Child abuse, the church and the Irish state

Anne Mc Shane reports on the child abuse scandal engulfing the Catholic church in Ireland. The case for a secular republic and confiscating the church’s property could not be stronger


The Murphy report into sexual abuse perpetrated in the archdiocese of Dublin - publicly released on November 26 - has stirred up yet another political storm about the position of the Catholic church in Irish society. The report presents a damning picture of a hugely powerful, ubiquitous and autocratic clerisy that refuses to make itself accountable before democratic opinion. These new revelations of abuse and cover-up certainly point to the pressing need for a working class alternative to theocratic Ireland and its holy trinity constitution.

Just months after the Ryan report, which revealed systematic ill-treatment of children in church-run institutions, it is now clear that clerical abuse was - and is - a lot more widespread. The exploitation endured by residents of schools and reformatories was also suffered by children in the community - this time at the hands of parish priests. The Murphy report provides a glimpse into the Dublin diocese - from a sample of 5,000 secret files finally handed over in 2006. Sexual abuse was perpetuated against hundreds of children in schools, hospitals, sacristies and youth clubs in just about every Dublin parish.

Unlike institutional abuse, the misconduct of parish priests cannot be shrugged off as an historical problem, belonging to the ‘bad old days’. The report covers a 30-year period up to 2004 and includes allegations from the late 1990s. It also reveals that some perpetuators are still functioning priests. Furthermore a number of high-ranking bishops who were involved in the cover-up remain in office. A bizarre theological practice of ‘mental reservation’ was dreamed up by clergy to assist in creating this smokescreen. This allowed them to ‘reserve’ information about abuse in their own minds rather than admit it to those who came looking for answers.

Urged on by the Vatican, which was determined to protect its own from damaging allegations, the Dublin archdiocese  intimidated and coerced working class families into silence. Children were ruthlessly interrogated and parents threatened with scandal and odium if they went public, including warnings of excommunication. Reality was twisted to such an incredible extent that absolution was actually offered to victims to assuage any feelings of guilt they might have. So powerful has been the grip of the church that most people did in fact keep their mouths firmly shut.

But a number of priests became so reckless in their behaviour that they became a nuisance to the church bureaucracy. The solution was to move them out of the parish, to another part of the country or abroad - often to work in education, hospitals or social provision: ie, where they were likely to abuse again. The report slates church leaders for their scandalous disregard for the safety of children in Dublin and other dioceses. The conspiracy of silence was aided by the state, in particular the gardai, who connived by refusing to investigate allegations and instead referring them on to the local bishop. Priests were outside the law - an unchallengeable elite operating according to their own rules.

But this cover-up was not simply the brainchild of the Irish church - it was a conspiracy of silence orchestrated by the pope himself. The Vatican covertly circulated a 1962 document called Crimen sollicitationis, which stated that any person who makes an allegation of abuse against a priest must take an oath of secrecy. Breach of that oath meant automatic excommunication. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger - now pope Benedict - was in charge of the investigations into child sex abuse from 2001 to 2006. He wrote to all Irish bishops in 2001 reminding them of the need to enforce Crimen sollicitationis and demanding that all complaints of abuse be referred to the Vatican and not the gardai. It says a lot about its arrogance and sense of superiority that the Vatican has to this day refused to reply to repeated requests for information from the Murphy commission.

The sheer hypocrisy of the church, which preaches sexual purity while abusing those in its care, is astounding. That these ‘servants of god’ wilfully caused such pain and damage to the lives of so many is contemptible. Help lines set up after the publication, have reported a massive number of calls. The scale of the abuse appears immense. Many have never talked about it before - they and their families were forced to keep silent by papal dictates. But now they feel able to speak out for the first time. Yet demands for the inquiry to be extended nationally are being resisted by the church, which claims that no good can come out of further investigation - no good for it, of course.

In a grotesque pretence of compassion bishops at the centre of the controversy shed crocodile tears and feign shock at the revelations. They appeal to their congregations and to the piety of the people to forgive them and move on. They pretend that they did not understand or comprehend the full extent of the abuse - when in fact they were the only ones really in the know.

Calls for resignations of high-ranking clergy and for and criminal charges to be brought against offenders abound - except from government leaders. Taoiseach Brian Cowan, true to Fianna Fáil tradition, has stepped in to shield the clergy. On December 2 he said it was essential to “defend both the Vatican and the church in Ireland”. While condemning the abuse, he said the church must be left to deal with its own. He would not wish to undermine its status. Of course not. The Catholic church and Fianna Fáil have a long and symbiotic relationship. It was, after all, a former taoiseach, Eamonn De Valera, who conceived of “a Catholic state for a Catholic people”. So keen was De Valera to create a theocratic regime that he sent the draft 1937 constitution to the Vatican for approval. He got his papal blessing and delivered to the church a permanent guarantee of power … and riches. The Catholic church in Ireland has accumulated fabulous wealth. In total its property assets are estimated to be some €28.5 billion (the equivalent of 22.7% of Ireland’s gross national product).

The fact that the church still runs over 80% of all schools is now a cause for great unease. Questions are being asked about whether priests can continue to chair education committees and school boards. They are deeply discredited, as is their ideological stranglehold on the curriculum. There are discussions about whether schools should be free of religious practices and indoctrination. Secularism is now a very attractive option - many feel quite rightly that Catholicism should no longer dominate our lives. Working class morality has been shown to be a great deal superior to that of our self-appointed guardians.

It is vital that the left in Ireland responds positively to this crisis. We need to put forward a serious and coherent programme for democracy. The working class struggle cannot just be reduced to economic issues. Our fight for revolution must be about all aspects of our lives and in particular must challenge how we are ruled.

And we certainly cannot be complacent or imagine that the church will just die off. It continues to have a hold over Ireland, particularly when it comes to social questions. Abortion is still banned and the constitution safeguards the life of the unborn, as opposed to the rights of women. Article 41 upholds the ‘sanctity of the family’ and preserves the special place of woman as child-bearer and domestic slave - “mothers shall not be obliged by economic necessity to engage in labour to the neglect of their duties in the home”. The findings of the Murphy report also reflect a view of women as lesser beings, useful only as mothers and housekeepers.

The decline of the influence of the church in recent years is in the main due to the reports of abuse and corruption. Church attendances has slumped to below 50% and younger people in particular have become more secular. However, although there are serious cracks in the edifice, the clerical establishment is determined to survive intact - and the government will assist it in every way it can. After all, the power of the church is linked with its own fortunes. Church pulpits deliver the votes of the pious. Some heads may have to roll, but only as a damage-limitation exercise. In the absence of a mass movement for secularism and democracy, church hegemony will almost certainly continue.

Article 6 of the constitution states: “All powers of government, legislative, executive and judicial, derive under god from the people.” In other words religion is seen as the ultimate arbiter. That must be ended. The left can and must lead the fight for a democratic, secular republic. The working class has every interest in constitutionally separating the church from the state. Tax breaks and charitable status must be abolished too. Catholic schools must become state schools and the church should be stripped of all assets that are not directly needed for religious purposes. Let priests who make a vow of celibacy also take a vow of poverty.