‘So Catholic it forgot to be Christian’

Irish abuse scandal

The Tablet – sent by Maureen Turlish, SND

Paul Keenan

One priest’s reaction sums up Ireland’s increasing fury over the sexual and physical abuse suffered by so many of its children, and the cover-ups and paltry compensation offered by the religious orders guilty of such appalling crimes against those in their care.

“They raped me on a Saturday, gave me an unmerciful beating afterwards, and then gave me Communion on Sunday. My God.”

Among the myriad harrowing stories coming daily from victims of institutional abuse, Michael O’Brien’s words, prompted by last week’s Ryan report into abuse by Irish Religious, stood out starkly as the country struggled to cope with the scale of what had occurred in its institutions over five decades.

A former child resident at the Rosminian order’s Ferryhouse institution in rural Ireland, it is not that the awful details of Michael’s tale stand out from the thousands of horror stories related in the five-volume report, but rather his unscripted and unscheduled relating of the story in an explosion of fury and frustration on national broadcaster RTE’s Questions and Answers programme on Tuesday night.

As a panel of suited commentators quietly surrendered the airwaves to a real-time testimony, and the nation sat in rapt attention, the trembling pensioner vented his years of helpless and fearful silence, his traumatic enduring of attacks on his “lies” from the legal arm of the order and the nightmares that still today bring him sweating from sleep.

Faced with this personification of victims whose childhoods are forever marked by torture, rape and the depraved whims of Ireland’s “most respected”, the nation hung its head in collective shame and – finally – let Michael speak. More importantly, however, a full week on from the findings of the Ryan investigation, Michael’s interjection served to enunciate precisely a growing mood in Ireland in the face of an unexpected new chapter in the sordid mess that is the involvement of Ireland’s religious orders in institutional “care”.

While the Ryan post-mortem got under way, and all aspects of the investigation were pored over for eight-page newspaper spreads, questions of accountability and restitution were revisited. “Revisited” because as far back as 2002, the Irish Government entered into negotiations with the 18 religious orders implicated in Ryan for a compensation scheme for victims. What has emerged is the Government sleepwalking into a financial debacle funded by taxpayers while the orders at the heart of the abuse scandal quietly retreat to their cloisters, unpunished and unaccountable.

Documents unearthed under Freedom of Information legislation by the country’s leading religious newspaper, The Irish Catholic, detail the meetings between government and Religious aimed at hammering out a compensation package. Crucially, though, there were warnings within its own departments that “it is not possible to estimate with confidence the eventual cost of a compensation scheme”, government negotiators in 2002 eventually accepted a forecast compensation figure of some 254 million euros (then £161m), and settled for 50 per cent of that – a figure of 127m euros (then £80.5m) – to be paid by the religious orders. In return, the orders’ negotiators secured a full indemnity against any future claims arising, entered into the agreement “in good faith”, and later secured a commitment that the Ryan team would not name any Religious directly implicated in abuse – apart from the handful already beyond the orders’ protective code of “omerta” after being hauled before the courts.

Today, as the bill for institutional abuse tops 1.3 billion euros (today £1.1bn), and it is revealed that the orders’ agreed share – a mere 10 per cent of the total – has not been fully paid, rumblings of discontent are beginning to shake Church and State. In the middle of European and local elections, the country’s politicians have seized on the issue to beat one another, although all are united in demands for the religious orders to revisit the deal.

More damaging, however, is a rift that has widened within the Church itself after the orders involved rebuffed calls by the Irish hierarchy for them to live up to the Christian message to care for the vulnerable. A scenario, described by one commentator as once “unthinkable” in Catholic Ireland, is unfolding as religious orders enter into open battle with the hierarchy over the Church’s proper response. It has now become so serious that the Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Seán Brady of Armagh, emerged from a meeting of the standing committee of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference last Monday with assurances that the issue would be discussed with Pope Benedict

The Irish Cabinet, apparently rendered helpless by the legal dimensions of the deal, met on Tuesday to seek a way forward. To try to calm public outrage, the Minister for Justice said he would ask the police to study Ryan’s revelations in the light of possible criminal proceedings. Undaunted, the head of the Conference of Religious of Ireland still insisted that “the deal is done”, which left one archbishop, Dr Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, to reiterate the question asked of the orders by the Ryan team: “What happened that you drifted so far away from your own charism?”

Cutting through the public mood, Bishop Noel Treanor of Down and Connor pointed towards what may be the only logical way forward from Ryan. Questioned on a proper response to the legacy of abuse, Dr Treanor stressed the need now for a wide-ranging interdisciplinary investigation into why the Irish Church’s religious brothers and sisters, and diocesan priests, abused children in their care, and what it was about Irish Catholicism and Church leadership that turned young men and women into monsters.

Perhaps then, having followed the clues made available through the Ryan report, Ireland will be able to prevent history repeating itself through “cultural pathology”, and can acknowledge itself – in the words of one Irish cleric – as “a country [that] became so Catholic it forgot to be Christian”.