The publication of a report on systematic child abuse in religious-run institutions in Ireland has stirred deep anger and resentment throughout society.
The report has unleashed a tremendous wave of hostility towards the Catholic church. Previous revelations about the appalling treatment of children at the hands of religious orders entrusted with their ‘care’ had already greatly harmed the church’s reputation over the last 10 years. Now, in the aftermath of the Ryan report, it appears damaged beyond repair.
The televising in 1999 of a series of documentaries by Mary Rafferty, entitled ‘States of fear’, brought the truth about institutional care out of the shadows. The fact that it could even be broadcast illustrated how much Ireland was changing. The dark days of economic hardship and emigration seemed over and the church was losing its cohering force as the voice of the nation. The programmes showed that sadistic cruelty and sexual abuse was being perpetuated within state-funded religious institutions throughout the country. The public outrage that ensued pressurised the Fianna Fáil government into taking measures to avert a crisis. It was potentially a major disaster for the establishment. It needed to be dealt with carefully to preserve the status quo.
A commission of inquiry was set up to look into 18 religious orders involved in education and the provision of care to the ‘vulnerable’ (an apt word). Spurred on by their abiding anger and determined to put the shameful humiliation of their treatment behind them, some of the victims began to take on the perpetrators in the courts. This created alarm within the corridors of power. Urgent action had to be taken to protect the clergy from public vilification as common criminals.
So in 2002 the government set up the Residential Redress Board. An indemnity against prosecution was given to 18 congregations, in return for their payment of a mere 10% towards a compensation fund. Hearings would take place behind closed doors, in the hope that the church would escape with minimal embarrassment. The commission of inquiry was also set up on the firm basis that none of the findings could be used to substantiate prosecutions. The then taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, himself a devoted follower of the clergy, was not going to take any chances. The extent to which the church was let off the hook was astounding.
But the commission had to report at some stage - and now, after an incredible 10 years, it has done so. Religious orders were certainly responsible for some of the delay, destroying documentary evidence and employing teams of lawyers to get round or divert the questions put by the commission (Ahern had also ensured that their legal fees would be paid for by the taxpayer).
But now it is finally clear that the church can no longer evade responsibility for the inhuman regimes it maintained within its so-called care homes. The report documented the sheer immensity and systematic nature of the abuse. It showed how the Irish state had used the church to oppress and frighten the working class into subservience. Ireland has long been portrayed as a devout nation, full of enthusiastic followers of the pope. The report has revealed a rather different reality. It shows how state and church colluded to try and cow a people into submission.
The main abuse up to the 1980s took place in the state-funded industrial schools run by the religious orders. These were fed a continual stream of children, put into care either because of alleged neglect or petty crime. The role of the Irish Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) was crucial in delivering the children of poor working class families into the arms of these despicable abusers.
Families of 10 were not uncommon up to the 1980s - contraception was forbidden and women were expected to submit to endless impregnations. The special position of women as the backbone of Catholic Ireland was written into article 41 of the 1937 constitution, which upholds the family as “the natural primary and fundamental unit of society”. It stipulates that “by her life within the home, woman gives to the state a support without which the common good cannot be achieved”. “Woman” had to give up her job and independence on her wedding day. It was not until the 1970s that she was allowed to work after marriage.
This ‘special place’ within the constitution was, of course, itself a deliberate and institutionalised form of repression. Women were almost powerless, and struggled to cope on their own with children too numerous to manage - men had often been forced to emigrate to find work. The ISPCC stepped in to take control of the situation. It was essential to have power over the poor in order to prevent them becoming a problem for the ruling class. Particularly important was the need to wipe out “immorality and neglect endemic among the poor”.
The ‘cruelty man’ would visit and frequently remove children from impoverished homes, often described as ‘cesspits’ of drunkenness and poverty. They were then placed with the religious orders, which put them to work on their farms, in their laundries or in other clerical industries. The state funded these placements, many of which lasted to adulthood and beyond.
No fewer than 216 of these institutions are named in the report as being centres of systematic abuse. Many personal accounts are just too painful to read. Sexual abuse is described as particularly organised within institutions for boys. But an extraordinary degree of physical and emotional abuse, including the imposition of hunger, was inflicted on occupants of the industrial schools, orphanages and educational institutions. Children had no rights and were often treated worse than animals. The poor were despised by both church and state.
