Monday 15 July 2019

Nor was the flock without sin

While blaming the Religious for the appalling treatment of children in institutions, we must accept the Irish were easily silenced, says Eilis O'Hanlon

FOR years, Ireland had the unenviable reputation as a poverty-stricken, priest-ridden hell hole where books were banned, children abused, unmarried mothers locked up, and you couldn't even talk on certain Friday night chat shows about honeymooning women in their nighties. Then, overnight, we became the coolest, wealthiest people on the planet, and the old days were nothing but a bad memory. We should have known it wouldn't last.

Now, as if Nietzsche was right about history repeating itself first as tragedy and then as farce, the clock is resetting itself. First the money ran out, then the celebrity in-crowd stopped dropping by, and now the world's rediscovering its image of Ireland as a dour, rain-sodden backwater where men in frocks fiddled with altar boys and nuns sadistically beat three-year-old girls for wetting the bed. From the Church to the banks, the institutions of the State are being held up for international scrutiny, and being found severely wanting.

That it's justified doesn't make the process any less painful or humiliating. But it does have one undoubted advantage, which is that it stops most of us from having to take personal responsibility for anything that went wrong. It wasn't our faults that the banks lent us all that money; we were simply the victims of financial malpractice. And don't blame us for what the Church did to vulnerable children. How were we supposed to know?

Except, of course, that Irish people did know what the Church was doing. Complaints were made to the gardai. The Department of Education was fully aware of the abuse. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse report, published last week, found that the physical and sexual abuse of children, boys in particular, was widespread and systematic. Something that endemic can't be kept secret, and it wasn't. It's only in retrospect that it becomes useful to pretend ignorance. If you didn't know, you can't be blamed for doing nothing.

One case cited in the report is of St Joseph's in Kilkenny, where girls as young as eight were repeatedly raped by a care worker. The Department of Education investigated and confirmed that it was true, but decided not to prosecute. Instead the culprit was simply sacked from his job, fitting a pattern, identified by the report, of the State continually being "deferential and submissive" in its dealings with the Church (a trait which has persisted, in lesser form, to the present day, as the religious were allowed to limit their financial liability to a mere €128m, which isn't much more than the cost of the inquiry, while the State bizarrely agreed to make good the remaining billion-plus in compensation).

Concentrating solely on the failings of the Church doesn't come anywhere near to mapping the network of multiple culpabilities in a story like this.

Understandably, if unfairly, some victims have even criticised the report for that reason, because they think the State is using it to evade its own share of responsibility. But even leaving Government and gardai aside, there were still countless individuals, families, neighbours and friends at the time who also knew fully what was happening.

It was the classic scenario of evil flourishing because good men did nothing.

At one point, Ireland had as many children in care as Britain, a country with more than 10 times the population. Children who played truant were sent away. Those who committed petty crimes were handed over to the priests. Any child whose parents were deemed to be morally unsuitable could be shunted off into the shadows. Children were not only abused by clerics, but by vast networks of "volunteer workers, visitors, work placement employees, foster parents". Practically everyone in the country must have known a child in care, and heard the rumours and whispers of what their daily lives entailed. When are they going to take a share of responsibility, instead of washing their hands like Pilate?

The Irish Times editorial tried to compare the Ireland of the past to a totalitarian dictatorship where people were bullied and cowed into silence, but the metaphor is superficial. Those in genuine totalitarian states who stood up for the victims of the State became subject to the same punishments. Their lives and liberty were in perpetual jeopardy. Nobody in Ireland was ever sent to a labour camp for standing up to the Church. Nobody died. The only power the priests ever had to wield was social stigma.

What was the worst fate that could befall someone who spoke out against priestly abuse? A few neighbours might ignore them in the street, doors might be shut in their faces, or they might have to emigrate to get a job. It was hardly the Soviet Union.

The remarkable thing is not how all-pervasively wicked the Catholic Church was, but how easily the Irish were silenced. How, in fact, they willingly colluded in the cover-up, which they must have known to be morally repugnant even as they did it.

Mary Kenny touched on that in an article in the Guardian last week. She was criticised by many readers for saying that she had personally never met a paedophile priest, but actually she did recall encountering one paedophile at a party -- where the handsome middle-aged man was surrounded by a group of adoring upper-class women. Mary Kenny subsequently learned that the women were friends and supporters who were shielding him from the media. "Strange is the crooked timber of humanity," she ended by saying.

It must be so much more satisfying to sidestep such thorny issues of personal guilt by blaming an institution, especially when the Church has behaved so abominably in response to revelations of what many nuns and priests were doing. But that's the nature of large monolithic institutions. They're shifty, closed, secret, self-preservation societies. As the Mafia always say before despatching victims: it's not personal, it's just business.

Shunting your daughter off to a Magdalene laundry because she got pregnant out of wedlock; not believing your own children when they told you what was done to them; being sycophantic and deferential to people who were known to be sadists and perverts -- all these are moral failures of a much more intense and personal kind. No official report could begin to plumb the depths of that betrayal.

Just because the hierarchy was guilty doesn't mean the flock was innocent.

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