Thursday, May 21, 2009

Sad Days For The Irish Church

The Savage Reality of our Darkest Days
Irish Times--May 21, 2009

THE REPORT of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is the map of an Irish hell.

It defines the contours of a dark hinterland of the State, a parallel country whose existence we have long known but never fully acknowledged.It is a land of pain and shame, of savage cruelty and callous indifference.

The instinct to turn away from it, repelled by its profoundly unsettling ugliness, is almost irresistible. We owe it, though, to those who have suffered there to acknowledge from now on that it is an inescapable part of Irish reality.

We have to deal with the now-established fact that, alongside the warmth and intimacy, the kindness and generosity of Irish life, there was, for most of the history of the State, a deliberately maintained structure of vile and vicious abuse.

Mr Justice Ryan’s report does not suggest that this abuse was as bad as most of us suspected. It shows that it was worse.

It may indeed have been even worse than the report actually finds – there are indications that “the level of sexual abuse in boys’ institutions was much higher than was revealed by the records or could be discovered by this investigation”.

With a calm but relentless accumulation of facts, the report blows away all the denials and obfuscations, all the moral equivocations and evasions that we have heard from some of the religious orders and their apologists.

The sheer scale and longevity of the torment inflicted on defenceless children – over 800 known abusers in over 200 institutions during a period of 35 years – should alone make it clear that it was not accidental or opportunistic but systematic. (The 800 known abusers can probably be safely doubled, which is why this is systematic and not accidental.)

Violence and neglect were not the result of underfunding – the large institutions, where the worst abuse was inflicted, were “well-resourced”.

The failure of the religious orders to stop these crimes did not result from ignorance.
The recidivist nature of child sexual abusers was understood by the Brothers, who nonetheless continued deliberately to place known offenders in charge of children, both in industrial schools and in ordinary primary schools.

At best, this represented what the report calls “a callous disregard for the safety of children”.
At worst, it was an active protection of, and thus collusion with, the perpetrators of appalling crimes.

Nor did the abuse continue because of secrecy. Again, the very scale of the violence made it impossible to keep it sealed off from either officialdom or society at large.

Contemporary complaints were made to the Garda, to the Department of Education, to health boards, to priests and to members of the public.

The department, “deferential and submissive” to the religious congregations, did not shout stop. Neither did anyone else. (Why didn't anyone shout stop? Was this submissiveness so ingrained that the average lay person just couldn't call religious to any kind of accountability. It wasn't any better for children in the day school system, which shows that even children with parents who were supposed to protect them, weren't protected.)

Indeed, perhaps the most shocking finding of the commission is that industrial school inmates were often sexually exploited by those outside the closed world of the congregations, by “volunteer workers, visitors, work placement employees, foster parents” and by those who took them out for holidays or to work.

The key to understanding these attitudes is surely to realise that abuse was not a failure of the system.

It was the system.

Terror was both the point of these institutions and their standard operating procedure. Their function in Irish society was to impose social control, particularly on the poor, by acting as a threat. (How simply Christ-like this notion of control via terror.)
Without the horror of an institution like Letterfrack, it could not fulfil that function.
Within the institutions, terror was systematic and deliberate. It was a methodology handed down through “successive generations of Brothers, priests and nuns”. (It was also a theology and a vision of Catholicism that was inculcated in the laity.)

There is a nightmarish quality to this systemic malice, reminiscent of authoritarian regimes. We read of children “flogged, kicked . . . scalded, burned and held under water”.

We read of deliberate psychological torment inflicted through humiliation, expressions of contempt and the practice of incorrectly telling children that their parents were dead.
We read of returned absconders having their heads shaved and of “ritualised” floggings in one institution.

We have to call this kind of abuse by its proper name – torture. We must also call the organised exploitation of unpaid child labour – young girls placed in charge of babies “on a 24-hour basis” or working under conditions of “great suffering” in the rosary bead industry; young boys doing work that gave them no training but made money for the religious orders – by its proper name: slavery.

It demands a very painful adjustment of our notions of the nature of the State to accept that it helped to inflict torture and slavery on tens of thousands of children.
In the light of the commission’s report, however, we can no longer take comfort in evasions.
* * *
Almost unbearable though it may be, it is important that everyone who can do so should read and absorb this report. We owe that especially to those victims who first broke the silence on the RTÉ documentaries Dear Daughter and States of Fear and to those who came forward to tell their stories to the commission.

