Saturday, May 23, 2009

"Abuse was the System" - The Dark Shame of Systematic Abuse, Torture and Slavery in Modern Day Ireland

This week the Ryan Commission, which was established 9 years ago to inquire into the systematic abuse of children in Irish religious institutions, issued its 2'565 page report. The findings are simply horrific. Ryan went so far as to say that not only was there systematic abuse but "abuse was the system". 

As an Irish citizen I feel an unsettling mix of extraordinary shame and a rasping relief that the contents of this report are now open to public scrutiny. It causes deep shame but could deliver us into a truly modern era, free and healed from the hypocrisy of the Catholic clergy. 

The report investigated the known chronic abuse carried out by religious orders throughout Ireland when they were charged with the care of vulnerable, poor and uneducated children. It paints a dark picture of a priest-ridden country where children were systematically abused and the population systematically turned a blind eye. It portrays a country at the genesis of its independence which chose to hand unaccountable power to the self-declared omnipotent church, perched on its unassailable moral highground, and a State that ignored its own responsibilities to its citizens. A State that covertly colluded with child abusers over some 60 odd years. 

The report churns out horror after horror perpetrated by pervert priests. From forced labour, separation of siblings, young children being lied to about thier parents being dead, brutal beatings and endemic sexual and physical abuse. The investigation categorically tracked down more than 800 abusers in some 200 institutions over 30 odd years. These are most likely a representational ratio from a statistical certainty of a mob of molesters which was so widespread that it touched every community and town in Ireland.

The Irish Times, in a poignant editorial, had this to say: "There is a nightmarish quality to this systemic malice, reminiscent of authoritarian regimes. We read of children “flogged, kicked . . . scalded, burned and held under water”. We read of deliberate psychological torment inflicted through humiliation, expressions of contempt and the practice of incorrectly telling children that their parents were dead. We read of returned absconders having their heads shaved and of “ritualised” floggings in one institution.

We have to call this kind of abuse by its proper name – torture. We must also call the organised exploitation of unpaid child labour – young girls placed in charge of babies “on a 24-hour basis” or working under conditions of “great suffering” in the rosary bead industry; young boys doing work that gave them no training but made money for the religious orders – by its proper name: slavery. It demands a very painful adjustment of our notions of the nature of the State to accept that it helped to inflict torture and slavery on tens of thousands of children. In the light of the commission’s report, however, we can no longer take comfort in evasions."

The Report's findings will not shock many people in Ireland, merely the fact that they have now seen the light of day. We have all grown up with the untouchable power of pompous priests. In my own school we had a serial abuser. All parents knew and opted to ignore it, to carry on in denial, such was the punitive power of theology over the huddled masses of a nation coming out from under its colonialist yoke. We all heard the stories of young girls, raped and impregnated by uncles or neighbors (or priests on occasion) and sent to industrial homes run by nuns to live out their institutionalized days in servitude to the very people who demonized them.

Ryan goes to some lengths to point out the rays of hope and light. The rare, humane company of a kind priest or nun that maintained the sanity of so many. We don't want to paint a picture of a completely tarnished religious order throughout the country; but in essence that is what it is. So widespread and deeprooted was the abuse that it required thousands of non-abusers to turn a blind eye, a degree of abuse in itself.

The report will have a great effect on Ireland in both a cultural and spiritual sense. Gone is the hubris and abuse of power of the Catholic church and gone forever the remants of reverence and deference that so many Irish communities had for their priests - a trait handed down from the schools and pulpits governed by the very same preachers.

This week I am thinking of Mannix Flynn, a man whose company I kept in Dublin in the nineties after I had read his novel 'Nothing to Say'. Mannix was a great writer and playright whose work brilliantly depicted his days as a former resident of one of Ireland's more infamous industrial schools in Letterfrack, savagely run by the Christian Brothers. Drinking with Mannix one night in Dublin after his biographical one man play James X had received standing ovations, he said something to me like: I was abandoned and brutalized by my country so I have abandoned and brutalized myself (in reference to his hard drinking and drug taking). 

I also remember one of our recently departed writers John McGahern who tried so hard to hold a mirror up to Irish society and to hold its clergy accountable. His own childhood was deeply marked by predatory priests and a family fully in thrall to the Church's twisted morality. He once remarked for instance: "When I was in my 20s it did occur to me that there was something perverted about an attitude that thought that killing somebody was a minor offence compared to kissing somebody."  And writers like John Banville who wrote movingly on this topic in the New York Times today. Am not sure why writers are providing such solace or reference during these times, but so be it. Maybe the new spiritual void will be filled by people far more worthy.

Finally of course, such a post would be erroneous without mentioning all the victims of abuse who have had to suffer in silence for decades. Those who have had to relive the horrors of their abuse as they cooperated with the Ryan Commission and, maybe worst of all, have had to suffer further indignities and humiliations at the hands of the Catholic church who chose denial, collusion and cover-up as their preferred approach to deal with the victims of thier systematic abuse. Shame on them, it's a legacy from hell.


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