Our State is defined by many things. But perhaps the most basic and most tangible is its monopoly on the lawful use of violence – which is vested in its armed forces.
That’s why the report of the Independent Review Group (IRG) into the abuse of women in the Defence Forces is of such moment.
It tells us, in the starkest of terms, that the State, in this, its rawest form, has been no less profoundly corrupted by the culture of misogyny than the Catholic Church has been. There is not one evil twin in the overly intimate pairing of church and State that formed independent Ireland – both are polluted by toxic masculinity.
The IRG report is, as it should be, devastating and depressing. Yet it is also eerily familiar: so much of it feels like reading reports into sexual abuse in church-run institutions and dioceses.
This commonality reminds us that systemic abuse is not about religion. It’s about the workings of power: hierarchy, impunity, misogyny, cover-up.
The dark stories of endemic institutional abuse that have emerged previously in Ireland this century have almost always emanated from the Catholic church and the systems it controlled, from industrial schools to parish networks.
For that reason, it is easy to conclude that abuse results from religion and specifically from Catholicism. Priestly celibacy is a convenient (and not entirely inaccurate) explanation.
But organised sexual predation on the weak and vulnerable – and the covering up of rape and sexual assault by those who are supposed to be protecting the victims – is an equal opportunities crime. It will happen in every organisation in which some people can do whatever the hell they want, knowing that other people will cover up their crimes to protect the reputation of the institution.
What are the conditions that create this impunity? The first is what I’ve previously called the Irish “unknown known”, the cognitive dissonance in which what is happening right in front of you is not happening at all.
“Everyone,” as the IRG report puts it, “knows what is going on, but no one dares to admit it – except the brave individuals who come forward, only to face a barrage of abuse and criticism. Consequently, the ‘dirty’ secrets are never tackled.”
This quote refers to the denigration of and assaults on women in the Defence Forces, but it could be drawn word for word from any account of the way the church allowed systemic abuse to fester over decades.
Here, as James Joyce put it a long time ago “Christ and Caesar are hand-in-glove”. The evasive strategies of church and State are at one.
The second condition is a structure dominated by a self-satisfied male elite that has good reason to think of itself as answerable to nothing and no one. The Catholic bishops obviously fit that profile – but so do the military aristocracy: “A common perception among interviewees” says the IRG report, “is that certain senior or commanding officers considered themselves elite and not accountable to anyone.”
There’s even a sense in which this arm of the State has actually been worse than the church. The Catholic hierarchy was complicit in the sexual abuse of children because it protected rapists and moved them around from parish to parish.
But in our Defence Forces, it seems that some of the bishops’ equivalents have themselves been the direct perpetrators: “The main perpetrators of misogynistic behaviour were male officers or senior NCOs.”
Take that in: the typical offenders are not the rough soldiery but well-educated members of the officer class, respectable university graduates from good homes who yet think it okay for any man to define himself as the hunter and any woman as his prey.
The third condition is misogyny itself. It’s really important that the IRG report repeatedly uses that word.
It is not named often enough – perhaps because it is taken for granted. Hatred of women lies so deep in the groundwater that it is merely part of the landscape.
Its primary victims are, of course, women and girls. But at its rotten heart is a warped and damaged idea of what it is to be a man.
That sickness permits men to do terrible things, not only to women and girls, but also to boys and men.
This is what happened in the church: the distorted sexuality inherent in contempt for women was visited on children in institutions, schools and parishes. But it is also imprinted, as the IRG report makes so painfully clear, on the State.
The report points out that while a horrifying 88 per cent of women in the armed forces experienced one or more forms of sexual harassment, so too did 17 per cent of men. Given that men hugely outnumber women in the ranks, a numerical majority of the victims of the misogynistic pathology are male.
This is not for a moment to take away from the very specific nature of the abuse of women in the forces. But it is to underline the reality that a misogynistic mindset is one that revels in bullying, harassment, control and humiliation – of everyone who is vulnerable, young and powerless ... whatever their gender.
It is a disgrace to the nation and it must end here.