Church relationship with Irish society has itself been abusive


OPINION:The Roman Catholic Church’s great achievement in Ireland has been to so disable our capacity to think about right and wrong that parents of abused children apologised for the abusing priest

IN HIS pastoral letter of February 1979, Archbishop of Dublin Dermot Ryan drew attention to the “corruption of the young”. And he was quite specific about the forces that were responsible for it. He attacked “the modern era of enlightenment and permissiveness”, and stated that “the new frankness and openness in regard to sexual matters had not made people more healthy in mind and body, but less healthy”.

The corollary of Archbishop Ryan’s complaint was, of course, that a lack of frankness and openness in sexual matters would make for a healthier society, and would protect the young from corruption. Like the three other holders of the office scrutinised in the Murphy report, Ryan certainly practised the first part of what he preached. He was a great enemy of openness and frankness, and a great practitioner of the arts of evasion and cover-up. It was the second part of the formula – the protection of the young – that gave him trouble.

In 1981, for example, Ryan sent a Father X as curate to Clogher Road church in the Dublin Corporation housing estate of Crumlin. He knew that this man was a dangerous and manipulative paedophile who was set on attacking children, as Ryan himself noted, “from six to 16”. He knew that X cultivated parents who involved themselves in school or parish activities so as to gain access to their children.

He knew that in one previous case, “Having got access to the home through this acquaintanceship, Father X abused a young son of six years of age.”

Yet not alone did Ryan send X to Crumlin to continue his assaults on children, but he colluded with the activities of his auxiliary bishop, James Kavanagh, in interfering in a criminal investigation into X’s behaviour, persuading one set of parents not to press charges against the priest.

As the commission concludes, Ryan took a “close personal interest” in the case of Fr X: “He protected Fr X to an extraordinary extent; he ensured, as far as he could, that very few people knew about his activities; it seems that the welfare of children simply did not play any part in his decisions.”

In attempting to come to terms with the institutionalised depravity of the Roman Catholic Church’s systematic collaboration with child abusers, it is useful to start by considering the contradiction between Ryan’s preaching about the “corruption of the young” and his role as a facilitator of sexual assaults on children.

Is there, indeed, a contradiction at all? Or are we not, rather, dealing with two sides of the same debased coin?

The arrogance and obscurantism of a church leadership that could rail against openness and frankness is in fact completely consistent with the same hierarchy’s consistent preference for secrecy over truth and for self-interest over the interests of children and families.

When all the numbing details of the report are absorbed, we have to reassemble the big picture of the institutional church’s relationship with Irish society. And we have to say that that relationship itself has been an abusive one. The church leadership behaved towards society with the same callousness, the same deviousness, the same exploitative mentality, and the same blindly egotistical pursuit of its own desires that an abuser shows towards his victim.

It is important to say that this is not a comment on the Catholic faith. “The Church,” as the report puts it, “is not only a religious organisation but also a human/civil instrument of control and power”. It is this second aspect – the instrument of control and power – that we have to understand.

We know that all institutions and subcultures have the capacity to create systems of denial and self-protection – think, for example, of the toleration of paedophiles within Irish swimming, or the support of artists and intellectuals for the child rapist Roman Polanski.

But in the case of the institutional Catholic Church we have an organisation with an unusually powerful mechanism of self-protection: the capacity to convince the society it is abusing to take part in the cover-up. The damage the church has done to Irish society lies in the ways it has involved that society in the maintenance of an abusive instrument of control and power.

It is easy to miss a central aspect of this whole scandal. The report is concerned with the actions of the church authorities and describes in damning detail their sense of being above the law of the land. (Cardinal Desmond Connell, for example, told the commission that “the greatest crisis in my position as Archbishop” was not, as might be imagined, his discovery of appalling criminality among his clergy, or even his own disingenuous public claims that “I have compensated nobody”, but the decision to allow gardaí access to diocesan files.) But it is striking that parents, teachers and wider communities seldom went to the police either.

