Reflections on the Ryan report
IN THE first full week of reflection on the horrors contained in the report of the Ryan commission on institutional child abuse, we have seen the leaders of church and State struggle painfully towards an adequate response. In their closing of ranks, in their defensiveness and in their resort to formulaic platitudes, both the Government and the leaders of the main religious orders seemed to share an initial desire to brush off the implications of the report. Left to those tender mercies, the story of independent Ireland’s greatest disgrace would indeed have been a mere historic footnote.
On the other hand, however, public opinion has finally woken up to the scale and depth of this scandal. If both Government and church have been following rather than leading opinion, it is because they were utterly unprepared for the wave of visceral revulsion unleashed by the report. Their surprise is not unreasonable. All the essentials of the abusive system were laid out 10 years ago in the RTÉ documentaries States of Fear. It should not have taken another decade for that truth to fully enter our collective consciousness.
It is a tribute to the work of the Ryan commission – and to the value of official inquiry – that this has finally happened. We have already seen how powerful this moment of awakening can be. It has forced both the Government and the religious orders to accept that the reprehensible 2002 deal to indemnify the orders in return for a paltry contribution was itself a shameful continuation of the unhealthy collusion of church and State. That acceptance must now be made concrete in the only morally acceptable form: a 50/50 sharing of the €1.2 billion cost of recompense. The extra money should go towards the victims, including those who were abused in day schools.
There are larger questions to be addressed, however. The Ryan report has to mark an end, not just to the denial of vicious crimes, but to the whole 19th-century model of church involvement in the delivery of basic social services. That model was shaped by social and political conditions that no longer exist and by the ability of religious orders to staff hospitals and schools with their own members. It is not appropriate to a diverse 21st-century Ireland in which these services are overwhelmingly paid for by the State. It is also a hindrance to the religious orders themselves as they seek to rediscover the moral radicalism of their founders. The State needs to face up to its responsibilities. The church needs to divest itself of power and control and return to an ethic of unconditional service to the weak and the marginalised.
As for the broader, newly awakened public, it must not allow its sorrow and anger to be dissipated in tears and blame. Ours is a society that has never followed through on its noble rhetoric about putting children first. The 900 children in the care of the Health Service Executive who do not have an allocated social worker are a mark of how far we have to go before we can feel secure in the knowledge that the atrocities revealed in the Ryan report belong to a very different society.