Government must act quickly if religious orders shirk their duty


ANALYSIS:WHAT IS it about the Catholic Church and money? Why is it that the 18 religious congregations seem so desperate not to pay a penny more than their paltry contribution of €128 million (less than 10 per cent) to the scheme to compensate those who they abused so savagely in their institutions? writes MARY RAFTERY

We witnessed over the past two days a showdown of High Noonproportions, although it was certainly a little more difficult to tell the goodies from the baddies.

On one side, the bishops – shortly to be facing their own Armageddon in the shape of the report of the inquiry into clerical child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Dublin. This is likely to reveal that a substantial number of bishops currently in situ all over the country knew of abuse at various stages and did little to prevent it and protect children.

On the other side, the religious orders – standing condemned for a litany of heinous crimes against staggeringly large numbers of children, and guilty of attempting of thwart the Ryan Commission’s inquiry at every hand’s turn.

That the congregations would be prepared to face down the bishops speaks volumes about where they consider their true interests to lie. They have clearly chosen to protect their assets even at the expense of their good name, not to mention their vows of obedience to higher authority within the church.

At the rate they are going, not even the pope himself could separate them from their cash.

While nominally devoted to poverty (another one of those seemingly dispensable vows), the religious orders have been characterised in this country by a remarkable attachment to money. The Ryan Commission report is particularly interesting in charting what exactly they did with the large sums they received from the State for the children in their care in industrial schools.

Justice Ryan makes clear that they did not spend it all on these children, choosing instead to use it for other activities.

Meanwhile, the children were described as cold, ragged, starving and grossly neglected. They were used often as slave labour, again to bring in revenue to swell the coffers of the orders.

Given how pervasive this was, it is difficult to avoid the blunt conclusion that most of these congregations were motivated by greed and avarice. We know from the Ryan report that they lived well, often waited on by the children whom they used as servants. We also know that they enjoyed the notion of dispensing charity, presumably where at least some of their income went.

Charity, you might say, is a good thing. However, in Ireland during the years in question it was often dispensed (particularly by Catholic organisations) as a means of reinforcing a relationship of relative power between those who gave and those who received. The givers held the power.

The objects of their charity were the weak and the poor. They were expected to be meek and grateful. This, of course, was the defining quality of the so-called deserving poor.

These are precisely the same concepts which motivate the religious orders today in their statements that they wish to “deal directly” with abuse victims over possible future reparation, rather than re-opening the church/State deal.

We are back to the days of charity, with survivors having to apply for alms, which the orders will dispense with the smug, self-satisfied conviction that they are helping the victims. But only the deserving ones, of course.

It is a familiar pattern, and one we have seen applied by religious orders elsewhere in the world. Towards the end of 2001, before the church/State deal was finalised, myself and journalist Mike Milotte made a two-part documentary series for RTÉ television’s Prime Time.

Entitled Betrayal, it examined the track record across three continents of the Christian Brothers when they were confronted with evidence of similar crimes perpetrated by them against children.

Whether in Australia or Canada, two of the areas where the congregation’s power was extensive, they denied the abuse, accused the victims of lying, and set about ensuring that their assets were protected from survivors and lawsuits by either creating trusts or splitting various schools and assets away from central control.

At the same time, they attempted to convince public opinion that through the odd charitable scheme for their victims, they were serious about reparation.

Betrayalalso engaged in an analysis of the Christian Brothers’ wealth. Shrouded in secrecy, it remains largely impenetrable, but we were able to report the view of an independent valuation expert that the Brothers’ Irish assets were worth up to half a billion euro. Add to that their assets around the world, particularly in Rome and Australia, and we estimated their wealth as exceeding one billion euro.

And remember that this is but one of the 18 congregations involved in the church/State deal and enjoying such a generous State indemnity against legal actions.

While the value of their properties may have declined in recent months, they still have substantial reserves of cash made by selling off unprecedented amounts of valuable real estate during the boom.

It is instructive to ask how they had managed to accrue such property in the first place. The answer is that we the people gave it to them, through our donations down the decades. For the orders now to be able to pocket the enormous proceeds of these sales, while refusing to shoulder a fair share of the compensation scheme for those who they directly abused, begs questions as whether these same congregations have any concept of morality or conscience.

And where does all of this leave the poor bishops?

It looked for a brief moment yesterday as if we were facing a historic moment in Catholic history. The hierarchy had effectively issued an edict to religious orders to pay up, and had been met with open and public defiance.

Never before, in 2,000 years, had such a crisis arisen. The bishops were standing on the edge of a precipice, looking into the abyss. They had to jump or retreat – an open schism or a craven capitulation.

In the end, it was a rout, with the bishops ignominiously fleeing the field with their tails between their legs. Their earlier posturing of declaiming that the religious orders should square up to their responsibilities and pay more into the redress scheme was abandoned.

Instead, all we got was a lily-livered statement that they would work closely with these same congregations towards some kind of unspecified resolution.

The issue is now firmly back in the court of Government. Will it again expose the survivors of abuse to the whims of the religious orders, or will it function properly in the interests of all citizens, forcing the congregations to shoulder their fair share of responsibility and payment to the redress scheme.

Any additional acts of charity which the orders may wish to make are of course a matter for themselves, and should not be confused with the vital principle that justice must be done and seen to be done by State and church sharing equally both the burden and the responsibility of the pain they collectively caused to so many thousands of children.

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