This was not a matter of ignorance. It is clear that some of the paedophiles were not secretive and cunning, but reckless and flagrant. In the early 1970s, for example, Fr James McNamee, who had built a swimming pool in his house into which only young boys were allowed, was so notorious among the children in his Crumlin parish that “whenever the older boys in the area saw Fr McNamee, they either ran away or started throwing things and shouting insults at Fr McNamee. Apparently he was known as ‘Father smack my gee’.” If children were shouting abuse at a priest in 1970s Ireland, adults undoubtedly noticed. They must have known why.

Similarly, the appalling Patrick Maguire, who may have abused hundreds of children in Ireland, the UK and Japan, became, as the report notes, “astonishingly brazen”. He actually told the parents of a child he had just abused that the boy had a problem with his testicles. “Not surprisingly, the parents wondered how he had discovered that.”

Yet in most cases, parents who knew their children had been abused went to the bishop, not to the Garda. There may have been a mistrust of the Garda (sometimes well founded), or a fear of exposure in the courts. But, in Archbishop Ryan’s internal notes on the Father X case there is a more extraordinary explanation: “The parents involved have, for the most part, reacted with what can only be described as incredible charity. In several cases, they were quite apologetic about having to discuss the matter and were as much concerned for the priest’s welfare as for their child and other children.”

This was the church’s great achievement in Ireland. It had so successfully disabled a society’s capacity to think for itself about right and wrong that it was the parents of an abused child, not the bishop who enabled that abuse, who were “quite apologetic”.

It had managed to create a flock who, in the face of an outrageous violation of trust, would be more concerned about the abuser than about those he had abused and might abuse in the future. It had inserted its own “instrument of control and power” so deeply into the minds of the faithful that they could scarcely even feel angry about the perpetration of disgusting crimes on their own children.

This is, of course, precisely what paedophiles do to the children they abuse. They convince them that they are the guilty ones. The well-meaning local priest to whom Marie Collins – who has been a key figure in bringing this scandal to light – disclosed the fact that she had been abused as a child in Crumlin children’s hospital, told her “not to feel any guilt about what had happened”. He then, however, told her that “if she had guilt I could give her absolution”.

The suggestion that the victim should be absolved of sin speaks for itself. And it had its effect – Marie Collins did not disclose the abuse again for a number of years.

This ultimate triumph of making the victims guilty and their parents apologetic produced both an underlying contempt for the laity (especially in the working-class parishes where abusers were generally sent) and a sense of belonging to an untouchable elite.

The religious superior of the serial abuser Patrick Maguire captured both when he advised him not to pay too much attention to the views of the therapist he was attending: “You are a priest and you should not allow any person other than yourself to conclude that you ought not remain in ministry, albeit a limited one. I am distrustful of the capacity of any layman or woman to know what it means to be a priest.”

What it meant to be a priest was that, in the eyes of the church authorities, you were held to a different standard than the mere layman or woman. It was not just that you were not subject to the law, but that you were not really subject to Catholic teaching either.

All the episcopal fulminations about sexual sin were for the benefit of the ordinary punters. For the priests, there was a much more tolerant attitude. While bleating about the permissive society, the archbishops were often flippant about the sexual crimes of the clergy. Cardinal Connell, for example, told Marie Collins that the action of an abuser in taking pictures of the genitalia of young girls in the hospital “was not serious as it only involved the taking of photographs”.

All of this did immense harm to the victims and to the church itself. But it also harmed Ireland as a whole. The abusive relationship between church and society in which people were induced to collude in the maintenance of a corrupt and cynical system of power and control screwed up the Irish relationship with authority.

It deeply damaged the democratic and republican notion that power comes from the people, by creating a culture of shame, of weakness and of collusion. It taught us to live with, and believe that we loved, an arrogant and unaccountable kind of authority.

If we are ever to awaken once and for all from the nightmare described by the commission, we have to unlearn that lesson and create forms of collective authority that are open, accountable, lawful and genuinely democratic.

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