Tarnished orders have a last chance at redemption

OPINION: Those responsible for decades of abuse must act to restore credibility and help the survivors

OPINION:Those responsible for decades of abuse must act to restore credibility and help the survivors

WHERE DOES the church go from here? The church has failed people. The church has failed children. There is no denying that. This can only be regretted and it must be regretted. Yet “sorry” can be an easy word to say. When it has to be said so often, then “sorry” is no longer enough.

But “sorry” must always be the first word.

The Ryan report shocked me. But it did not totally surprise me. I was ordained 40 years ago today and at my ordination and that of a friend we had a group of former residents of industrial schools: people of our own age, great people and friends of ours.


As students we had worked in a hostel in Dublin for former residents of industrial schools, especially Artane. Later I worked in a centre in London for ex-prisoners, a large proportion of whom included generations of Irish industrial school residents. The stories they told then were not radically different from what the Ryan report presents, albeit in a systemic and objective way which reveals the horror in its integrity.

Sadly, the Ryan report came so late.

Anyone who had contact with ex-residents of Irish industrial schools at that time knew that what those schools were offering was, to put it mildly, poor-quality childcare by the standards of the time. The information was there.

A chaplain to Artane had put much of it writing. A few courageous and isolated journalists like Michael Viney spoke out. When the first efforts were made to reform Artane, it was patently evident that the only change possible was to close it down.

Someone wrote to me this week about an entirely different matter and said: “there is always a price to pay for not responding”. The church will have to pay that price in terms of its credibility.

The first thing the church has to do is to move out of any mode of denial. That was the position for far too long and it is still there.

Yes, there was abuse in other quarters. Yes, childcare policy in Ireland at the time was totally inadequate. But the church presented itself as different to others and as better than others and as more moral than others. Its record should have shown that and it did not. Ryan reveals church institutions where children were placed in the care of people with practically no morals.

Where the church is involved in social care it should be in the vanguard. That is different to a situation in which the church proclaims that it is in the vanguard. In industrial schools the church, with good intentions, became involved in a Victorian model of childcare and became more Victorian than the Victorians, and when Victorianism was shown to be wrong, those responsible did not have the foresight to recognise that and children were exposed to pathological Victorianism.

There is a sense of shock among many good priests and religious at what has happened. But that sense of shock should not slip into a situation in which they feel themselves almost as the victims. No one in the church must ever try to water down or reformulate the suffering of survivors. Let the survivors speak and tell their stories as they experienced them.

What do I say to the religious orders who have been identified as being responsible for what happened? Let me speak to them directly: I think that you have to ask and truly try to answer the question which Ryan has put to you: “What happened that you drifted so far away from your own charism?”

I believe that you owe it to your good members to try to answer that question thoroughly, honestly and in a transparent way. Your credibility and the credibility and survival of your charism depend on the honesty with which you go about that soul searching. This may be a painful task, but it is unavoidable if it is to be possible for your charism to survive. People are angry and disillusioned.

What was lost was more than just a charism. Somehow along the way the most essential dimension of the life of the followers of Jesus Christ got lost by many. The Christian message is a message of love. What the Ryan commission recounts is sadly so very far removed from that. In Jesus’s eyes the poor deserve the best and they did not receive it here.

Even where you have recognised what was wrong, the Ryan report must have brought home to you the extent of what went wrong in a manner which perhaps you were not able to imagine in the past. The facts are now clear and you have to take notice and make some new gesture of recognition.

An agreement was made with government seven years ago. The fact that the mechanisms of fulfilling your side of that agreement have not yet been brought to completion is stunning. There may have been legal difficulties, but they are really a poor excuse after so many years.

Whatever happens with regards to renegotiating that agreement, you cannot just leave things as they are. There are many ways in which substantial financial investment in supporting survivors and their families can be brought about, perhaps in creative ways which would once again redeem your own charism as educators of the poor. In many ways it is your last chance to render honour to charismatic founders and to so many good members of your congregations who feel tarnished.

Sadly, in a very short time another report on the sexual abuse of children will be published, this time about how such abuse was managed in the Archdiocese of Dublin of which I am archbishop. It will not be easy reading. The steps that have been taken to put in place good child safeguarding norms will never wipe away the sufferings of those who were abused. Let the truth, however, come out.