Time to call off the lynch mob: the nuns were victims too
We compound injustice against the vulnerable when we rush to judgement, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards
Here we go again on one of our periodic episodes of lynching the clergy. Since sexual scandals concerning the Irish Catholic Church erupted in the 1990s, Irish society - previously distinguished by craven deference - has turned on its clergy and shown no mercy.
Question any allegations against priests or nuns these days and you instantly attract bucket-loads of obloquy.
Social media makes it worse, as herds of virtue-signallers rival each other in the volume of their hysterical screaming down of anyone who worries about rushing to judgment. Those same people who, 30 years ago, would have been kissing bishops' rings deferentially, continue galloping madly in the other direction and traducing good priests and nuns as they go.
The truth is that the Irish Roman Catholic tribe's default mindset is to resist scepticism and make enemies of dissenters.
When we got our independence through means that cost us dearly, we were supposed to honour the State and the republican narrative unquestioningly. To be critical about anything was to be unpatriotic and probably put your job in jeopardy. If you didn't like what was going on, you could 'eff off to England'.
That State both kowtowed to the Catholic church and turned over to it all our social problems. People who had often been press-ganged from unloving homes into a life of celibacy in grim institutions were condemned to care for the most disturbed in our society. Much of the dirtiest of the State's dirty work was given to nuns.
As the historian and feminist, Dominican Margaret MacCurtain, pointed out in the 1990s: "Powerful as negotiating tools in the State's educational and welfare plans, south and north, they became in reality pawns in the struggle for control between Church and State, between bishops and departments of government... we need to hear the voices of women religious."
We're not hearing many of them in the present cacophony of condemnation.
Why did so many girls get pregnant outside wedlock? Well, here are a few pointers. School leaving age was 14 until 1972 and there was no free secondary education. Marriage prospects were poor, with Ireland having the highest rates of postponed marriage recorded in any Western country. Girls weren't wanted. They were hired out to farms and domestic service very cheaply - essentially abandoned by their families - and often exploited, seduced or raped, whereupon if pregnant they had a choice of England (if they were lucky enough to have the fare) or mother-and-baby homes, for their parents were terrified of being shamed. Many would have been malnourished and their babies would have been unhealthy and vulnerable to any disease going.
The nuns themselves had mostly been unwanted teenagers whose families could afford to give them a dowry and banish them out of sight into convents. We judge them much too harshly. As the Taoiseach put it neatly: "No nuns broke into our homes to kidnap our children."
We should think about Nora Wall, whom we seem to have forgotten. From a prosperous Waterford family, she joined the Sisters of Mercy at 19 as Sister Dominic and devoted her life to caring for children society turned their backs on.
From 1974, she worked in group homes, and over 16 years, reared lovingly 65 children. Later she worked in a homeless shelter. Among those adults she was kind to in the homes she ran was Paul McCabe, a petty thief and drug abuser with Parkinson's disease, epilepsy and schizophrenia. Happy as an abandoned child in a Mercy institution in Cappoquin, he had been traumatised at Artane Industrial School. As a disturbed adult, he used to go back to Cappoquin where he was welcomed by Sister Dominic.
In February 1996, RTE broadcast Dear Daughter, a documentary about alleged abuse in a Dublin residential school run by the Sisters of Mercy, which was short on corroborative evidence but caused a furore and the spread of atrocity stories about industrial schools. In October, Nora Wall and McCabe were interviewed about an accusation by Regina Walsh, whom she had looked after for several years, that Wall had regularly abused her and helped McCabe rape her. He confessed under duress.
They were charged in May 1997, and Wall was forbidden to work, had to sign on twice a day and was spat at and physically threatened in the street.
Their trial took place in June 1999, just after the screening of States of Fear, a disturbing documentary series about conditions in industrial schools. McCabe was given a 12-year sentence; Nora Wall was described by the judge as a "gang rapist" and given life, and described in the media as "vile" and a "pervert". Four days after the sentencing, the case was quashed. It would take until 2005 for the Court of Criminal Appeal to certify that there had been a miscarriage of justice.
Kevin Myers, one of our rare sceptics, who had already described it as a witch-hunt, wrote words we would do well to remember. “Be strong, Nora, wherever you are.
"You have endured an unspeakable, terrible ordeal. Hold fast to your sanity and your health. Let your name stand for all the other and nameless religious who have only served their community, yet have been tarred with broad-stroke accusations of abuse.. Your Calvary, as Calvary it has truly been, will not have been in vain if we learn from it. Massed self-righteousness is an ugly animal, and it invariably spawns an uglier beast still - the lynch mob.
"Listen: can't you hear its baying in the wind?"