Roots of a warped view of sexuality


Why is it that child sex abuse was more prevalent in Irish Catholicism than elsewhere? To answer that question it is necessary to go back to the Famine and examine how sex became a taboo, writes PATSY McGARRY

YOU MIGHT have seen that report on the RTÉ TV news last Monday from Charlie Bird in Mendham, New Jersey. There, they erected the first monument in the world to victims of clerical child sex abuse.

It is a 180kg basalt stone, in the shape of a millstone, with a chain running through it. An inscription attached reads, in those unequivocal words of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel, concerning those who would harm the young: “It would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea”.

The monument was inspired by a suicide, in October 12th, 2003, of 37-year-old James Kelly, who had been sexually abused as a child by a priest in Mendham. His abuser was Fr James Hanley, who had served at St Joseph’s parish in Mendham.

It is not surprising that the first monument to clerical child sex abuse victims worldwide should have been made necessary by the crimes of a priest with an Irish name.

Irish names are prominent wherever in the English-speaking world clerical child sex abuse has been spoken of. Even allowing for the uniquely high number of Irish men among Catholic priests and religious worldwide, this phenomenon is striking.

Nowhere else in the Roman Catholic world has another nationality been as dominant among clerical child sex abusers. What was so different about Irish Catholicism that it gave rise to this?

In spring 2002, I was commissioned by the editor of an English publication to write about clerical child sex abuse from an Irish perspective. I pondered whether it was an Irish disease.

On receipt of the article the editor said he couldn’t print it. His publication had spent decades trying to escape an anti-Irish perception and were he to carry the article it would undo all their success in finally escaping that, he said. The article was published in The Irish Timeson May 4th, 2002.

It noted all those Irish names among clerical child sex abusers. In Australia, they included 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 the US: Geoghan, Birmingham, Brown, Brett, Conway, Dunn, Hanley, Hughes, Lenehan, McEnany, O’Connor, O’Grady, O’Shea, Riley, Ryan, Shanley.

In the UK: Dooley, Flahive, Jordan, Murphy, O’Brien.

And, of course, all those in Ireland itself.

WHY IS CLERICALchild sex abuse more prevalent in Irish Catholicism? To answer that, it is necessary to go back. Until 1845 the Irish were a happily sexually active people. With an abundance of cheap food, the population grew. Patches of ground were subdivided with ever-decreasing acreage, producing a sufficient supply of potatoes.

In 1841, the island of Ireland had a population of 8.1 million. By 1961, the country having gone through the Famine and emigration, it was 4.2 million.

Another effect was an end to subdivision of holdings and diversification away from the potato to other crops, cattle and dairying. This wrench in land use had a defining effect on Irish sexuality. An economic imperative dictated vigorous sexual restraint as, regardless of family size, just one son would inherit. Others – sons and daughters – emigrated or entered the church. This late 19th-century pattern persisted into the 1960s.

Sex became taboo. Allied to prudery and a Catholic Church fixated on sex as sin, sensuality was pushed under. A celibate elite became the noblest caste. They had unparalleled influence through their dominance of an emerging middle class, the fact that they were educated when most were not, and the control they had over what there was of an education system and healthcare.

In tandem, Rome was experiencing one of its most dogmatic papacies under Pius IX. The longest serving pope (1846-1878), he lost the Papal States and eventually Rome itself to Italian reunification. As his temporal power decreased, he increasingly emphasised the eternal, and compounded a trend – extant in Catholicism since the French revolution – of alienation from this vale of tears.

Life became a test, a preparation for death and eternal life under the eye of what Archbishop Diarmuid Martin described last weekend in another context as “a punitive, judgmental God; a God whose love was the love of harsh parents, where punishment became the primary instrument of love”.

Pius asserted himself in Ireland through the doughty Cardinal Paul Cullen of Dublin, the first Irish cardinal. He received the red hat from Pius in 1866. Cullen shaped the traditional Irish Catholicism with its emphasis on devotional practice, which dominated at home and abroad into the latter part of the 20th century.

As well as preaching absolute loyalty to Rome (Pius promulgated the doctrine of Papal Infallibility in 1870) the Vatican’s celibate foot soldiers preached chastity as the greatest virtue. Irish women were expected to emulate the Virgin Mary. In 1854, Pius IX promulgated the Doctrine of the Immaculate Conception – that Mary was born without original sin – embedding still further in the popular Irish Catholic mind a profound association between sex and sin.

The clergy preached that celibate life was superior to married life; that sexual activity outside marriage was evil and even within where the intention was not procreation. Sexual pleasure was taboo, powerful evidence of an inferior animal nature that 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 a world view that saw the economic business of this earth as inferior activity in the eternal scheme of things, had inevitable consequences. Poverty and chastity saw to it that the marriage rate plummeted.

By 1926, for instance, the percentage of unmarried females in each age cohort was 50 per cent higher than in England and Wales and nearly three times as great as in the US. By 1961 the population of the Republic had dropped to 2.8 million.

The bachelor had become as integral a part of Irish life as the husband. So too had the spinster, with her penchant for overwrought piety. The Irish mother was totally dependent on her husband economically. It ensured an appalling time for some Irish women, as the absolute power of the husband was liberally abused in many homes. It drove many Irish mothers to seek solace in a higher purpose.

This often translated into a son becoming a priest. Nothing could bring such consolation 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 that becoming a priest brought with it great power and status.

In 1954, a book, The Vanishing Irish: The Enigma of the Modern World, by John A O’Brien, was published in London. It questioned Ireland’s dramatic depopulation. Simultaneously the number of Irish Catholic clergy reached its highest level ever. 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 a 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.”

BUT CLEARLY THEREwas something deeply dysfunctional in that society.

The Ryan report has lifted a lid on what was going on behind the closed doors of the religious-run institutions. The 2005 Ferns report revealed more of its legacy in later decades. The forthcoming Dublin report and, most likely, the Cloyne report will disclose still more from those years.

The problem, however, is not just within “the cloth”. In April 2002 the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre published a report titled Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland. It found that 30 per cent of Irish women and 24 per cent of Irish men had been sexually abused as children. In the rest of Europe, corresponding figures 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.

It is clear that, due to massive repression, Irish male sexuality in particular became, for some, redirected into areas where its expression was least likely to be discovered. For many Irish men, it seems, the combined weight of mother and church ensured that women became a no-no.

Some then turned to children. They were accessible to clergy, particularly. With boys it was even easier. No one suspected anything untoward in seeing a man, especially a cleric, with a boy, not least in single-sex institutions.

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 persisted is all too painfully clear, as the 2002 Royal College of Surgeons research makes clear.

But, equally, it is as clear that our attitudes to sex have relaxed greatly in recent times. An indicator of this is that births outside marriage in Ireland today number one in three. Our population has grown to 4.42 million, immigrants included. It is probable that our younger generation is the most normal, sexually, in Ireland since 1845.

We must hope so.