Our culture of shame


GIVE ME A BREAK:MONSIGNOR TOM COONAN does not recall using the word “ruffians” in relation to boys detained in Daingean reformatory school, but he does recall saying that they were “no angels” and “unwanted”. He added they were like children unwanted today.

If these kids were no angels, it follows that today’s “unwanted” children are also no angels. I disagree.

Twenty-five years ago, when I started out at The Irish Times, it was an uphill battle to find people willing to tell their stories. The stories were there, but people were afraid because truth-telling equalled shame. I spent most of my time finding people who would speak honestly about cancer, relationship breakdown, the health system, HIV, drug abuse, alcoholism, adoption, unemployment (it was the 1980s), the difficulties of families living in poverty in suburban ghettoes, being female in a male-dominated society, mental illness, inadequate psychiatric hospitals, rape and sexual abuse. And this was in the days before mobile phones and answering machines. Before Livelineand the Oprah factor.

The people who were willing to speak out remain heroes to me. Among them were Paddy Doyle, author of The God Squad, and Christine Buckley, who later featured in the TV documentary Dear Daughter. Both were aware that their stories would be greeted with denial and that their stability would be questioned – even though two more stable people would be hard to find. They were among the children that Monsignor Coonan might regard as “no angels”, but they’re angels in my view.

Their candour wasn’t met with public outrage or public marching. This took time. Twenty years. I am in awe of their persistence. Their gift has been to remain consistent and to encourage others to stop being afraid and say: “That happened me, too.” When enough people identify and speak out, the veracity of the stories can no longer be denied.

Doyle and Buckley continue to speak out in the media, persist in being brave in a brave new world. The web has transformed the way people cope with and communicate their stories. It has been a liberating influence.

It would be nice to think that we humans were responsible for this change in consciousness and communication, or that we’ve reached a turning point towards a “theology of mercy”, as Mary Condren so eloquently put it in yesterday’s newspaper. It would be nice to think that there has been a revolution in the Catholic Church or that the Oprah factor of “let it all hang out” has finally blossomed here. The real changing influence has been the web. People being able to communicate in a forum where they feel safe and in control and somehow humanised by being able to communicate with one another without the interference of any institution, newspapers included.

More of this communication is seeping into newspapers. It’s 20 years since I researched and wrote a series of articles about the pain of unmarried women forced to give their children up for adoption. Names were changed, the stories were real, but the Catholic adoption societies that perpetuated this abuse remained silent and no one really believed. When I wrote a column about forced adoption a while back, more than 50 women e-mailed me with their personal stories. No way could I have imagined such an openness when I wrote the original series.

Still, I don’t think we’re quite there yet. Ireland remains a shame-based society where the victim is again victimised by speaking out and risks being called “no angel”. Closure? A sense of vindication? A belief that society is finally changing? I haven’t heard of one victim of sexual abuse in institutions who would answer yes.

According to a Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report of 2002: “One in five women (20.4 per cent) reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood with a further one in ten (10.0 per cent) reporting non-contact sexual abuse . . . One in six men (16.2 per cent) reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood with a further one in 14 (7.4 per cent) reporting non-contact sexual abuse.”

That report, published only seven years ago, doesn’t belong to the dark age of institutions. Much of the abuse happened within the supposed safety zone of a child’s family and friends. Today, there is a minuscule chance of prosecution when a child is sexually abused. To take a case is to be victimised all over again.

We have inherited a shame-based culture of secrecy, where truth-telling means humiliation, and it stretches into every area of life – insensitive teachers, doctors on huge salaries who bolster up an inadequate health system, a Government that cuts the Christmas bonus.

For sexual abuse victims, the humiliation was repeated again recently. One in Four’s Maeve Lewis is quoted on Paddy’s Doyle’s website as saying: “I can’t imagine what the commission was thinking by barring people. I suspect they were fearful of the response of those who spent time in the institutions, but the effect of their actions was to further humiliate those who experienced abuse.”

John Kelly of Survivors of Child Abuse said: “We were encouraged by this commission and by the former taoiseach to open our wounds. We did this and they’ve been left gaping open.” Gaping wounds continue to bleed and they will do so as long as we hang on to an attitude that there are angels and no angels.