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William Oddie FAITH Magazine March-April 2010

Horror and Hope

This column often has, by the time it is in print, a certain retrospective air about it: it has usually discussed the media coverage of some story which was topical when written, and which may still be relevant, but is no longer of overriding current interest.

But there is one recurrent story from which, if I am honest, I have repeatedly averted my gaze when considering what to write about in these columns: the seemingly never-ending story of the world-wide pandemic of paedophile scandals among the Catholic clergy, and the apparently universal practice of episcopal cover-up, involving as it did (I use the past tense hopefully) a - to put it mildly - less than adequate concern with the sufferings of the victims. And though, as I have said, this is a worldwide story, it centres on Ireland, for reasons we will go on to discuss, the most immediate of which was the publication last year of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse set up by the Irish government at the turn of the century. It was a story you could not miss: if youGoogle the words "Irish Church Scandal", you will come up with nearly two million results.

The BBC website recorded the terrible story in May:

An inquiry into child abuse at Catholic institutions in Ireland has found church leaders knew that sexual abuse was "endemic" in boys' institutions.

It also found physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of institutions.

Schools were run "in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even on staff"...

The five-volume study concluded that church officials encouraged ritual beatings and consistently shielded their orders' paedophiles from arrest amid a "culture of self-serving secrecy".

One after another, the halting excuses many of us found ourselves uttering - for the way in which, for instance, offenders were moved about - the way in which time after time they were given a second chance, then a third and then on and on - are ruthlessly eliminated by this report, which is truly one of the most terrible documents I have ever experienced. I quote from the "executive summary" of the report's cold and methodical scrutiny of schools run principally by the Christian Brothers but also by some other Congregations, written after an examination in detail of the documentary evidence of abuse contained in the records of the establishments concerned. The most chilling thing about the summary is the restraint it employs when speaking of institutionalised enormities which wereroutinely committed for decade after decade:

The documents revealed that sexual abusers were often long-term offenders who repeatedly abused children wherever they were working. Contrary to the Congregations' claims that the recidivist nature of sexual offending was not understood, it is clear from the documented cases that they were aware of the propensity of abusers to re-abuse. The risk, however was seen by the Congregations in terms of the potential for scandal and bad publicity should the abuse be disclosed. The damage to children was not taken into account. [My italics]

The damage done to the Irish Church has, of course, been immense. As the latest development in the story (the resignation of two more Irish bishops) hit the news pages, just before Christmas, there was barely disguised (but I suppose understandable) schadenfreude in the way in which the latest events were reported. As Conor O'Clery reported from Dublin on the internet news outlet GlobalPost (and truly, there is nobody more bitter than a lapsed Irish Catholic), "As the few remaining faithful in this once mass-going nation set out for midnight services on a freezing cold Christmas Eve, two bishops announced their resignation...." The bishops, he continued,

...are the latest casualties of a civil war within the purple-clad ranks of the once-dominant Irish Catholic Church hierarchy that could have ramifications in the Vatican itself.

Bishops Eamonn Walsh and Raymond Field offered their resignations to Pope Benedict on Christmas Eve only after fighting a rearguard action against the Archbishop of Dublin, Dairmuid Martin, who has pressurised them publicly and privately to quit. They are accused of being part of a culture of silence and denial about abusive priests that is not peculiar only to Ireland but is worldwide.

This last assumption is worth some attention in passing: if you do internet searches for cases of paedophile abuse involving the Catholic clergy in continental Europe, for example, there is nothing remotely on the same scale. We have to conclude, as Damian Thompson did in his Telegraph blog, that

The question of Irishness has been hovering over the Catholic abuse scandals for years, ever since journalists noticed (but scarcely dared point out) that they seemed concentrated among the Irish Catholic diaspora of the United States, Canada and Australia. We always knew that terrible things happened in Ireland, too, though it was not until the publication of a 2,600-page report last week that we realised their extent.

 The question, said Thompson, was this: "how Irish was the abuse and how Catholic? It should go without saying that these crimes are an utter perversion of Catholicism - but unfortunately it has to be said, because the hierarchical structures of the Church made it easy to conceal them, and religious arrogance and paranoia persuaded the authorities that they should be concealed." His explanation for the scale of the abuse was focused on the allegedly brutal character of the Irish peasantry; "the culturally and intellectually impoverished class from which many of the Christian Brothers were recruited." "On the other hand", he went on "I was educated by Irish brothers (not Christian Brothers), most of them lovely men. Some of their predecessors may have been violent andignorant, but not one of the brothers who taught me fitted that description. Their order once ran some brutal institutions in Ireland, and it will take courage for my old teachers to face up to the inevitable besmirching of their reputation and the wiping out - in the eyes of the public - of so much of their own good work."

