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".
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.