Attitudes that led to abuse entrenched in system


"I trusted a system that was there. I did my own work." Thus Sister Stanislaus Kennedy on Morning Ireland on Wednesday, explaining her failure to act on information about child abuse in St Joseph's, Kilkenny.

That kind of institutional, bureaucratic attitude, by no means unique to the church, offers some kind of rationale for the extraordinary silence of decent people in the face of the horrors being perpetrated by a minority of their colleagues. The urge to trust the system and mind your own business is always a powerful factor in the perpetuation of abuse and injustice. But it is hardly enough to explain the scale and persistence of institutionalised violence against children in Ireland.

When the commission that has been established in response to Mary Raftery's brilliant and terrible States of Fear series begins to get to grips with what has happened, it will not be able to take refuge in the notion that all of this went on for so long merely because some good people were too weak to stop it.

It will have to come to terms with something much more uncomfortable: the fact that the abuse was not the result merely of individual perversity or private failure. It was the result, rather, of a coherent and widely-held set of beliefs. Conservative Catholicism, both in its institutional forms and its political implications, was at the very core of the violence.

What lies behind the whole scandal of the industrial schools is the criminalisation of poverty. Poor children, and the children who ended up in institutions were almost by definition poor, were believed to be guilty.

This was pointed out as early as 1936 in the report of the Commission on the Reformatory and Industrial School System. It acknowledged that there was, in Irish society generally, a tendency to regard industrial schools as part of the prison system: "The early association in the public mind of industrial schools with the prison system was undoubtedly responsible for a misconception that persists even to the present day regarding these institutions and the children trained in them."

The commission felt it necessary to point out that "in the main, the problem is one not of criminal tendencies but of poverty". It appended figures showing, for example, that, in 1932, 3 per cent of committals to industrial schools were for "serious offences", 6 per cent for failure to attend school and 90 per cent for "poverty and neglect". The commission tried, in its own limited way, to persuade society that poverty and neglect were crimes inflicted on children, not crimes committed by them for which they deserved to be incarcerated.

A decade later, in 1945, however, Mr Justice Henry McCarthy pointed out that the courts were still being used to criminalise children whose major sin was poverty: "Day after day, courts are obliged to remove children from their homes only because their parents, who idolise them, and who are entitled to the joy and solace of their companionship, are unable, through no fault of their own, to keep them from destitution . . . When one contemplates the appalling conditions under which so many of our poor children are compelled to live, one can but wonder why it is that so many of them keep out of trouble . . ."

Such pleas had little effect. Instead of facing up to the squalor in which so many children lived, it was easier to treat those children themselves as the problem. The church, which consistently opposed even the mildest moves towards a welfare state, sustained that notion by running what were essentially children's prisons. In order to maintain the myth of a decent, civilised Christian society, it was necessary to lock up the children whose very existence gave the lie to that myth.

For children born out of wedlock, many of whom ended up in institutions, the church reserved a special contempt. In a book published in 1952, Father Cecil Barrett, head of the Catholic Social Welfare Bureau, described single mothers as "fallen women" and "grave sinners", whose children were the product of "wickedness".

A decade later, another Irish Catholic discourse called The Problem of the Unmarried Mother described children born out of wedlock as "rebels" who "suffer from complexes analogous to those of certain invalids". They were "destined for suffering and often for failure". In that sense, the suffering inflicted on them in industrial schools might be seen not as a terrible aberration, but as part of their God-given destiny.

Two other attitudes were also crucial. Children must not be taught that their bodies are their own. And the prevention of child abuse is less important than the preservation of adult authority. Both of these attitudes remained central to conservative Catholicism in the 1990s. Here, for example, is Father Brian Gogan, writing in The Irish Times in February 1994: "The claim that a child owns its own body is at odds with Christian tradition. We have stewardship over our bodies but, like everything in the world, they belong to God. We render an account to Him for what we do in and with our bodies."

And here, in 1993, is an American Catholic, Dr William Coulson, brought over to Ireland by conservative Catholic groups, addressing a meeting in Cork: "Children are being told to tell teachers if anyone interferes with them, even if it is their father. This is a direct attack on parental responsibility."

The scandal of child poverty must not be allowed to tarnish the image of a free and frugal society. The institution of marriage must be upheld by stigmatising and suppressing the children of unmarried mothers. Children must not be given the notion that their bodies are their own. Adult authority must not be undermined.

These ideas were much more important factors in the perpetuation of cruelty than any individual failure. And they had a huge constituency, not just in the church, but in politics, social life, and the media. They were part of a governing consensus which people challenged at their peril.

This is not, of course, to lessen the responsibility of the perpetrators or of those who knew what was happening and did nothing. But it is important to understand that what we see when we turn over the rock of secrecy and indifference is not some kind of exotic horror. It is our own State, our own culture, our own ideological assumptions. And it is not dead. The suppression of the Madonna House report, the dreadful neglect of children with mental disabilities and the continuing scandal of children being sent to prisons and places of detention simply because there is nowhere else to put them all point to the persistence of attitudes which perpetuate abuse.

Above all, the criminalisation of child poverty is still with us. We still prefer to lock children up rather than deal with the poverty and neglect with which many of them live. It is long past time that we all stopped trusting that system.