Exactly a week ago, Chaplain Mike asked me if I had any insights I would like to share on the Catholic sex abuse scandals. I said I’d try and have something in by the end of the week, and I made some preliminary notes.
Then I left them sitting there on top of my desk and ignored them for six days straight. Today, late Sunday afternoon Irish time, I am finally sitting down to write this post. I don’t want to, and the only reason I’m doing it is because I said I would.
I don’t want to write this. I don’t want to talk about this. I don’t even want to think about this, and that is the precise, exact “head in the sand” attitude that has caused so much harm and damage. I want to ignore the topic. I want to pretend it is all done and dealt with. I want to go on as if everything is fine now. Well, I can’t. I can’t pretend it all happened years ago and in some foreign country, and I can’t pretend all the buried secrets are not still oozing out their rottenness and polluting all that they touch.
And certainly I can’t pretend Holy Catholic Ireland is unscathed.
I won’t talk about the wider Church, since every country has a slightly different experience and reasons for what happened and the offences that were committed. I will stick to Ireland, and what follows is only my own personal opinion. I don’t have any special insight or inside information. I know as much as the rest of you do, when you read about yet another case in the papers or hear about it on the news.
The publicity at the end of February concerning the publication of the “Report of the Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries” brought one aspect of the scandal about abuse committed by Church organisations back out into the open once again. If you’ve heard of these institutions, you probably know them from the movie made in 2002. To quote a 2004 review from an American newspaper which gives a good flavour of the reaction to the movie:
The film tells the story of “sinful” women who were, during the mid-1960s in Ireland, abandoned by their families for being raped and having children out of wedlock were sent to the Magdalene convent. There they would ostensibly find redemption through performing slave labor, washing clothes for the profits of the nuns in charge. The militant nuns who ran this labor camp were vile and contemptible women who spared no act of cruelty on the girls left to their care. Stripped and given severe beatings, these girls were slowly forced into obedience.
Well, so one more sordid example of wicked brutality meted out in the name of religion – so what? How can it be explained or explained away? Why even try?
I’m not going to try to explain it away. And if you want an explanation for it, the only one I have to give is “Sin.”
Though this will sound like an attempt at self-justification, I want to say only this much at the start: first, elements of that movie were exaggerated or even invented for “dramatic effect” and admitted as much by the film-maker (who didn’t see why this was such a big deal). The stripping naked of the girls who were then mocked by the nuns? Didn’t happen. But so what if it didn’t exactly happen like that, we all know that those places were hotbeds of sexual abuse, right?
Wrong. The survivors have many justified complaints of physical and emotional abuse, but sexual abuse is not part of the institutional experience in those cases.
Okay, but it only happened in backwards repressed Ireland that women were locked up for the crime of becoming pregnant, right? All down to a society ruled by a puritanical Church that fears and hates sex!
Happened in other places that weren’t Ireland and weren’t Catholic. British Protestant women also ended up in homes for unwed mothers, and so did Americans, Australians and pretty much every country you care to mention. See this link.
Right, that’s as much palliation as I am going to engage in. From here on, I will just speak about the situation as I see it. The situation in Ireland is complicated, in that the blanket term “child abuse” or “religious/clerical abuse” is perceived by the public at large, thanks to the sex abuse cases that exploded into the public consciousness in America starting in the 80s. It’s also considered to be mostly cases of “priests raping children” as I’ve seen it described in online comments.
(1) The term “abuse” when used in reports and investigations does not mean solely or even chiefly sexual abuse; it also encompasses physical and emotional abuse. To quote the definition from the Irish Barnados site:
“Children can be abused in a number of different ways. Usually these are categorized as physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. A child may experience more than one type of abuse.”
(2) When talking about religious institutions, this includes not just the secular clergy but orders of religious men and women who ran reformatories, industrial schools, orphanages, asylums (in both the “mental health” sense and the older sense of “place of refuge”), schools and hospitals. I want you to understand the scale of how involved the Catholic Church was in what nowadays is considered the province of the State in providing social welfare and “safety net” establishments, as well as public services.
Okay, I had a whole long article planned out to give you the social and cultural background on the scandals in Ireland and why they happened and how could they have happened, but I can’t write it. I’m too heart-sick to do so. So I’ll just do a quick gallop through about ten decades’ worth of Irish history, and hope to God I don’t sound like I’m trying to extenuate or mitigate or whitewash the revelations. If you really want to know the details of the crimes and offences, you’re reading this over the Internet; go ahead and Google or use whatever your favourite search engine may be and you’ll find out more than enough about it all.
I absolutely was not joking when I said the short explanation for it all was sin, by the way. A slightly longer explanation might be to look at the Parable of the Sower, Matthew 13: 5-6:
“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away.”
What has this to do with the Irish abuse scandals? I’m going to do the typical thing when most Irish people are asked for an explanation of why x, y or z and start off with “Two hundred years ago…” Well, not quite that far. The early and mid 19th century is as far back as I’ll ask you to go. And I promise, this does have a point and a bearing on the matter.
1795: The Royal College of St. Patrick is established to provide “for the better education of persons professing the popish or Roman Catholic religion.” It functions as a university for Catholic lay and ecclesiastical students, most importantly as a seminary in order to stem the practice of Irish men going abroad to study for the priesthood (since this is illegal in Ireland) and becoming contaminated with dangerous revolutionary ideas from the French, Belgian and Spanish seminaries. It receives a government grant and the tacit understanding is that, in return for being permitted to train priests in Ireland, the Irish hierarchy will discourage all tendencies to rebellion amongst the populace by means of their influence and condemnation of potential agitators and rabble-rousers.
1829: The Catholic Emancipation Act. The majority of the legal penalties and disabilities attached to Roman Catholics in Great Britain and Ireland were removed, meaning – to quote Wikipedia – “The major beneficiaries were the Roman Catholic middle classes, who could now enter careers in the higher civil service and in the judiciary.” Catholics were now permitted to vote (if they fulfilled the property requirement), they could leave property to Catholic heirs, and they no longer had to be members of the Established Church (that is, the Church of Ireland or the Church of England) in order to get posts in government services. Most of all, they could openly practise their religion and even build new churches – but they still had to pay tithes to the official church, a requirement which was not abolished in full until 1869 when the Church of Ireland was disestablished (that is, it was no longer the official state church).
1845: The political controversy of the Maynooth Grant. The British Prime Minister of the time wants to increase the annual grant to the college. This raises much public and parliamentary ire in Britain because it is looked on as a bribe (which, to be frank, it more or less was) to the rebellious Papists to get them to behave and as a threat to the pure Protestant religion.
There were also those who thought government should have no part in supporting or paying for any private educational establishment, but that was too sensible and non-partisan an approach to gain widespread support.
What does all that mean? It means the newly-respectable Irish Catholics, both laity and clergy, were (a) very, very careful to hold on to the gains they had made and not give the British government any excuse to row back on them and (b) increasingly ambitious about obtaining a position in public life and increasing that influence.
Then we hit 1845-49 and the Great Famine. I cannot over-emphasise the effect this had on the Irish psyche, though you will think I am exaggerating. I’ve spoken about this before here, in regards to proselytization and “souperism” but I would like to run through a few facts. Again, I’m going to quote Wikipedia, which has a reasonably balanced and accurate article. It states concisely that “During the famine approximately one million people died and a million more emigrated from Ireland causing the island’s population to fall by between 20% and 25%” and that the consequences were “permanent change in the country’s demographic, political and cultural landscape.”
That does not begin to describe it. There are no completely accurate figures for the population pre-Famine; estimates range from six million up as far as ten million. Going by the census of 1841, the generally accepted figure is eight million (for the entire island, that is, encompassing what would later be split between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland). Post-Famine, and that means a period ranging from 1850-1970, the population as a whole dips to around four million at its lowest (that is counting in Northern Ireland as well).
Eight million minus four million means four million gone. Poof! Disappeared! Not there! Not alone because of the death from starvation and disease during the Famine and the accompanying emigration of the desperate, but continuing long-term emigration over the decades. Imagine waking up in your home town and half your neighbours are no longer there. Imagine seeing faint traces on the landscape around where you live that show where towns and villages used to be, but are there no longer. Imagine walking into your children’s school and half the children in the class aren’t there today. Imagine having a word in your language that ordinarily means “graveyard” or “cemetery”, but when someone uses it about an otherwise indistinguishable field or an unused area of ground, you know it means “site of mass grave for those who died of hunger and disease”.
That is the kind of “demographic, political and cultural” change we’re talking about. Now, what is the point I am trying to make here in relation to the reeking mess of scandal in latter-day Ireland? It’s this: due to political and social circumstances, in pre-Famine Ireland the tendency was for early marriages and high fertility, particularly amongst the lower orders and the poor. Since Catholics could not inherit or will property from or to other Catholics, if a man had a farm or any sizeable amount of land, he would divide it up amongst all his sons. They, in turn, would further sub-divide what they had amongst their children and so forth. Because of the high yield food crop – the potato – this made it feasible for a man to marry and raise a family on a small patch of land; if you had an acre of potatoes and a pig, as the saying went, you could make a living. It wasn’t sustainable, of course, but the system staggered along pretty well until a crisis hit – a crisis like the Great Hunger.
After the Famine, this all changed. The poor, the farm labourers, the landless, were the ones who suffered most. This meant that those who had land wanted even more land for economic security. A farm had to be a certain size to be viable. And since Catholics could now inherit property, a man could leave all his land to his eldest son upon his death instead of sub-dividing it during his life. It also meant that to be marriageable, a woman had to bring a dowry with her.
What this meant was that one son (and maybe only one daughter, who had a dowry to marry on) were provided for. The rest of the children? There was always the emigrant ship, since there wasn’t the industrialised base to absorb their labour.
Or there was religion. Yes, I’m finally tying it all together.
Remember, Irish Catholicism has become very respectable in response to pressure of political and public opinion from the British government and public. Couple that with a tendency in 19th century Irish Catholicism towards Jansenism, which meant a very rigid and rigorous and unforgiving parade of public piety, and the fact that some earnest British officials did actually blame the Famine as the just punishment of a rebellious and ungrateful (and even worse, papist) Irish populace by a wrathful God, and the urge to prove our probity and respectability and innocence of wrongdoing was even more pressing.
So any kind of slip, any kind of perception of sin, was not just dishonouring yourself, it was bringing disgrace on your family and on your nation. It was proving that the Irish were drunken, lecherous, criminal, rebellious types whose only hope of salvation was to turn towards becoming good British subjects and adopting the Protestant religion. Poverty was not a misfortune, it was a crime. And crime itself –- unforgiveable!
On the other hand, having a priest or a nun or a religious brother in the family brought good repute, gave the family high standing in public respect, and was a pledge of virtue in this life and heavenly reward in the next.
So a combination of lack of opportunity, lack of a mature understanding of sexuality, and social pressure meant that a lot of men and women who were not suited for the religious life entered monasteries and convents and teaching orders and seminaries. If they found, in the middle of their novitiate, that they were unsuited, there was little they could do. The disgrace of leaving – of being a “spoiled priest” or a nun who dropped out – meant that their families would be shamed and that they would have to emigrate anyway, with little or no formal education or trade to fall back on. So by default, they stayed where they were.
And since the State was not operating the range of social services we now expect them to run under the umbrella of public service, it was the Church and the religious orders who took up the slack. So untrained people were given responsibility and authority that they didn’t know how to handle in a culture where suffocating social conformity and outward respectability was the norm, and any deviation was seen as meriting firm discipline.
It’s easy to confuse discipline and physical abuse. When it’s the norm (even up to the 70s) for children to be slapped in school (that is, get strokes from a ruler or stick on the palm of the outstretched hand up to a count of six or ten) for not having homework done, or stumbling over rote recitation, then any complaints of being beaten are much too easily written off as looking for attention or exaggeration or lies.
Even after independence, the Irish state was happy to let the Church stay in charge of the institutions because it neither wanted nor could afford to take on the burden and responsibility. Even in liberated, secular, modern Ireland, the outlook is still not as good as it should be; from a Barnados report in 2011:
“Between 2000 and 2010, 513 separated children went missing from State care and 440 of them are still unaccounted for (Irish Times, 10th January 2011). Previously, hostels for separated children did not have round the clock trained childcare workers on site and were instead run by managers and security personnel.”
In other words, the state took on the care of 440 children whom it then lost, and the authorities have no idea whether they’re sleeping rough, back home, gone to England, or what happened them.
* * *
That’s it. That’s all I’m going to say. You can read defences and apologias about the entire sorry mess of the abuse scandals online and in print, but they come off too much like “We didn’t do anything wrong!” and “It’s all fixed now!”, not to mention the conspiracy theorists who like to throw in rumours of plots and gay cabals and who knows what.
Oh yes, there have been false accusations. I personally know of two in my own town, and I was going to throw them into the mix. But I decided not to, since that comes over as blaming the victims, and God knows, that is the last thing we should be doing. I’m also not going to get into arguments about celibacy or gay rights or that religion as a whole is rotten and should be done away with. We have to admit: yes, this happened. Yes, the hierarchy reacted badly and in some instances criminally. Yes, we covered up because we were more afraid of our good name in the world than in serving justice or remembering the words of Mark 9:42 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.”
The point of it all, in the end, is that people rightfully accuse the Church when these things come out. “How can you tell us that what you say is true? How can you tell us that we are committing sin, when you are doing worse things yourself?”
That’s the accusation that has to be answered, and it won’t be answered by bleating about the standards of the time gone by and the lack of understanding that we didn’t have until today. The scandal is that we are either lying when we say that knowing Christ will change you, or we do know Christ, but have not been changed. That leaves it all too easy to conclude that Christ is a liar, or that there is no change, or there is no Christ. And if we cause people to think that, it were indeed better for us all to cast ourselves into the sea or into the fire.
So why am I still a Catholic? Why don’t I come out of this corrupt and revealed to be wicked institution? Because I can’t go anywhere else. I can’t. I can’t go the road of “Okay, when the Church told you about the Gospel, it was true, but all the rest is false. We have the true parts, come to us”. I can’t do that, because I can’t take one bit and throw out the rest. If I think my Mother is a liar and a whore, I can’t say “But when She said this, She was telling the truth”. I’m sorry, but if I’m not a Catholic, I can’t be a Protestant of whatever stripe.
If there is nothing in all the Catholic Church but rottenness and corruption, then I can’t believe in the God who revealed Himself to Israel, to His Son who died on Calvary, in the Trinity, in Heaven and Hell, in sin as more than offending against changeable social mores that alter with the passage of time, in forgiveness, in anything more than the crushed reed of merely human goodness.
I can’t be a Christian. I can’t even be a Buddhist, much as I like to joke about that as my fall-back position. I have to be an atheist.
But I can’t be an atheist, because I cannot – I cannot – make myself not believe that there is a God. Yes, I’ve tried the experiment. I make no boast of it. It’s no virtue in me, and it certainly doesn’t give me a full and complete volume of systematic theology in my head to answer all questions; that I had to, and have to, learn from my teacher, my Mother, the Church.
So what’s the solution? Tempting as it might be, it is not more rigidity – that’s part of what got us into this whole slough of filth in the first place – it is more fidelity. Break up the stony ground, till the good earth, so that when the seed falls, it will put down deep roots and not wither under the first blast of wind or the noonday sun.
I confess to almighty God
and to you, my brothers and sisters,
that I have greatly sinned
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done
and in what I have failed to do,
through my fault,
through my fault,
through my most grievous fault;
therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin,
all the Angels and Saints,
and you, my brothers and sisters,
to pray for me to the Lord our God.