An Irish disease?


For generations they were the Catholic Church's most devoted sons,joining its ranks in their droves. Patsy McGarry, Religious Affairs Correspondent, explores the reasons why Irish Catholic men became the most likely sex abusers in the world

You must have noticed all those Irish names wherever in the English-speaking world clerical child sexual abuse is spoken of. Wherever green was borne. Even allowing for the uniquely high number of Irish men among Catholic priests and religious, this phenomenon is very striking.

In Australia: Butler, Claffey, Cleary, Coffey, Connolly, Cox, Farrell, Fitzmaurice, Flynn, Gannon, Jordan, Keating, McGrath, McNamara, Murphy, Nestor, O'Brien, O'Donnell, O'Regan, O'Rourke, Riley, Ryan, Shea, Sullivan, Sweeney, Taylor, Treacy.

In Canada, Brown, Corrigan, Hickey, Kelley, O'Connor, Kenney, Maher. In Boston, Father John Geoghan, the most accused child sex abuse priest in US history. And elsewhere in the US? Birmingham, Brown, Brett, Conway, Dunn, Hughes, Lenehan, McEnany, O'Connor, O'Grady, O'Shea, Riley, Ryan, Shanley . . .

In the UK, Dooley, Flahive, Jordan, Murphy, O'Brien, to name some. And then there are the priests and brothers of Ireland.

The problem is not just within "the cloth". Research indicates it extends to other Irish Catholic males. On Friday, April 19th last, a report commissioned by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre was published. Entitled 'Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland', it was carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and involved telephone interviews with more than 3,000 randomly invited adults, 71 per cent of whom agreed to take part.

Its findings are a merciless unearthing of the secret world of the Irish (Catholic) male.

Defining sexual abuse as being either of the contact or non-contact variety - the latter being where a person was forced to look at pornography or watch sexual acts - the survey found that 30 per cent of the Irish women interviewed and 24 per cent of the Irish men had been sexually abused as children. One can only imagine what such figures were for the dead generations.

In the rest of Europe, the figures for child sex abuse are 17 per cent for women and 5 per cent for men. In the US, they are 29 per cent for women and 7 per cent for men.

Nearly half of those abused (47 per cent) in Ireland said they had never disclosed it to anyone, while just 7.8 per cent of women and 1 per cent of the men had reported it to police.

Commenting on the findings, Prof David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Centre at the University of New Hampshire in the US, remarked that Ireland has "a more serious problem" with child sexual abuse than either the rest of Europe or North America.

He found the figures for abuse of boys and men to be particularly stark. "The rates for men are three-and-a-half times higher here than in North America, where the rates are relatively high," he said.

Among factors he suggested as a possible explanation for this Irish phenomenon was alcohol misuse, gender segregation in schools, social isolation and an excess of men without a sexual partner in their immediate area.

These findings, and experience in the English-speaking Catholic world - where the Irish clergy and religious have played such a role in the Catholic Church's clerical child sex abuse crisis internationally - begs the question: "What is wrong with the Irish male?" Because the vast majority of child sex abuse perpetrators are men and boys.

And why, particularly among Irish clerical sex abusers, have the great majority of victims also been male? All the indications - not least evidence from still-living victims - suggest that this secret world was not an overnight phenomenon. Is it an Irish disease?

We must go back. Where sexuality is concerned, the current generation of young Irish people is probably the first "normal" one since 1845. Up to that year the Irish generally were a happily sexually active people. With an abundance of cheap food, the population grew and grew, and a small amount of ground produced a large supply of potatoes.

In 1841, Ireland's population was 8.1 million. In the intervening 120 years to 1961 the population almost halved to 4.2 million. The immediate cause of this catastrophic decline was the Great Famine, which began in 1845. An immediate effect was an end to the sub-division of holdings and diversification from the potato into other crops.