It is to be hoped that, in spite of the failure of the religious congregations to take full responsibility for what happened, those who have suffered have found some comfort in that process and in a report of such unflinching lucidity.

Most importantly, though, we owe it to all who are vulnerable in today’s Irish society. For their sakes, we need to know what happens when institutions acquire absolute power over defenceless people and when the State and society come to believe that it is better to collude in crimes than to challenge cherished beliefs.

Mr Justice Ryan suggests the erection of a monument to the victims of abuse with the words of
the State’s 1999 apology inscribed on it.

That should happen, but the real monument will be that we inscribe on our collective consciousness as a society the two words “Never again”.


As I was reading the extensive coverage of the Ryan report on Clerical Whispers, my mind kept drifting back to the US and Canada's residential school system for Native Americans. These school systems were mandated by the government and run by mainstream Christian religions, including Catholicism. The abuses within these schools mirror the Irish situation. Readers of this blog will remember that the Pope recently apologized for the same kinds of abuses in the Canadian residential system. There have been apologies issued to indigenous cultures in Australia and New Zealand as well.

What makes the Irish situation somewhat unique is these were white Irish children, not the children of indigenous racial cultures. The real commonalities are found in the creation a class of 'others' and religious institutions happily taking advantage of those 'others' under the guise of Christian charity. The horror stories from around the world about Catholic orphanages, residential schools, and reformatories are mind numbingly consistent. They all describe neglect, systematic physical abuse, slave labor practices, and rampant unchecked sexual abuse. In all cases government authorities turned a blind eye.

I see this global consistency as partly a reflection of the kind of systematic abusive formation many of the religious orders used on their own novitiates previous to Vatican II. It is learned behavior and it was learned within the orders themselves. No wonder the Christian Brothers are having a hard time owning up to the level of the abuse. It means they have to take a serious look at their own formation, and that means both the theology and the view of humanity on which it's based. We will mindlessly do unto others as it has been done unto us.

The collusion of governmental agencies seems to be both a product of lay submissiveness and a culture's instinctive need to wall off and shun the defined 'other'. The more powerless that 'other' can be made the better, because at it's core, shunning is the direct expression of fear. This societal fear must be placated by controlling that other. What better organizations to placate atavistic fear in a Christian society than Christian religious groups.

The facts from the Ryan report show that leaving problem children in the hands of religious orders is a very bad solution. The facts also seem to show that Ireland was either terrified of, or grossly indifferent to their own disenfranchised children, but that's hardly a situation unique to Ireland.

For too many societies stray kids seem to equate with stray dogs. Institutionalizing them doesn't touch the underlying problems, but it does remove the results of the problem from view. It deludes society into thinking someone is dealing with the problem in a mature and caring way. That delusion is being blown sky high in Ireland. Religious members who have been systematically infantilized, humiliated, and formed through abuse, are incapable of maturity or compassionate concern. They are however, perfectly capable of modeling their formation on defenseless and powerless children.

Those conservative Catholics who think returning to the pre Vatican II church and restoring convents and houses of religious formation to this period, is a good thing, should study the situation in Ireland. The abuses did not abate until after Vatican II reforms had been enacted in religious houses and Catholic parishes. This is not an aberration. It's a product of a different theology with a much more positive view of humanity.

Vatican II changed the Catholic view of the world in many different ways and a lot of it has born very positive fruit. But the one point on which the Church refused to change, that of sexual morality, has now become the rallying point for conservative elements who have taken it upon themselves to dictate sexual morality for the rest of us. This is no different than the previous Christian reformers who saw it as their duty to protect society from poor children, single mothers, and entire indigenous cultures.

When the State combined with the Church to 'reform' in those areas it led to manifest unfettered abuse of defenseless and powerless people. The exact same thing will happen again should the state and church combine in an effort to 'reform' sexual morality. We can see this happening right now in gender based school bullying and the elements lining up against any attempts to deal with it, including the Roman Catholic Church.

Let the Ryan report do more than scandalize us, let it shine some light on the present. Schools are still places of systematic terror for too many of our children, and society is still turning a purposeful blind eye.

This link will take you to the executive summary of the Ryan report, this one will take you to the table of contents for the entire report, and Clerical Whispers has excellent coverage from multiple sources. This link will take you to a Canadian website dealing with the First Nation's abusive residential schools.


