How institutions can perish


PUBLIC OUTRAGE over the picture of brutality, sadism, sexual abuse and repression in Ireland’s industrial schools and reformatories run by Catholic congregations is intensifying following last week’s remarkable report by the Ryan commission.

 It is stoked by the flat refusal of the 18 orders involved to reopen the compensation and indemnity agreement they signed with the government in 2002. Their clumsy and self-serving efforts to protect their own interests are rapidly alienating whatever limited support they have. They have failed to see the central importance of saying sorry to the victims and taking the full consequences of their actions and responsibilities. This is how institutions perish.

The gross imbalance which leaves the State paying 90 per cent of the €1.3 billion settlements is indefensible. The deal should be renegotiated, as called for by Cardinal Seán Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin. The Government’s initial defensive argument that this can only be done voluntarily is just as insensitive to public opinion and short-sighted as the orders. That position too is shifting, as was signalled from the special Cabinet meeting last evening. The cosy, secretive and deferential manner in which the agreement was concluded seven years ago ill becomes a modern republican democracy. Revisiting it in light of the Ryan report and the angry public reaction would be in the best interests of church, State and citizens alike. Political and moral pressure to do this should be intensified.

The aim of such a renegotiation should be to have the church bear more of the cost, finding effective ways to channel aid and counselling independently to the victims, and establishing a fitting memorial for them to ensure the like never happens again. Yesterday’s statement by the Christian Brothers offering to explore how their resources and assets can best be used for the victims indicates one result of such pressure. It opens up a fresh perspective on this horrifying affair. Their realisation that far greater transparency is required from them is a breakthrough, but it raises major questions about the public accountability of private religious institutions to which the Government has devolved so much vital social infrastructure.

That issue has now been put fully into the public sphere for thorough debate and political decision. Most educational and many health and welfare facilities in this State are run by religious organisations, despite the sharp decline in their numbers and the steady transfer of control to lay trusts. Are we not still in thrall to these institutions to run such services? This crisis should stimulate that debate. To judge by the continuing volume, passion and anger of the letters to this newspaper, we are now at a critical juncture which could herald a sea change in our attitude to church, State and public policy.

Religious and political leadership to match this public mood for radical renewal is badly needed but so far sadly deficient or uneven. It is a really testing time for the institutional architecture of church and State constructed after independence and now found so unfit for purpose.