“What is most striking is how warmly and affectionately past pupils speak of their school days; not all citizens of this State have such fond memories,” declared The Irish Times editorial of Saturday, November 6th, 1999, on the occasion of the Holy Ghost Fathers handing over management of Blackrock College and four other schools.
The withdrawal of priests from Blackrock was deemed a sufficiently seminal moment to merit a front-page story, several features and an editorial comment piece. The leader noted that Catholic involvement in education was rooted in “the hope that the Church would influence the decision-making class in business and among the professions and... raise moral standards and spiritual fervour across the wider society”.
But times were changing, and questions were being asked about that mandate. Not quite the right questions, unfortunately. “Is there really a sense that business practices and ethics in Irish society are higher than elsewhere, despite the character-forming work of the Holy Ghost fathers and others?” the leader asked. Any such sense would have been entirely delusional, as we were one banking collapse away from discovering. This wasn’t the only part of Irish life steeped in denial.
How times have changed. The legacy of the Holy Ghost fathers – now known as the Spiritans – is occupying the media once again. As the Blackrock Boys documentary made clear in harrowing detail, not all memories of the place are warm and affectionate. Seventy more people have come forward since with complaints against the Spiritans, bringing the total to 300. Thirty have contacted gardaí.
The question no one seems able to answer is why it has taken so long for the dark side of the Spiritan legacy to be exposed. There were red flags even in those 1999 articles – coded talk of canes and leathers and pupils “scared rigid” going to school – but they went unexplored, perhaps written off as part of the culture of low-level physical and psychological violence we all had to endure in school up to the 1990s. There’s another moment of reckoning to come on that, surely.
There was one notable voice of dissent in the coverage. Bob Geldof said it was “a good thing” the priests were getting out. “I met several priests who were good men” but the best were not in education, he added. You can’t help wondering if Geldof spotted the irony in the letter published alongside the editorial extolling the Holy Ghosts’ fine record in education. It was signed by a former secretary of John Charles McQuaid, who wrote to robustly defend the archbishop against a hearsay allegation of child abuse. McQuaid, a Holy Ghost himself, couldn’t have been in the pub where he was said to have abused the child, because he never went to pubs. Case closed.
The collective blindness is extraordinary. Why are the stories of sexual abuse in boys’ schools – because it wasn’t confined to Blackrock – only now tumbling out? How can politicians claim to be universally shocked when the reviews of the national safeguarding board published over the past decade foreshadowed all of this? Why didn’t those reviews lead to an outcry and the immediate lancing of the Church’s role in education? Why didn’t other teachers speak out? The response to John Cooney, McQuaid’s biographer who raised the abuse allegation and was roundly excoriated for it, as Fintan O’Toole recently recalled, goes some way to answering that.
So, too, does the toxic cocktail of craven gratitude, subservience and pragmatism which defined the State’s relationship with the organisation that took on society’s messy social issues. The Church’s reward for dealing with our wayward children, fallen women and “future elite” was absolute autonomy. No one chose to notice that it had built a scaffolding around itself which was the perfect cover for abuse – untrammelled power, enforced celibacy, institutionalised misogyny, vast wealth (the Spiritans alone have €57.2 million in “congregational reserves”), access to vulnerable children and women, even the rituals of Confession and redemption, which often superseded actual justice.
Seventeen reports on child abuse later, that scaffolding is crumbling. And yet astonishingly little has changed with regard to religious involvement in schools, despite the predictions in The Irish Times of 1999 that wider questions would soon be asked over its role. Over 90 per cent of primary schools and half of secondary schools remain under Catholic patronage. Even this week, concerns are being expressed about religious symbols in former vocational schools which are “de jure multidenominational, but de facto Catholic”.
It feels like a moment of change has arrived in this de jure secular, de facto Catholic society, thanks to the courage of survivors. We have seen the transformative power of human stories before, after a handful of women’s accounts of sexual harassment by powerful men unleashed a tsunami. The abusive Spiritans may be Ireland’s Harvey Weinstein moment – our #MeToo movement, or a moment of kairos, the theological term for a time when conditions are ripe for action.
That action should take the form of criminal prosecutions first, and an independent, victim-led inquiry that goes both deep and wide. That means including all religious orders involved in education. The inquiry by Gabriel Scally into CervicalCheck has been mooted as a model. But already, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and others seem to be worrying about the scale and warning that there is “no perfect option”.
The primary concern now can’t be about cost, when the State saved a fortune outsourcing its intractable social problems to the church. Children and women paid the price for that. We can’t make amends, perhaps, but we need to find a way to offer meaningful redress. As Colm O’Gorman said on RTÉ Radio recently, it’s time to stop congratulating survivors for their courage, and become a more courageous society. The first step is confronting our own history of wilful blindness, subservience and silence.