What has been the effect of all this on the attachment of the Irish to their Church? Church attendance was falling in any case, as part of a general process of secularisation, and support for protestant churches appears to have fallen, if anything, even more. In 2005, the website Christian Today published the results of a joint study by academics from Queen's University, Belfast and the University of Ulster, which found

...a dramatic decrease in the numbers going to church in Ireland.... According to the report.... the Catholic Church in Ireland has seen a sharp drop in attendance from 90 per cent to 62 per cent in 15 years.

The report, based on numerous surveys from the period between 1989 and 2004, found that whereas Catholics were more likely to stay with the Church but simply attend less, Protestants tended to move away from churches altogether.

The numbers are probably even lower now: one recent report has them at around 46 percent, but records, nevertheless, that that they are now rising rather than falling; the Irish Times headline was "Mass attendance in Ireland is up". So perhaps the figures are less discouraging than might be supposed: and certainly, 46 percent of the population in Church on Sunday is vastly higher than anywhere else in Europe with the possible exception of Poland; and after everything that has happened might be thought extraordinary. Certainly, Conor O'Clery's jubilant crowing about "the few remaining faithful in this once Mass-going nation [setting out] out for midnight services on a freezing cold Christmas Eve" (as though even the weather was the bishops' fault), has more to do with his ownobvious animus against the Church than anything remotely to do with reality.

Despite these terrible revelations, I still have a firm belief that Catholicism in Ireland will recover from the nightmare it is passing through. I have a personal interest to declare here: I spent five years of my life, in the late fifties and early sixties, first as an undergraduate then as a postgraduate student at Trinity College, Dublin, still a firmly protestant institution. I was then a militantly atheist critic of the Irish Church, with (as I saw it) its interference in people's lives, its puritanical censorship of the theatre, its declaration that for a resident within the Archdiocese of Dublin it was a mortal sin to attend my university, and any number of other restrictions on personal liberty. But little by little, living in a thoroughly Catholic country began to get to me. Ihad to accept that this was a genial and tolerant culture, and that this had a great deal to do with its dominant religion. The dreadful things that we now know about were still, though none of us knew it then, going on in many Irish schools (though the numbers given in the report indicate that they were in a minority). What has to be remembered is the high quality of the education in most Irish schools (nearly all run by the Church). I remember an emphatic pronouncement by the firmly French professor of his own language and literature at TCD, E.J. Arnould (who had lived for many years in Ireland), to the effect that the Irish working class was the best educated and most literate in the whole of Europe. The Irish of all classes read books and listen to music; "culture" is not in Ireland amiddle-class possession. I once got on a bus to go to the opera: when I asked for the nearest bus stop to the Gaiety Theatre, the conductor said, ah, you'll be going to see Turandot, and proceeded to give me at some length his opinion of the production: an experience surely unimaginable in London.

More and more it became evident to me that everything I loved about the Irish character was inseparable from its religion, because the religion was omnipresent in everything people thought and did. The Angelus is still played before the six o'clock news on the radio. I was once in an unimaginably noisy pub down by the docks. The barman had the radio on: as the Angelus sounded through the pub, all the horny-handed drinkers fell silent, put down their pints of stout, and lowered their heads. I was made vividly aware that these raucous men had something in their lives that I could only dimly imagine. And this dimension in people's lives, from which I was excluded, was inescapable: there was no ignoring it. On the buses then (does it still happen?) as we passed a Catholic church, all thepassengers except me would bless themselves; a crowded rush-hour bus became for an instant a place of worship; before I arrived, it would have happened five or six times.

When Pope John Paul visited Ireland in 1979 he gave thanks to God for "Ireland, semper fidelis". When I became a Catholic over a decade later one of the many things I thanked God for was that I now had in common with the Irish their (and now my) most precious possession. I do not believe that they will ever truly lose it; and certainly, I pray to God that it may be so.


Faith Magazine

March - April 2010