  1. The same story in Quebec;

    I attribute all this to the pervasive influence of Jansenism, the Catholic version of Calvinism.

  2. Annonymous, it is the exact same story in Quebec. Thanks for the link.

  3. The only positive effect of this disgusting revelation of shame is that it firmly and finally kicks the slats out of one of the most arrogant, unchristian institutions in the history of humanity ... the Irish Catholic Church.

    I hope that it is financially and socially ruined to the point that whatever survives remains a small, impotent organization that can only continue be virtue of a century or so of humility and penitence.

    God da*n them for what they allowed.

    Jim McCrea

  4. Do not wish to be contentious - but to blame this on Jansenism is to act as if it really wasn't Catholics who did this - but heretical Jansenists.

    What is even more disturbing is to think that the irish may not be alone in this - if we see it in Quebec - how many other places - religious or non religious - have supported such horror? We must do a better job of protecting our children.

  5. Jim, that's my secret hope too, that the pervasive influence of the Irish church is put to rest.

    I used to say there was Irish Catholicism and Roman Catholicism and the two weren't necessarily the same. Although in the treatment handed out to displaced children, there wasn't much difference anywhere most of these orders operated.

    In point of fact, the Canadian Native Residential schools may have the market on abject horror. At least Irish kids weren't being sytematically killed through neglect, abuse, and medical experimentation.

  6. Jansenism may have been declared heretical but only as a formal system.
    I think it influenced the Catholic church in its "mood" or attitude regarding the human condition especially towards sexuality.
    Many of the Irish clergy in the 17th and 18th centuries were trained in French seminaries and smuggled into Ireland, ( the training of priests was banned by the English).
    There's a noticeable difference between the earlier Celtic Catholicism and that of the later Irish Catholicism.

  7. I think you make a cogent point annonymous. There is a vast difference between Celtic Catholicism and what we now know as Irish Catholicism.

    I was unaware of the French influence, but this makes great sense.

  8. "Within the institutions, terror was systematic and deliberate. It was a methodology handed down through “successive generations of Brothers, priests and nuns”. (It was also a theology and a vision of Catholicism that was inculcated in the laity.)

    So true Colleen that it was also a "theology and a vision of Catholicism that was inculcated in the laity." I'll never forget in my 8th grade class in Catholic school, jammed in a class of 80 students and a nun strapping two brothers in front of the entire classroom. I will also never forget as I was growing up and we had to as children show our father our report cards. There were several instances in which my own father strapped my brother for not getting good grades. As if by hitting him this would improve his scholastic ability. Since I was a girl I was spared any such beating, but hearing my brother get beat and my mother yelling at my dad to stop and seeing him behave in such a manner was terror and abuse as well.

    The report of the abuse in Ireland is the tip of the iceberg which filtered down and into a lot of Catholic schools. Terror and belittlement as the way to dealing with children or with those considered inferior in some way, or to those who do not "obey" authority is active in the social consciousness of those like Fr. Finn or Bishop Burke who actively cause others to belittle and/or beat up others verbally, or bully them for having a different opinion. I can't help but see the similarities within the pro-life movement as another offshoot of the same type of theology and methodology. The view that punishment of denial of communion, firings, excommunications is the answer is where it is very similar, and the way they deal with fellow Catholics who view things differently is also a similar type of terror and abuse.

  9. Sickening is the twin reality that the predominance of Irish born clergy sent to the US in the 19th century, coupled with the importing of the Irish Christian Brothers to run scores of boys schools.

    While the reality of these state funded boarding schools in Ireland is horrific, there is also the yet untold (or undertold....) tale of the US parochial schools.

    The systemic & systematic abuse in the schools was well known in the US - but accepted as 'the way it was'. Christian Brothers (and the Marists) were well known as sneering martinets to generations of kids. And as sexual predators.

    The evidence most recently cam to the fore a few years back in the Federal lawsuit of Fr. Robert Hoatson Vs. the Christian Brothers, Bishop Hubbard, AB Meyers of Newark, Cardinal Egan of NY, et. al. For long term sexual abuse & a virtual 'racketeering' style mode of mutual coverup.

    My point is not so much to rehash that lawsuit, but to indicate that the full truth has yet to really hit the fan in the US.

    My heart goes out to the Irish ppl, as this nightmare has destroyed souls & bodies for far too long!