Thursday 25 April 2019

Mercy, charity lose all meaning amid deafening silence of nuns

SILENCE can build walls, not to protect but exclude. It is not always golden or calming – silence has the capacity to shatter peace and cause pain.

The four congregations who owned the Magdalene Laundries have declined either to contribute to a redress fund for survivors, or to explain why they won't. Their silence injures the mainly elderly victims of laundries, but it is also damaging to the nuns.

In this case, silence creates a vacuum – and a potential for demonisation to take shape inside it.

The sisters, with virtues such as charity and mercy name-checked in the official titles of their orders, have an ethical responsibility to pay into the compensation scheme. Unless they reconsider, their refusal means taxpayers will bear the full cost estimated at up to €58m. Citizens are unimpressed.

Even today, after a stream of unedifying episodes involving the Catholic Church, it seems astonishing that religious orders should need reminding about their Christian obligations. Some load-bearing beam has surely buckled and collapsed within the Catholic Church.

The congregations have been slow to offer reasons for their dereliction of duty. All the same, we can make various guesses: perhaps they don't have much money, and presumably their properties and lands have plummeted in value. It has been suggested their assets are held in trust and cannot be given to a fund. But they have not communicated their position publicly.

As a convent-educated Irishwoman – like most of my fellows – I respect the excellent work carried out by nuns in various walks of life. But on this occasion they have fallen far short of the standards they set for themselves and others. Enda Kenny said he could not compel the orders to contribute to the scheme. But he added that he would ask them to reflect on the issue, a relatively mild rebuke.

Observers might be forgiven for thinking Mr Kenny gave the congregations an easy ride, but maybe he's had his fill of tackling the church about its failures and interferences. At this stage, Enda is entitled to a breather.

In any case, the notion that a state should be obliged to resort to threatening court action to force religious congregations to do the right thing is extraordinary. They should surely want to do it of their own volition.

The orders have said they will contribute by continuing to look after about 100 Magdalene women in residential settings. Although if someone was mistreated by nuns as a young woman, she might not relish being under their care during her sunset years.

And don't the orders receive state funding for delivering that care? There may be a financial shortfall, of course, in which case the orders need to say so and by how much.

Magdalene Survivors Together has called for the orders to be stripped of charitable status and to lose their state funding. Justice Minister Alan Shatter admits the former, at least, is impossible because they continue to do worthwhile charitable work – instead, like Enda, he suggests they consider their position.

Obviously, persuasion has failed to date, and now moral pressure is being applied. Presumably, the Government has taken legal advice and can use no more effective tactics. But legal opinion is based on current law – and the law can be changed. Just a thought.

The religious congregations were not alone in mistreating the Magdalenes: the State abdicated responsibility in consigning them to laundries. But the Taoiseach has apologised on behalf of the State, and financial recompense is being made.

A share in the burden of that recompense seems appropriate from the four religious orders. After all, laundries were commercial enterprises and the religious communities benefited from the Magdalenes' labour.

The orders cannot make peace with laundry survivors, or with the broader community, through silence. It is a luxury they cannot afford. Instead, they need to engage in damage limitation, and communication is the first step.

Even if their legal representatives argued assets were not theirs to give away, a suspicion exists that a strategy has been adopted. A game of hard ball is under way – offer nothing, then concede something, and the final bill will be lower.

It's entirely plausible, although a source of dismay for many, that church representatives might behave in such a way. The institution has previous in this regard. And let's not forget its ongoing failure to fully meet its agreed share of compensation packages for victims of paedophile priests.

Little wonder the Catholic Church in Ireland is no longer on a sound footing. This is not the fault of those four orders, but the spotlight is now trained upon them. Unfortunately, their behaviour moves the Catholic Church on to still boggier ground.

I find it hard to believe ordinary, hard-working nuns in religious communities are comfortable with the way in which this is being handled. No doubt their leaders are acting on legal or financial advice. However, it's not always best overall to take such advice, no matter how prudent it may appear to be.

Women have occupied the high moral ground in the recent Lapgate and Fannygate affairs, but in Nungate they tumble off it. Disappointingly, the latter shows how women are just as capable as men of making poor decisions – although perhaps the Catholic Church and not gender is the issue here.

If the congregations persist in their course of action, they must provide an explanation. "When truth is replaced by silence, the silence is a lie," said the Siberian-born poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

Wrong can be done by silence as well as by words and deeds. The silence of the nuns is a white noise that grows louder and more intolerable with each passing hour.

Irish Independent

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