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Church power is incompatible with our modern democracy

Heartbreaking, shocking, with scenes of sexual and physical sadism. If it was a movie or game, the words would make it a best seller -- but it's not.

Almost derailed by political deals, legal challenges and controversy, the Child Abuse Commission has succeeded in bringing to a (sort of) conclusion a decade of hearings about the horrors children suffered in Irish residential care. Its analysis is conservative. Nonetheless, a tribunal actually finished.

A generation became 'abused out' while the commission sat. The stories were so harrowing and dark that some started speaking of "abuse fatigue", which was code for saying "don't tell us any more" or "let's keep foolin' ourselves" -- or even "tell them they don't want to hear and we might get away with it".

Will there be any justice? Is it naïve to use the word? The good news is that the State did its citizens some service by enabling the commission to sit, listen and report. The bad news is that the process was so compromised it is a beacon for disillusionment.

The heart of the story is the immense suffering of children in residential care managed by Catholic orders -- how they were treated as objects by sadists, and how those sadists were effectively protected by the religious orders and by the State's gross failure to challenge them.

The abuse was possible because the orders and the residential homes were run like totalitarian states -- in a State which kept out because of respect for Catholicism and an absence of children's rights. Meanwhile, the orders were answerable only to the Vatican State, where democracy and accountability still don't feature.

The wider story now is how this State conducts itself now -- how it manages investigations and stands up to vested interests, how it makes change so as not to repeat the past. Or, unfortunately, how it fails.

The dogs in the street had been barking about residential abuses since Christine Buckley spoke to Gay Byrne, but it took Mary Raftery's TV piece States of Fear, for RTE, and the book written with Dr Eoin O Sullivan, to force an apology and this process from then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern exactly 10 years ago.

Survivors found their reputations under attack, with accusations that they were making it up or were taken into care for criminal activities. Dr Ivor Browne went into combat against allegations they had so-called "false memory syndrome". Many were re-traumatised at this insidious doing-down.

Fianna Fáil's deep cronyism with the Catholic Church leaped into action when Michael Woods, on behalf of the Department of Education, indemnified the Catholic religious orders, in exchange for land deals that have not yet materialised fully.

Meanwhile, the commission began under Judge Mary Laffoy, who quickly won survivors' respect. She found her work obstructed by the Department of Education.

Her investigations were also attacked legally in a series of challenges by religious orders, apparently intended to make it impossible to name or shame. Rather than compromise its truth values, Judge Laffoy resigned.

The Child Abuse Commission's final report indicts a culture and society, both by what it says and by what it can't -- or won't -- say.

Judge Sean Ryan, her replacement, decided not to name anyone who hadn't been convicted in court. As less than five people stood convicted at the time, this meant paying a very high price to keep things going. Incidentally, those who testified had already been obliged to sign away their right to go to court.

The cumulative effect was to minimise damage to the religious orders and the department, to get the orders off the hook financially and to box off the episode from further scrutiny.

Despite all that, Judge Ryan's report is utterly shocking.

It queries the Christian Brothers in particular, detailing abuses in Artane, Letterfrack and other places. It speaks of "the ease with which sexual predators could operate within the educational system . . . without fear of disclosure or sanction". It makes recommendations for improving current residential child care, especially in terms of screening and inspections. They are not new.

Where it fails, possibly because of its brief, is in its analysis of the system as a response to a 19th-Century problem. That's true, but it neglects the additional role of the Catholic Church in insisting the system be maintained, despite changes in Britain.

The Catholic Church's insistence on maintaining the system has a complicated background, but it involves opposing an Adoption Act when change was introduced in Britain in the 1940s, opposing a greater role for the State in running care institutions and social services.

It includes, even today, opposing changes to Constitutional provisions on the family so as to give children their own individual Constitutional place, thereby protecting them better legally from familial and other abuses.

This conflict of interest between Church and State law matters because so much Irish education and residential care is still dominated by the Catholic Church. However excellent its many members, however well-intentioned its social interventions, that power is incompatible with the interests of contemporary democracy.

Abuses would probably have happened anyway, but that extra layer between children and the State made them even more invisible and easier to hurt. If you ever wondered why children need specific Constitutional protection, this is it.