Sunday 20 October 2019

Ciara Kelly: 'Suffering of children speaks volumes of contempt for most vulnerable'

The callous treatment of the children in mother and baby homes needs to be addressed and explored, writes Ciara Kelly

Flowers left at the site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Flowers left at the site of a mass grave for children who died in the Tuam mother and baby home, Galway. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Ciara Kelly

The interim report by the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was released last week and it makes for uncomfortable reading. It has found that the burial sites for hundreds of children who died while in the care of the homes is still unknown and has rejected the notion that underground structures where the bodies of children were put after their deaths were ever designed to be burial chambers. It has said these places were likely to have been part of the homes' sewage systems.

It is hard not become desensitised to these things and it was a very different time, but the callous treatment of those children needs to be addressed and explored.

The Catholic Church does little as well as it does ritual. Funerals, weddings, the last rites - even confessions are all junctures heavy with formality. They offer a sense of occasion. They mark life events in a way that ascribes dignity, purpose, closure and comfort to those involved. I remember my own father's funeral - he was the musical director in two churches and was heavily involved in religious music. He was granted a Papal Lordship. Eleven priests concelebrated his funeral Mass. Two choirs sang at it. It was like a glorious concert celebrating his life. It meant a lot to all of us.

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Contrast that with these little children's end. They were not part of the inner sanctum of the church. No priests stood on an altar and mourned their passing. No eulogies were spoken. No incense was burnt. No hymns were sung. They were thrown, coffin-less, into a sewer by the self-same church that has a sense of occasion to rival Elton John's. This treatment speaks volumes about how the women and the children within those homes were viewed. They were beneath contempt. Their lives and their deaths meant nothing - to an organisation that fully understood how important the rituals around death are to us all.

Prof Mary Daly, a member of the commission, has said the State was not overseeing adequately what happened in these institutions because of its innate deference to the Church. And of course she is right. However, at the time these things were happening, the State played no real role in the overseeing of end-of-life scenarios. When someone was dying in Ireland, you called the priest ahead of the doctor or the undertaker. And in as much as society did collude in the gross mistreatment of these women and children by allowing them to be incarcerated in places communities knew to be punitive, the Church was the one running the show. The Church was the organisation abandoning every principle it was supposed to uphold because these poor wretches were nobodies. Were outcasts. Were bastards.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has said the report into the homes has left him with profound distress - even indignation - and the Church has to change. But, in truth, I don't believe it will. Indignation is a mild-mannered word for the righteous anger we all should feel about how the Church has treated the most vulnerable members of its congregation. The poorest, the weakest, the voiceless. There has been hand-wringing and head-scratching coming from the Church over all of this for years. But change? None.

It has consistently failed to deal adequately with the issues of institutional or individual abuse perpetuated in its name. It has refused to pay redress monies. It has protected abusers, tried to gag victims, refused to divulge documents or information that might help heal those it has hurt - time and time again. It has operated a legal play book that has had one guiding principle - damage limitation. And perhaps most importantly - in terms of them ever actually changing - it has refused to take responsibility for its actions. Only last week retired Pope Benedict XVI blamed clerical sexual abuse on the sexual revolution in the 1960s and on homosexual cliques, utterly failing to understand that consenting adults enjoying a sex life - not laden with the guilt the Catholic Church would like to heap on them - are not the cause of child sexual abuse by paedophiles.

We aren't the ones who groomed the parents, raped the children, moved the perpetrators to pastures new and covered it all up. We aren't the ones who threw babies' bodies into a sewer while wearing golden robes to the funerals of more important parishioners. We may have stood by and watched it. But we aren't the ones who did it. And until the hierarchy of the Church actually acknowledges that, we will never see any change occur.

There are good priests and nuns - of that I have no doubt. But what we have seen in the Catholic Church is not a case of a few bad apples. We have seen systematic, institutionalised rotten hypocrisy - underwritten by legal might and intimidation.

The Church is big on forgiveness - but, as I recall, there can be none without confession and remorse. And they are still failing on both fronts. I am no longer sure why we even look to the Church for its response to these reports on abuse. The emotional ability or maturity to grasp the impact of their reprehensible actions simply isn't there. It's not unlike asking the Mafia what they think about reports into corruption.

A radical reformation would be needed to restore any kind of moral authority to the Church, but because secular society seems to have a stronger moral compass on all of this, it's hard to know what the Church's purpose will ever be again - other than perhaps comfort.

Suffer little children was supposed to be an uplifting teaching of Christ - not church policy. The Church has failed its congregation badly and repeatedly. And it still doesn't really see that.

@ciarakellydoc. Ciara presents 'Lunchtime Live' on Newstalk, weekdays from 12-2pm

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