Church and Republican movement both saw themselves as slightly above the law

Opinion: Parallels exist between the way both organisations handled child abuse allegations

Cardinal Sean Brady: might permit himself a smile as he observes Gerry Adams discovering that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Photograph: Eric Luke


Parallels between the way the Catholic Church and the republican movement have handled allegations concerning aspects of child sex abuse and cover-up arise from the fact that neither has traditionally seen itself as wholly answerable to the law of the land.

The church’s view of itself as the embodiment of God on earth and sole authentic interpreter of God’s law rendered it unable to acknowledge the primacy of secular law in matters touching on the church’s role in society. This was not the explanation offered by, for example, Cardinal Seán Brady when exposed as having covered up the crimes of Fr Brendan Smyth. An explanation along such lines would have seemed eccentric to the vast majority of citizens, including, probably, the vast majority of Catholics.

The church resorted to suggestions that not a lot was known about child sex abuse in the olden days of the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. There may be a bit or truth in this, but not a lot. The fundamental reason Dr Brady’s lips stayed zipped was that he took the traditional view of the church’s status.

The authoritative encyclopaedia of Catholic doctrine, Ludwig Ott’s Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, defines the church as “a true governing power, not merely warrant of supervision or direction such as, for example, belongs to the president of a political party, or a society . . . It embraces the full power of legislation, administration of justice . . . and of its execution.”

The laity and even some of the priesthood may not be up to speed on Dr Ott. But Seán Brady will have known his Ott backwards. Dr Ott, on the other hand, will not have known anything at all of the political party of which Gerry Adams is president.

Sinn Féin spokesmen yielded to no one in the stridency of their condemnations of Dr Brady’s inaction in the face of evidence of child sex abuse. But republicans, too, have had a view of their movement as something rather more elevated and historically significant than their run-of-the-mill rivals – not quite divinely inspired, but close – and on this account were prone to attitudes that echoed the cardinal’s.

At a rhetorical level, republicans have long presented themselves as the anointed keepers of the tradition of 1916 and thereby mandated by history as the legitimate government of Ireland. At a practical level, few today – very few indeed of Sinn Féin members in the Republic – harbour any such grandiose delusions. But the fact that the belief continued to shimmer in the minds of volunteers was important for the morale and effectiveness of the IRA in the North over 30 years of conflict.

Decent people
Only the assumed legitimacy of their struggle could make the level of pain inflicted and endured seem tolerable and morally justified. The vast majority of those who joined the IRA over the period did so for decent reasons and were themselves decent people. They had to believe that the army they were part of was as legitimate and as entitled to wage war as any other: certainly more legitimate than the British army in Ireland.

It was for this reason that volunteers captured in the course of the conflict demanded recognition as prisoners of war: the Sinn Féin unit responsible for prisoners was the prisoners of war department. It was for this reason, too, that any volunteer, or member of the community in whose name the IRA was fighting, who colluded with enemy forces – the RUC, for example – risked a bullet in the back of the head on a lonely road at night.

A terrible thing, but common enough as the price of treason in wartime. It was against that background that Adams, a member of the IRA army council during the relevant period and for some of it the chief of staff, did not pass on to the agencies of the (British) state what he knew of his brother’s crimes. This may not have been the only consideration he had in mind. But it will have been among them.

In both cases the actions and inactions of the respective leaders cannot be fully understood without reference to the fundamental ideas which, however risible they may seem to outsiders, have provided the spine along which their organisations have been built. It is the ideologies rather than the individuals that are most in need of cross-examination.

It is to be noted that while Adams’s organisation joined with others in demanding that Dr Brady resign in disgrace – “consider his position” – none of Dr Brady’s associates has publicly called on Adams to step down.

Different organisations, of course, with different ways of going about such things. But Dr Brady might be forgiven a thin smile as he observes Adams in the course of discovering that what was sauce for the Catholic goose must be sauce for the Provo gander.

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