The commission heard evidence from 2,000 former occupants of religious institutions from 1940 right up to 2000. The problem is not an historical one, one that can be confined to the bad old days of rural Ireland. The industrial schools no longer exist, but the church continues to run over 80% of schools, as well as numerous hospitals and many care establishments.
And, while presiding over some despicable regimes for the poor, the church continued to run its ‘centres of excellence’, its elite schools devoted to the education of those born to rule. Many of the political class today come from those elevated establishments run by the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy, among others. These institutions were in fact financially subsidised by the industrial schools and their child slaves. So Brian Cowan and his ilk have a lot to thank the church for.
Today this same Brian Cowan bleats about “our shame as a nation”. The Catholic church assures us it would have acted if only it knew the scale of the abuse. What rubbish. Everybody knew that to be sent to an industrial school was synonymous with being dispatched to a gulag. Everybody knew about the terrible treatment meted out by the clergy to those too poor or vulnerable to defend themselves. To resist them was an act of social hari-kari. Parents of children who suffered abuse were accused of being liars when they tried to intervene. Enormous cover-ups took place and are only now being unravelled. It was a conspiracy of silence.
The main debate centres now on financial compensation for the victims. Under pressure to act, Cowan has been forced to ask the clergy to make a greater contribution to the Financial Redress Board. Having dragged its heels, the church is now prepared to fund a new deal which it hopes will save it. But the clergy can trust in Fianna Fáil. They share a long and ignominious history back to the 1930s. Fianna Fáil is the preferred party of the Catholic church. If they can’t depend on Brian Cowan, what has the world come to?
But the issue of financial compensation, while no doubt important to the victims, is being used to divert attention from the real question - the glaring need to separate church and state: in other words to challenge the 1937 constitution, the creation of Eamonn De Valera, founder of Fianna Fáil and architect of the Irish Catholic state. In his efforts to constitutionally separate the 26 counties from Britain he had attempted to end the oath of allegiance and all references to the British monarchy within the 1922 constitution. He turned to his allies within the Catholic church to create an Irish nationalism founded on religion.
It is he who can be ‘credited’ with article 41, which sacrificed Irish women to his zealous quest for so-called Catholic purity. The constitution in its entirety was designed to meet the needs of both the church and ruling class - and to create a bastion of De Valera-inspired Irish nationalism.
The church’s privileged position was constitutionally enshrined until 1972, when formal equality was extended to all religions. But the reality is that, although by no means as powerful as it once was, the Catholic hierarchy continues to dominate, particularly on social issues.
Abortion is still illegal. A successful campaign by the church in 1983 ensured that this illegality is constitutionally guaranteed. Divorce - despite a major struggle - is still restricted to couples who have been separated for four out of five consecutive years. And now new legislation is being introduced to outlaw ‘blasphemy’.
The preamble to the constitution states that all power is derived from the “most holy trinity”, and acknowledges “our obligations to our divine Lord Jesus Christ”. Article 44 commits the state to uphold the public worship of god - “it shall hold his Name in reverence and shall respect and honour religion”.
Despite all this some on the left have claimed that the privileged position of the church and the role of the state in upholding religion are secondary issues. Ordinary workers are not interested in questions of democracy and secularism. Tell that to the thousands of victims of indescribable cruelty at the hands of state-authorised abuse centres!
It is true that the church has now fallen from grace. Vocations to the priesthood have crashed from over 1,000 a year in the 1980s to just a handful now. Secular attitudes have become more widespread and church attendances have plummeted. But still the state remains a religious one. This disgraceful situation must be ended once and for all.
While religious expression must be guaranteed on the same basis as for all social ideas, there must be complete separation of church and state. The role of the church and of religion must be expunged from the constitution. The church’s responsibility for running state-funded schools, hospitals and care institutions must be completely removed. Religious indoctrination (as opposed to the teaching of religion as an academic subject) should have no place in the curriculum of state schools. Preparation for religious ceremonies such as communion and confirmation must not be part of the school syllabus. Individuals and families must be left to make their own choices about their religion and if and when they practise it. The left needs to take up the question of secularism in a serious way now.
What do the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, the two principal leftwing organisations in Ireland, have to say on all this? The SP website has an article by Joe Higgins on the abuse scandal, but makes no mention of secularism. The SWP’s position is better, calling for an end to the church’s role in education, etc. But this hardly constitutes a fully rounded position.
Deep anger remains - there is talk of a march in solidarity with the victims of abuse. However, without the intervention of the left, the church could regain control with pleas for forgiveness and promises of compensation. A democratic secular republic must become a key working class demand.