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The Church always pays for the sins of the past

COMMENTING on what I said in a BBC radio discussion on the Ryan Report, Fergus Finlay (Irish Examiner, 09.06.09) accused me of trying “to sustain the argument, in the light of everything we know, that the abuse of decades was the work of a few misplaced rotten apples”.

Nothing could be father from my mind. I make no excuse for what happened.

The radio discussion arose from a short article I wrote outlining in very general terms what appear to me to be those aspects of traditional Irish Catholicism that led to what I called the reign of terror in the industrial schools.

Permit me to quote two extracts:

“Traditional Irish Catholicism exuded a sense of superiority, an arrogance that now beggars belief …. No one could teach us anything. In addition, we had a society steeped in petty snobbery, so that priesthood and religious life easily became a status symbol, while those at the bottom of the pile (the indigent poor, the parentless, farm labourers, petty thieves, etc.) were seen by Church, State and Society as non-persons – just numbers. Clerics and religious were all powerful. They were above suspicion – and they knew it.

“They could act without fear of retribution. Human weaknesses of the flesh – including machismo and sadism rooted in a frustrated sexuality due to repressive Puritanism and no real vocation or spiritual training – were often combined with spiritual arrogance and narrow-mindedness. The dregs of this, the negative side of traditional Irish Catholicism, were in charge of the reformatories, industrial schools and foster homes. The result was the perversion of Our Lord’s injunction: ‘Suffer little children to come unto me’ (Mk 10:13).”

Later I added: “clerics [bishops and priests] of the time can hardly have been totally ignorant of what was happening under their eyes – and yet, it seems, they too walked away.” (The Irish Catholic, 28 May 2009).

I must admit that I, too, was shocked to see terms I used in the heat of debate appear the following day in cold print as banner headlines (Irish Examiner, 8.06.09). They were spoken from the heart. I make no excuse for them or for other (perhaps too sweeping) generalisations I made, which many clerics and religious found offensive.

I do offer my apologies for any hurt caused.

Mr Finlay, disingenuously, tried to implicate my teacher, Pope Benedict XVI, in the comments I made on radio. He must know that teacher is not responsible for the views of his students. So what his comments seem to imply is that I am some kind of unofficial spokesman for the Vatican.

This, I hotly contest. I am, and always was, my own man.

One thing my one-time teacher taught me was to face up squarely to the negative side of the Church’s dramatic march through history marked by both great sanctity and terrible evil things done in the name of Christianity (I have not always been a good student.) One of the lessons I did learn was that, in time, the Church always pays for the sins of the past.

At the time, one of the few priests to speak the truth was Fr Edward Flanagan. In a public lecture in the Savoy cinema in Cork in 1946, he publicly and unequivocally denounced what he had seen in the industrial schools. His protests were dismissed in the Dáil by the then Minister for Justice Boland as “exaggerated”. When he returned to the USA, Fr Flanagan is reported to have said: “What you need over there is to have someone shake you loose from your smugness and satisfaction and set an example by punishing those who are guilty of cruelty, ignorance and neglect of their duties in high places… I wonder what God’s judgment will be with reference to those to hold the deposit of faith and who fail in their God-given stewardship of little children”.

I, too, wonder.

Rev Dr D Vincent Twomey

SVD Professor Emeritus of Moral Theology

Divine Word Missionaries


Co Kildare

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