Polly Toynbee: All religions can be havens for abusers

Ireland’s confrontation with its dark past shines a searchlight on Catholicism.

The pope has flown home after a roughing-up in Ireland. Just a few years ago it was unimaginable that a gay Taoiseach would dare berate a visiting pontiff face-to-face about the “dark aspects” of Ireland’s history and “brutal crimes perpetrated by people within the Catholic church”.

Leo Varadkar’s magnificent assault eviscerated his country’s past cultural capture by the church. “The failures of both church and state and wider society created a bitter and broken heritage for so many, leaving a legacy of pain and suffering,” he said. “It is a history of sorrow and shame.” The sorrow is not just for victims of monstrous priestly abuse, but the abuse of an entire society in thrall to clerical oppression: lives crimped, warped and blighted, no escape from the church’s domination of everything. The best Irish literature breathes that pernicious incense.

Pope Francis’s visit to Ireland had the opposite effect of the healing intended: it set a seal on the liberation of a nation broken free with its votes on same-sex marriage and abortion. Varadkar’s government plans to loosen the grip of the Catholic church over primary education , ripping out indoctrination by the roots.

The pope apologised for the “grave scandal”, for the failure “adequately to address these repellent crimes” that “remain a source of pain and shame for the Catholic community”. But the Irish horrors are beyond apology, the women enslaved in Magdalene laundries , babies snatched into forced adoption, and 800 children’s bodies dumped into a cesspit at a convent in Tuam. For thousands revealed to have been abused by Catholic priests around the world, whose crimes were covered up by bishops and the Vatican, no mere apology will do.


No apology is enough for the many Africans contracting Aids through Catholic clinics’ refusal to issue condoms. Even if this better-than-average pope wants to do more, he has a gun held to his head by unrepentant ultra-conservative cardinals.

Apology without radical action has left unassuaged the anger of Irish abuse victims. The church’s doctrine in the confessional offers no forgiveness without a contrition that prevents future occasions of sin. But for as long as this church is perverted by warped dogma on sexuality, abuse will be rife and secretive. The fetishism of a celibate priesthood will attract abusers and paedophiles. Expect no real change while morbid obsession with sex, contraception and abortion still perpetuate St Paul’s founding sexual disgust.

Ireland’s confrontation with its dark past shines a searchlight on Catholicism. But then all religions can be havens for abusers, similarly tainted, equally founded on controlling women’s bodies. The Church of England was shown this year to have downplayed thousands of cases to protect its reputation, examining 40,000 accusations but accepting only 13 . Cases emerge from madrassas, yeshivas, temples, mosques and churches with warnings they are just the tip of iceberg. Wherever a community is in thrall to elders of a faith that defines their identity, few dare risk the threat of expulsion from a way of life.

Cases abound: the imam imprisoned for 13 years for abusing young girls in his Qur’an class or the BBC’s exposé of more than 400 children abused in madrassas . Despite plentiful cases among Jehovah’s Witnesses, their rules still insist on two witnesses before a victim is believed. A Plymouth Brethren case reflects the same pressure on all these communities – a 12-year-old raped by a senior elder was forced by her mother to write a letter denying her own allegation . Riots by Sikhs who forced the Birmingham Rep to cancel a play about rape in a temple warned anyone exposing their faith to expect retribution . Buddhism is rife with cases – the leader of Shambhala International, the west’s largest organisation, resigned last year following abuse claims .

In Australia, a royal commission found 853 young children abused by Christian Brothers. Fear of ostracism by a tight-knit community has led to cover-ups in ultra-orthodox Jewish groups . Dr Samuel Heilman, a professor of Jewish studies at Queens College, told the New York Times: “They are more afraid of the outside world than the deviants within their own community.” Rabbinical authorities, to maintain control, resist outside scrutiny that could erode their power – as with all these faiths.

Are religions more prone to abuse than other institutions? No one can know, but wherever there is power, vulnerable victims struggle to expose it. Religions still command an unwarranted aura of respect, preventing outside scrutiny. Yet there should be frequent unannounced inspections wherever children are. The same lack of curiosity surrounds the growing number of “home-schooled” children.

Britain should follow Ireland’s example and set out to abolish religious selection in schools. It is astonishing that in this mostly secular country, a third of our state schools separate children by creed. Many church schools are only harbours for not-so-subtle social class and race selection (yes, some are inclusive, but many aren’t). Faith schools take fewer children on free school meals . But where families are true believers, why does the state sponsor religious segregation?

Professed religion is growing around the world – at 84% – through demographics, not conversion. But it’s on the wane in North America and western Europe, according to Harriet Sherwood’s Guardian survey of young adults . Christians are most numerous, followed by Muslims, with non-believers third. Wars spurred by religions are rising. Wherever religions hold sway, LGBT people are persecuted and women subjugated, Islamophobia and antisemitism flourish.

Our 26 bishops in the House of Lords seem a quaint anachronism compared with Iran’s ayatollahs, but only Iran and the UK are still theocratic, with faith in their legislature. Despite less than 2% of Britons attending services and 70% of the country’s young having no faith, our state church holds power far beyond its dwindling size. It is opposed to every progressive change, resisting same-sex marriage and successfully blocking assisted dying, despite 80% of the public having supported it for decades. And no party dares to abolish faith schools.

Who would expect Ireland to blaze the secular trail? The hard lesson it has learned from an overpowering church is one we should learn too. Wherever people are in the power of priests, imams and spiritual leaders, the state has a duty to inspect what’s happening to the hidden-away children and women under their power. The Irish lesson is less respect for religion, and more instinctive suspicion.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist