Irish scandal should inspire anger and prayers

  • June 5, 2009
{mosimage}I entered the Catholic Church, ten years ago, with my eyes wide open. Or so I believed at the time.

Like everyone else who doesn’t live on a desert island, I knew about the clergy abuse and cover-up scandals that had begun to rock the church a decade before. In defending my decision to become a Catholic against non-Catholic friends and family, who were appalled that I had joined a church in which such abuse had taken place, I adopted a hardly unusual line of argument.

The Catholic Church, I told them, is constructed of crooked, diseased wood, liable at any time to produce bad fruit. The stink of this fruit had brought its existence to the attention of church authorities, who, after some initial foot-dragging, began to clean out the orchard and compensate those who had been poisoned. The system had worked, at least to my satisfaction. This argument belonged, of course, to the “few bad apples” variety.

But the discoveries of Ireland’s independent inquiry into child abuse at some 200 schools and homes run by the Irish Catholic Church, released last month, has left me wondering how much longer I can support and feel at home within the Catholic Church.

In the 70-year period examined by the commission—the 1930s through the 1990s—Irish children were raped, savagely beaten, bullied, starved, terrorized and neglected by the priests, brothers and sisters responsible for their well-being, and by visitors and by staff. The panel’s 2,600-page report states that officials in religious orders and the church had shielded pedophiles from arrest, decade after sorry decade, “because of a culture of silence about the issue.”

Nor was this ill-treatment of children rare, or the malignant action of a few bad apples. The report describes as “systemic” and “endemic” the “climate of fear” and “physical violence” pervading Catholic industrial schools, reformatories and other residential settings. The testimony of near 2,000 survivors led the commission to conclude that the institutions it examined were suffused by a culture of violence that left many children traumatized far into adulthood.

It would be easy to dismiss this affair as an Irish problem—a dismal outcome, somehow, of Ireland’s modern history, which has been deeply wounded by poverty and civil strife, and not well served by a church hierarchy that has too often resorted to commands, instead of loving leadership, to keep the faithful in line behind the church.

But it’s not just an Irish problem. Since the release of the Irish panel’s findings, there have been calls for the striking of similar commissions in England, Australia and Canada. The crisis is, in other words, a Catholic and international one, going to the heart of what the world-wide communion of Catholics believes itself to be.

How did a few bad apples become a lot of operators in a system of cruelty that supported and encouraged them? No blame for this situation can be laid, as far as I can determine, on the official teachings of the Catholic Church.

 The moral positions and emphases advocated in the Catechism, and in the pronouncements of Benedict XVI and his Vatican associates, are, to my mind, scripturally and philosophically and existentially sound.

What the Irish and other calamities point to, however, is a terrible breakdown in the chain of communications between the highest moral authorities in the church and the clergy and religious who are on the front lines of caring for the weak, helpless and suffering.

This breakdown is, of course, not universal. But it could hardly be more serious, because it so affects children, whose most immediate experience of the church and its ministry has been disfigured into something horrible.

We should pray for all the Irish people concerned in these events: the victims, the perpetrators and the innocent, and the government and church agencies with responsibility for the damage and the healing.

We should also pray for all children in Catholic schools and institutions, that God will have mercy on them, even when others do not.


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