Coming to grips with Irish abuse scandal

By  Michael Higgins
  • June 19, 2009
{mosimage}When I was at a meeting for the International Council of Universities in Limerick, Ireland, last April, it was in the air.  Menacingly on the horizon.

Over a year ago when my own university honoured Diarmuid Martin, archbishop of Dublin, for his record of service in the cause of global human rights, the topic came up, and the dread was palpable.

And now, at last, it has happened, and the church in Ireland is convulsed.  Again.

What I am talking about is the publication of and resultant furor around the long-awaited  Report of the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse , chaired by High Court Justice Sean Ryan and simply called the Ryan Report.

One Catholic weekly in Great Britain, The Catholic Herald , not known for a leftist or even liberal slant on ecclesial life, was forthright and candid in its coverage. The headlines alone give some measure of the shock and disgust of the Catholic community: “Report uncovers decades of endemic abuse”; “Probe reveals brutal catalogue of beatings and humiliations”; “This will make you cry”; “We are all tainted by this horrific catalogue of abuse”; and “A week of shame for Irish Catholics.” And this from a paper whose devotion to the church is a given.

Mary Kenny is an Irish columnist and writer of conservative persuasion who writes perceptively, critically and fairly on the Irish scene for several English publications, and although not inclined to easy judgment  has found this new stack of sorry revelations a particularly hard burden. She writes that “for those of us who remember an Ireland of those times (the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s) as old-fashioned and authoritarian, but also, among many communities, kindly, easy-going and charitable, it certainly has been a horrible revelation.”

This is not to say that the considerable good that has been done by the orders and religious communities now under heavy moral and criminal indictment will be forgotten, only that it will take generations to effect the healing, accurate studies that do thorough and objective analysis of the causes and conditions that allowed and justified so indecent a rule over children, and the taming of the media frenzy that delights in besmirching an institution’s integrity.  There is much to be done.

In the meantime the horrors must be admitted, justice seen to be done with alacrity, the old authority games that protected the miscreants in the interests of preventing scandal abandoned forever and transparency in all dealings and disclosures assured, for the record is staggeringly bleak. As the Ryan Report baldly states: “more than 3,100 people testified before the Commission (established in 2000) and more than 800 priests, brothers, sisters and lay people were implicated as abusers.”

The principal bodies in which abuse either flourished or avoided institutional remedy were the Irish Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy.  Some religious orders were minimally at fault and the Rosminians were singled out for mention by Justice Ryan as the “only religious order that tried to understand how the abuse had occurred, rather than merely try to explain it.” They also conceded that their reliance upon corporal punishment was counterproductive and self-perpetuating — “When it appeared to fail in its purpose, there was apparent justification for using it even more.” 

Such bracing self-knowledge, however, appears to be rather late in coming for many others.

I know only too well how difficult it is to cover stories of ecclesiastical immorality like clerical sex abuse. For several years I reported on it as the Canadian contributor/essayist for The Tablet of London. For the serious person of faith there is nothing titillating or vicariously satisfying in probing the underside of church life, of bringing into the light of day the deadly wounds that fester within. But how else do we heal?

Archbishop Martin’s frequently brave and often lonely campaign to end the rot is not without its personal costs. His efforts to guarantee full and direct co-operation with the Commission, while knowing only too well the price to be paid, were heroic.

As the concluding paragraph of the lead editorial of The Catholic Herald rightly notes: “We are entitled to call for a root and branch reform of a corrupt clericalism which can stamp on the Gospel, protected by silence and the misplaced loyalty of church members.”

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.