Sincere priests and nuns must not be targets of a witch-hunt

 

OPINION:SYMPATHY FOR priests and nuns is thin on the ground at present but spare a thought for those thousands of members of religious congregations who bore no direct responsibility for the abuse that took place in residential institutions, writes JOE HUMPHREYS

The anecdotes I’ve heard are as tragic as they are numerous: stories of frail, elderly men and women – whose only sin was to share the same clothing as their betrayers – afraid to go outside their front doors in case they are spat upon, literally or metaphorically, by the public.

Some priests have stopped wearing the collar. Others speak of sleepless nights as they try to come to terms with the detail of the Ryan report. I had this week arranged to meet a nun to discuss some important charity work in which she was involved but she called off the appointment, expressing concern about raising her head above the parapet.

To praise the courage of priests and nuns invites outrage. Yet we should acknowledge that those religious who attended the recent march in Dublin were courageous. Courageous because ordinary priests and nuns have felt the pain of abuse victims more keenly than almost anyone else.

There was a poignant intervention in the Irish Catholic in which the Kiltegan priest and theologian Fr Donal Dorr issued a public apology. Under the headline “I’m sorry”, Fr Dorr – a former missionary in Mozambique, and author of the influential book Option for the Poor – wrote: “I confess the inadequacy of my understanding and my response and I ask forgiveness of God and of all those who suffered abuse.”

He continued: “I feel too that I, and I believe many others who had no immediate or direct responsibility for what happened, would nevertheless want in some way to acknowledge our failure as a society over several generations by making some monetary contribution to a redress fund.”

Is this where the Ryan report has brought us? A man who has given his life to serving others, campaigning for the poor; a man who did much during previous decades to drag the church, and Irish society in tandem, into a new understanding of Christianity; a man who has no wealth; the same man who is the first to seek penance.

Surely, there are others – teachers, judges, politicians, gardaí and ordinary people like you and me – who should be ahead in the queue, prostrating ourselves on the altar of public opinion, and asking for forgiveness from victims of abuse.

A few years ago, the Department of Social and Family Affairs was in discussions with Catholic missionary organisations about extending the State pension to elderly and retired missionaries living overseas. After intensive negotiations, the Irish Missionary Union – the body representing Catholic missionaries – pulled out. Why? Because they felt it was wrong for them to get a pension that an unemployed Irish bricklayer in London, or a homeless Irish emigrant in San Francisco, or an infirm Irish alcoholic in Sydney, would not be entitled to receive.

What is more, they never advertised this decision. It is just not their style. Nor is it their style to advertise the help they have given to former victims of institutional abuse through organisations like Faoiseamh. The counselling service, set up by Cori in 1996, has attracted occasional criticism from certain survivors’ groups but it is also partly thanks to information received by this service that the lid was lifted on clerical sexual abuse in the Diocese of Cloyne.

We should be angered by the Ryan report, and we should condemn those members of religious organisations who have tried to cover up, or excuse, wrongdoing. We should also ask them to pay more. But, for all our sakes, we need to avoid a witch-hunt. To dump on priests and nuns – without differentiation – will only compound the injustice.

Joe Humphreys is an assistant news editor with The Irish Times

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