This wrench in land use had a defining effect on Irish sexuality and the family. An economic imperative dictated sexual restraint as, regardless of family size, just one son would inherit. Others - sons and daughters - emigrated. And some, usually encouraged by a devout mother, entered the Church. The pattern persisted into the late 1960s.

Sex became taboo. Allied to Victorian prudery and a Catholic Church seemingly fixated on sex as the only sin, sensuality was pushed under in Irish consciousness.

A celibate elite became the noblest caste. They had unparalleled influence, through their close identification with Irish nationalism, the fact that they were educated when so many were not, and the control they exerted over what there was of an education system and healthcare service.

Parallel with post-Famine Ireland, Rome was experiencing one of its most dogmatic - and the longest - papacies under Pius IX. This papacy consolidated the power of Rome in Ireland and elsewhere in the Catholic world. Rome rule asserted itself in Ireland under such doughty figures as Cardinal Paul Cullen of Dublin, the first Irish cardinal. He received the red hat from Pius IX in 1866.

Such men as Cullen oversaw the rise of Irish Catholicism from persecution and poverty into a powerful force. Crucially, it also built a solid Irish Catholic middle-class, which was also intended to act as bulwark against any possible future persecution.

Pius IX shaped the traditional Irish Catholicism that dominated at home and abroad into the latter part of the 20th century. As well as preaching absolute loyalty to Rome, the Vatican's celibate foot-soldiers preached chastity as the greatest virtue.

Irish women were expected to emulate the Virgin Mary, with a regrettable acceptance that it was not possible for them to conceive immaculately, as promulgated by the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception by Pius IX in 1854. The clergy preached that celibate life was superior to married life, that "impure thought" was evil, as was all sexual activity without a marriage licence. Sexual pleasure was taboo. It was "dirty", "disgusting", all too powerful evidence of an inferior animal nature which so constantly threatened what was divine in the human.

THE sermons of Irish Catholic clergy for most of the 120 years between 1850 and 1970 seemed dominated by sex. This railing, allied to economic factors, had inevitable consequences. Poverty and chastity saw to it that the marriage rate plummeted. In 1926, there were 230,525 marriages in the predominantly Catholic Republic. By 1961, that rate was down to 76,669. The rate of illegitimate births during the 1950s was just 1.8 per cent.

The "bachelor" became as integral a part of Irish life as the husband. So too did the spinster, with her penchant for over-wrought piety. The Irish mother was totally dependent on her husband economically. This ensured an appalling time for many Irish women as the absolute power of the husband was liberally abused in many homes. It drove many an Irish mother to seek solace in religion, which gave her suffering a meaning in martyrdom for a higher purpose.

Nothing could bring as much consolation and pride to the devout Irish Catholic mother - whether in Ireland or abroad - as seeing her son with a Roman collar around his neck. It was said of Ireland's seminaries during the middle decades of the last century that they were full of young men whose mothers had vocations to the priesthood. It helped too that becoming a priest brought with it education, power and great status.

Meanwhile, as the seminaries bulged, in 1954 a book, The Vanishing Irish, was published in Lon- don,questioning Ireland's dramatic depopulation. In the 1950s, the number of Irish Catholic clergy reached its highest level. In 1956, there were 5,489 priests in Ireland (diocesan and members of religious orders) - one for every 593 Catholics. There were also 18,300 nuns and Christian Brothers. Vocations were so high that between one-third and a half of clergy went on the missions.

The Vatican was suitably impressed. In 1961, Pope John XXIII said: "Any Christian country will produce a greater or lesser number of priests. But Ireland, that beloved country, is the most fruitful of mothers in this respect."

Only recently have we become familiar with the darker side of that rosy picture. It is estimated that approximately 3,000 survivors of child sex abuse in institutions run by religious during the middle decades of the last century have been in contact with the Government-established Laffoy Commission on Child Sex Abuse in the Republic. More and more victims of clerical child sex abuse by diocesan priests are coming forward. Similarly, more and more cases of child sex abuse in the family are before the courts.

