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