Paula Kirby on Ireland’s avenging angels

Paula Kirby at the Washington Post nails it as usual. She identifies Ireland’s Murphy & Ryan Reports into the decades of institutionalised abuse of children and subsequent cover-ups by the Catholic Church as the most important religion news of the past year.

The Ryan Report, published in May, shocked a normally phlegmatic world with its catalogue of physical, sexual and emotional abuse perpetrated on generations of Irish children, mostly at the hands of Roman Catholic monks, nuns and priests. More shocking still was its conclusion that this savage abuse, far from being the random acts of a few out-of-control mavericks, was both endemic and systemic and, furthermore, was actively covered up by the Church, whose only concern was the preservation of its own reputation.

The Murphy Report, which was published just a month ago, focused on the way allegations of sexual abuse were dealt with in the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin, by both church and state authorities. This report found that:

The Dublin Archdiocese’s pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church, and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State.

 That’s a telling paragraph (although it would probably come as no surprise to anyone who’s been following these matters with an honest mind). The reputation of the Church was always the priority. Justice for raped children wasn’t just put on the back-burner, it was even acknowledged as a need to be met. The Church was simply not interested in either protecting children with preventive measures or punishing those who abused and raped them. It was not interested in investigating the reasons for the widespread abuse; it was concerned only with keeping its golden reputation. This horror show was perpetrated at all levels of the Church’s command structure too. Successive Popes, including the much venerated John Paul II and the much-reviled Ratzinger, participated in these cover-ups. Even if, in an undeserved moment of charity, you grant that a Pope might have been shielded from such information by his untermenschen, the fact is that Popes don’t start as Popes; they have to work their way through the hierarchy like any good corporate climber. The idea that any Pope was unaware that countless numbers of his henchmen were raping children and being protected from the law by bishops & cardinals is laughable and abhorrent. In fact, the only thing more abhorrent is the fact of an allegedly infallible Pope being aware of such horror and doing nothing.

That this information should come as a surprise to anyone living in a country with a history of Catholic “education” or “welfare” is also a great tragedy. We’ve all heard of priests being moved about from place to place when allegations of abuse surface: it’s not just Ireland that this Catholic cancer has metastasised. Australia, the US, Canada, the rest of Britain – anywhere the Catholic Church has had a hand in educating or raising children, priests have repeatedly abused or destroyed the innocence and trust of those children. Not only that, but their bishops have allowed them to get away with it in the name of protecting the monolithic church that they serve.

That a handful of Irish bishops have resigned should provide no comfort to anyone affected by these decades of horror; it’s transparently obvious that the bishops who have resigned have done so due to being backed into a corner by these damning reports and given little choice. Nobody resigned before these reports were released and no bishops or cardinals have been dismissed, much less ex-communicated (no, you have to do something really evil like get a divorce to really piss the Vatican off – permitting or participating in the rape of children is just fine). No Vatican spokesmen have appeared to announce full investigations or intent to provide reparations or make amends and none have announced new Vatican policies to do with limiting or monitoring priests’ access to children or performing any kind of assessments on priests’ suitability for working with children in the first place.

It makes me wonder: what would the reactions be if this were any institution but a church. If this widespread and well-concealed abuse and rape was happening in the state secular education system – if, over half a century, teachers and counselors at state schools were raping students and being shuffled from school to school by their principals and supervisors in the education department to shield them – how long would it be before you saw immediate suspensions, Royal Commissions begun, charges laid and people jailed? It seems almost a question too silly to ask. Most people know that, when government departments are rocked by scandals, once the truth is out and damage control is no longer a viable option, they go into overdrive sacking people and involving the authorities (often the authorities involve themselves). Not so with the Church: they’re still in damage control, still blaming a few “bad apples”, still refusing to investigate properly, still refusing to look inward to see if Vatican policy is at fault and should be changed.

Of course, this is du jour in many ways for religious groups anyway – because they are religious, special treatment is demanded and all too often delivered. To question a “holy man” or his church is still taboo. For a holy man to question his own church is nothing short of heresy.

A number of very senior members of the Gardaí [Irish Police], including the Commissioner in 1960, clearly regarded priests as being outside their remit.

This is the perfect example of how tragically misplaced society’s automatic respect for religion is, and what devastating consequences it can have. Because of an automatic, knee-jerk, unconsidered respect for all things religious, the assumption that religion is good and benign and necessary for stability and morality, the taboo on publicly criticizing it, the unspoken assumption that it must be shielded, protected and privileged at all costs – because of these things, thousands of children had their formative years turned into seemingly endless nightmares, in which they were brutally flogged, punched, hurled around classrooms, humiliated, semi-starved, mocked, degraded and raped. Anything rather than bring the Church into disrepute.

Even when I considered myself Christian I refused to acknowledge infallibility in the institutions which supported it; not least the Catholic Church with its fatal sexual regulations, obscene & hypocritical wealth, pretend country with a UN seat, its own bank(!) and its appointed emperor with his palace in Rome. When I started to learn of the abuse it inflicted on its faithful, all this gilt-edged finery seemed like a cruel, cynical joke. While their people were suffering at the hands of their priests, their leaders slept in silk and drank from gold. Of course, with a racket like theirs, you can understand why the Papacy has for years protected itself at the expense of everything it allegedly stands for: piety, truth, love, compassion. However, since the Roman Church was begun in the last throes of a dying empire and its faith was spread and enforced at the point of a sword, it really comes as no surprise that the highest priority has always been to protect that empire at all costs. Render unto the Pope the things that are Caesar’s.

The Murphy and Ryan reports show not just that Irish Catholicism needs an overhaul; it is also that religion in general is absolutely no guarantee of honesty and morality. Here we have the largest & most influential Christian institution on the planet – the one you may expect to be the ultimate paragon of virtue – being run like a crime family (except it must be said that the Sopranos, Corleones and even their real-life counterparts conduct themselves with a great deal more honour than this mob from Rome). Religious people frequently demonise atheists for being immoral or having no moral code: well, I defy anyone to identify a nonreligious institution with a record like that of the Catholic Church, who went from Crusades to Inquisitions to facilitating Nazism to permitting a half-century of institutionalised paedophilia.

Clearly, Irish Catholics need to re-evaluate whether they want to be a part of an organisation who behaves so callously in its own self-interest and cares so little for the millions who make it what it is. They need to look honestly at these reports and ask themselves if leaving the Church is as bad as the Church itself makes it out to be. In time, perhaps American, Australian and other Catholics world-wide may see their own version of the Ryan & Murphy Reports. In time, perhaps, the Vatican itself may see its numbers dwindle and its funding dry up. Perhaps the Vatican may one day realise that it needs to adapt to a changing world or lose its grip on it. Perhaps that’s too much to hope for.
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