| 7.2°C Dublin

Vocal anguish of a father, a patriot, and a Christian

I WAS in tears as I listened to and watched the Taoiseach in the Dail during the week. I had despaired of seeing the day when the democratically elected prime minister of my country would abandon ambivalence and use two terrible words in condemnation of what has happened to thousands of children in our society. In the children's defence, Enda Kenny condemned a foreign state out of hand for the dysfunction, disconnection and elitism that dominate its culture in this context, so that it can uphold the primacy, power, standing and "reputation" of its own institutional State.

He condemned the Vatican roundly with all-encompassing quiet conviction: it was the vocal anguish of a father and a good Christian, the compassion of a believing soul evident in every sorrowfully angry word; it was the voice of a patriot who takes deeply seriously his oath as leader of the freely elected Irish Government -- the Government of a sovereign state which bows to no other and condemns the actions of any other which contravene and betray decency and the human and civil rights of the innocent and defenceless.

The layers of pride and dignity represented by what Enda Kenny said last Wednesday will echo through the history of statesmanship in our country, a declaration that has never been equalled since independence. It appeared to be the declaration of a man driven to blind rage, to disgusted outrage, to overwhelming frustration, and overcoming them all to return with the icy determination of integrity, courage, and a preparedness to take on all those who will accuse him of being a renegade to "everything decent that Ireland stands for".

It was the day when hypocrisy began to die in Ireland. The death will probably be a slow one, as it fights for the long control it has exercised on our complacent, devious consensus. But we can be particularly proud that the death began in relation to the torment of generations of children. We could have felt proud if it began in relation to our grubby notions of corporate ethics and "the culture of the time"; proud if it had been in relation to so many aspects of Irish society that shame us.

But our Taoiseach, the most recent in a line of previously equivocal, subservient men who may have sneered at (or even flouted grossly in private) the laws of the Roman Catholic Church, but presided over governments which refused to grasp the nettle of Rome rule, has now stood with pride against injustice. He is the personification of a sovereign state which fears no other. And he has done it in defence of children, of those still living with nightmares, and in defence of the small grey ghosts, skinny, lice-ridden, broken in mind and body, who suffered at the hands of the official Church which has refused, refused, and refused again to give them solace, justice, or recognition even after death.

The Cloyne Report may have been the catalyst, but Mr Kenny was speaking for each terrible tragedy that made up the thousands quoted in the Ferns Report, the Murphy Report, and the Ryan Report.

Kenny used the words "torture and rape". They have never been used before on the floor of the House, to the best of my knowledge, and certainly not in relation to children of our own country. They certainly have never been used by the men who have come out in relays with the same tired words of "regret" and "apology", the same words that they used last week. (With the perennial exception of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin.) Probably very few people were listening to Cardinal Sean Brady and his senior brothers last week: everyone knows the empty speech by heart at this stage. But they mouthed off their complacent, self-protecting, "buts" just the same.

"Victims of abuse" is a tired phrase which trips very easily off the tongue of a celibate priest or academic: it's thoughtless, meaningless, and totally fails to comprehend or encompass "St Benedict's ear of the heart" as invoked so movingly by Enda Kenny. It trips off the tongue of the Canon lawyers, as it did on RTE radio only hours before the Taoiseach exploded his bombshell.

Dr Vincent Twomey, the retired professor of Theology at Maynooth, was interviewed on RTE radio by Pat Kenny about the suggestion by the Minister for Justice that the about-to-be statutory requirement to report suspected cases of abuse might be held to cover a requirement to break "the seal of the confessional". Civilised societies, Dr Twomey said, accepted the pre-eminence of moral law over civil law. And in his eyes, moral law meant "rendering to God" in the words of the Bible. A wider term for that, he said, was "sacerdotal privilege", and he quoted an Irish high court case from 1945, when a priest got away with refusing to tell the court what he knew in a serious marital case. And now it's a legal precedent. Quite.

He also implied that ministers Frances Fitzgerald and Simon Coveney, present when Alan Shatter made his remarks, should have set the minister straight about (presumably Christian) moral law. (Mr Shatter, I believe, is Jewish.)

In fairness to Dr Twomey, he also expressed his abhorrence of what happened in Cloyne, condemning what he called "duplicity at the heart of the diocese".

But I wonder what Dr Twomey felt about Enda Kenny's heavy, measured language less than a day later, when he used the words "torture and rape" of children, not "sexual abuse". Rape: the anal or vaginal penetration of a child's body by an adult male's penis, usually effected forcefully while the child screams in pain and terror, or they smother their terror until they vomit into a pillow. That was what the Taoiseach was talking about. Torture that may cause physical damage that can never be repaired. It may make the children impotent, sterile or infertile in adult life. It will certainly leave mental and emotional damage that eat into the soul of the victim for a lifetime; into the soul that the Fathers of the Church claim to be so concerned with.

I know what happens to people in this country who use the words "torture and rape" to describe the molestation of children by adult clergy. I know because I've used them myself, and I've had the responses. Enda Kenny will get a lot of hate mail. He will be told of his own eternal damnation, and will be wished a lifetime of misery and pain. He will be wished an agonising death for his wife and children. And the letters will be signed, "A good Catholic". And the people will post the letters and possibly go to pray in their local churches for the damnation of Mr Kenny and for the peace and triumph of the man called John Magee who is skulking somewhere outside the country he has shamed.

It is a long time since I have felt so proud of the leadership of my country.

Sunday Independent