Arrogant demand for control has not changed


PSYCHIATRISTS DON’T cry. As they delve into unfathomable pain, they must remain completely unemotional. Last week, Prof Richard Green of Imperial College in London admitted that in 40 years of clinical work, there was one occasion when he broke down and cried. It was while he was listening to a middle-aged Irishman describing the abuse he had suffered as a child at the hands of the Christian Brothers.

Tears come with the territory. And yet, they are of little use to anyone. Mannix Flynn, who did so much to break the silence, has warned of the danger of sentimentalising the victims.

What, precisely, do we do with all those religious congregations who are apparently incapable of understanding the crimes for which they are institutionally responsible? To understand the import of this question, let’s take a concrete example.

The State is committed to building a single national children’s hospital. That hospital is to be part of the Mater Misericordiae complex in Dublin. Both the Mater and the national children’s hospital will therefore be under the control of the Sisters of Mercy. An absolute majority of the members of the private limited company that owns the Mater and the children’s hospital are members of the order. Both hospitals must be run “in accordance with the mission and traditions of the Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy in Ireland”.

Those traditions have many sides, good and bad, but they unquestionably include the running of an institution (Goldenbridge) where children were systematically beaten, emotionally abused and enslaved. They also include the Cappoquin Industrial School in which a “highly dysfunctional management”, characterised by alcohol abuse and “inappropriate relationships between senior personnel”, continued well into the 1980s.

Even more to the point, those traditions include a culture of denying and minimising abuse when it was revealed. Staggeringly, even after listening to the testimonies of survivors of Goldenbridge before the Ryan commission, the provincial of the order, Sr Helena O’Donoghue, told the commission that she did not accept that there had been either extreme violence used against children or “daily unjustified physical abuse”. She continued to insist that Goldenbridge was a “reasonably effective and caring institution”.

On the practice of child slave labour at Goldenbridge, with children from the age of seven forced, on pain of beatings, to make 60 Rosaries a day (90 on Saturdays) for a commercial manufacturer, Sr Helena described it “as a pleasant activity to while away the time, which was enjoyed by the children and often done to music from the radio”.

The activity was certainly pleasant for the nuns, who made so much money from it that they were able, in the 1950s, to put £1,000 towards the purchase of a holiday home for themselves.

This heroic level of denial fed into the scandalous deal between the State and the religious congregations: Sr Helena was the lead negotiator for the orders and her ex-employee at the Mater, Bertie Ahern, was taoiseach. That deal protected, among other things, the order’s control of the Mater itself and the €40 million it got when it sold the Mater private hospital in 2000.

The stark fact is that the State is planning to put both €1 billion of public money and the care of sick children into the hands of a “tradition” that has been completely unable to grasp the meaning of what it did to children in industrial schools.

And this is just one example of the wider problem we face. Just one of the religious congregations involved, the Rosminians, has had the grace to acknowledge fully its collective guilt and act accordingly. The simple principle it adopted was, as Fr Joseph O’Reilly told the commission, “Do no more harm.” Staggeringly, this position was, the commission said, “unique”. Just one single congregation, in other words, has grasped the idea of doing no more harm as the primary imperative.

Which leaves us with a blunt choice. Is it or is it not acceptable in the 21st century that institutions who cannot understand their obligation to do no more harm are still the trustees of our schools and hospitals? This is not an abstract question.

Just last week, we learned that the Department of Education has not responded after 15 months to a request by the parents’ group Educate Together to be recognised as a patron for second-level schools. We also heard Catholic bishops demanding that they be made co-patrons of new, non-Catholic State primary schools. The arrogant demand for control has not changed.

In one of the most moving testimonies a priest who had run the notorious school at Daingean reported listening to a beating outside while he was praying to Christ and realising that “Christ himself is being punished now right beside me.” It is time to say, in the words of James Larkin, “You’ll crucify Christ in this town no longer.”

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