What is emerging is evidence that despite massive repression, Irish male sexuality in particular didn't go away. It was simply redirected into areas where its expression was least likely to be found out. For most Irish men, it seems, the combined weight of mother and Church ensured that women were a no-no. With children, there was no risk of pregnancy. There was even less risk that they would talk outside the home - another great taboo.

Children were accessible to clergy, particularly. Some, clearly, were tempted. With boys, where such clergy were concerned, it was even easier. No one suspected anything untoward in seeing a cleric with a boy. And in single-sex institutions - schools, for example - boys were accessible. There can be no doubt that this single-sex situation played a huge part in the sexual abuse of boys by Christian Brothers in Ireland, Canada and Australia.

Most of those brothers would have joined the orders as young as 12 or 13. Their sexuality would have been formed almost entirely in an all-male environment and most probably never developed beyond an early stage.

And there is the matter of celibacy. In itself, it may not be a cause of the present crisis in the Catholic Church, but the very culture of enforced celibacy has created a context which could be said to be a perfect haven for paedophiles.

As for homosexuality, statistics for the US indicate that as many as 60 per cent of priests there may be gay and, while such figures are not available for Ireland, the incidence is not unfamiliar here. In a 1997 article for the influential English Catholic weekly, the Tablet, written some months before she was elected, President McAleese wrote: "The dynamics of priesthood have altered radically along faultlines some of which have yet to be openly acknowledged and explored. Women have observed the enormous drain of heterosexual males from the priesthood and the growing phenomenon of gay priests."

She continued: "They are quietly asking what is happening at the core of the call to priesthood that attracts homosexuals in much greater numbers than their population distribution would explain. These questions are not being raised in any homophobic way, but are among a raft of questions bubbling to the surface."

Few institutions are perceived as being as virulent on the issue of homosexuality - as on all matters sexual, indeed - as the Catholic Church. It teaches that homosexuality is objectively disordered and that the practice is inherently evil. Yet in the US, where, according to the Kinsey Report (1992), between 3 per cent and 9 per cent of men have had homosexual experience, why is it that such a disproportionate number of Catholic priests are gay?

IT SEEMS self-explanatory. Where better for a gay Catholic man to be than the priesthood? Becoming a priest ensures the esteem of family and community - something he would have difficulty securing otherwise, not least because of the teaching of his Church - and without any questions about sexuality or marriage.

In Ireland, it seems we have begun only in recent decades, with increased prosperity and education, to adopt a more "normal" approach to sexuality. You might say this began with the Whittaker/Lemass First Programme for Economic Expansion in 1958, which opened up the Republic to the world. Our population began to grow again as our prosperity increased.

Sex re-emerged with The Late Late Show. The introduction of "free" education in 1967 allowed greater access to second and third level for many, many more young people bringing with it an increased social confidence. And Ireland's Catholics began to assert an independence from Rome's teaching on sexuality, particularly following the Humanae Vitae in 1968, banning all articificial means of contraception.

Vocations began to decrease as the State's population grew. Last year, just 30 young men entered seminaries compared with 164 in 1970. Meanwhile, births to single mothers now average one in five.

For Catholics none of this is to be celebrated, but we have to ask what was it in Catholicism that meant the Church prospered to such an extraordinary degree at the time of greatest social decay in Ireland?

That Ireland has changed is a truism. That this has happened in the past generation is a fact. As we learn more and more of our past it becomes clear we were a deeply dysfunctional people - particularly our men - at home and abroad. That this dysfunction persists is all too painfully clear, as the recent Royal College of Surgeons research makes clear. But it would be safe to assume that it is righting itself.

Through facing the revelations of recent years, we have been able to see that Ireland today is, psychologically, an infinitely better place than at any time since the Famine. It is a more open, free, transparent society where happiness is possible and actively sought-after as a realisable ambition in this life by the great majority of people. It is no longer deferred to eternity while we plod, laden, through a vale of fears and tears.

We are becoming a country fit - and safe - for young people again.