Public hostility to the church may lead to selective blame
Few can have missed the dramatic contrast between the Taoiseach’s weak response to the McAleese report in the Dáil last Tuesday and his momentous attack on the Vatican in July 2011.
On that previous occasion, he colourfully accused the Vatican of “elitism, dysfunction, disconnection and narcissism” and alleged that the rape and torture of children had been “downplayed or managed” by the Catholic Church, to uphold “the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation”.
He also, interestingly, said that the historic relationship between church and State in Ireland could never be the same again, the revelations in the Cloyne report having brought the government, Irish Catholics and the Vatican to “an unprecedented juncture”.
It is tempting to reprise that speech in its entirety today, with ironies highlighted to draw attention to certain evasions and anomalies in the Taoiseach’s rather less confident performance last Tuesday. But there is a more glaring aspect.
“After the Ryan and Murphy reports”, said the Taoiseach in one passage of his 2011 speech, “Ireland is, perhaps, unshockable when it comes to the abuse of children. But Cloyne has proved to be of a different order. Because for the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic …”
Did you see what he did there? By lumping Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne together, the Taoiseach insinuated that the matters described in those reports reflected poorly on the church alone. But whereas the other two reports looked at the horrific legacy of clerical sex abuse in, respectively, Cloyne and Dublin, the Ryan report of 2009 falls into a different category, being concerned with abuse within church institutions which the State availed of as part of its system for dealing with troublesome children.
Delayed and frustrated
The first chairwoman of the investigating committee into the running of orphanages and reformatories, Judge Mary Laffoy, appeared to set about her work with considerable zeal.
But, from the moment that investigation began in 2001, the Department of Education did everything in its power to delay and frustrate matters, leading eventually to Judge Laffoy withdrawing from her own investigation.
Her successor, Judge Seán Ryan, appeared to interpret his brief rather more narrowly. Bruce Arnold, author of The Irish Gulag, wrote in an online commentary on the published Ryan report that it had let the State off the hook: “The real culprit was and is the State, which is still floundering over child protection. The State approved, backed and used, intemperately and without consideration of the lives of victims, our legal system to incarcerate vast numbers of children.
“It was done for largely trivial, superficial and unresearched reasons and on the entirely meretricious excuse that it was for the good of the children.”
But the public discussion that followed focused almost exclusively on the church. The issue of how children came to be committed to the institutions under examination had been excluded from the remit of the Ryan investigation, on rather dubious “constitutional” grounds.
Hence, although we heard much about the deeds of priests and nuns, we heard almost nothing about the roles of civil servants, judges, social workers, probation officers and gardaí who were responsible for delivering children to their fates.
Failures of politicians
There was minimal scrutiny of the failures of politicians, even though, over the previous 75 years, several key opportunities to bring the nature of these institutions into the light had been elided by those with political responsibility at those times.
The Ryan report amounted, in effect, to a controlled explosion of the truth, drawing scrutiny towards the church and its personnel while carefully directing the public’s eyeline away from the State’s role in the same evils.
The brief of the McAleese group specifically related to State involvement in the Magdalene laundries, and its report provides a subtle and clear indictment of the State’s culpability, demonstrating that church and State were, in effect, the same. But the overall tenor is such as to suggest a rather less stark picture than we had been conditioned to expect. So, once again perhaps, the public’s attention has been briefly directed towards our historically dysfunctional state, and then, persuaded that things in the Magdalenes were not as bad as they might have been, directed away.
Power becomes accountable only when it’s waning. Did the ventilation of the abuses in various institutions dealing with children and women became a possibility only when public hostility towards Catholicism rendered the church a legitimate target for politicians, including “conservative” ones like Enda Kenny? Has growing public disfavour towards the Catholic Church been used to provide a shield for the State to deflect responsibility from itself for involvement in some of the most glaring outrages and abuses witnessed since Irish independence?
And if so – if our outrage at past wrongs is predicated on placing blame only selectively – can it be a genuine and useful outrage at all?