Report is shocking — and yet not shocking at all

YESTERDAY’S Cloyne Report is shocking — yet in many ways not shocking at all.

So the Catholic Church did not monitor itself? (disregarding Cardinal Brady’s statement that the structures are working). This should not surprise. Most powerful hierarchical institutions with all the arrogance this allows would protect themselves. In particular, men like Bishop Magee, from whom I received the sacrament of communion, of whom our parents spoke admiringly, who lived in the most elaborate residence in Cobh — existed within this power, making them believe they were infallible.

Yet the report has highlighted the same issues addressed in previous reports into child abuse in Dublin, Ferns and residential institutions, and comes to the same conclusion: the institution (be it church or state) always comes first; families and vulnerable children always last.

It also highlights the need for prosecutions, legislative changes and a wider debate on who are the vulnerable in society. That the situation in Cloyne occurred from 1996-2009 does not shock me. However, the report does signal wider historical questions that have not been addressed sufficiently.

Firstly, child abuse and child sexual abuse are not crimes that only became known in Ireland in the 1990s. From the late 19th-century, the courts, the press and voluntary societies all flagged the problem, albeit couched in euphemisms such as “bad things done in private”.

From 1912-1920 the feminist newspaper The Irish Citizen regularly reported cases of child sexual abuse from the Dublin courts. This was not an easy task for Marion Duggan and the “Watching the Courts Committee“, as at this time women were asked to leave the court during such sensitive cases to protect their dignity. Yet these women refused.

From the 1920s, even debates on censorship of the media were couched in sexual subtext. The Catholic Church highlighted sex more than anyone else. In the 1930s, the Carrigan Committee discussed child sexual abuse under the auspices of “juvenile prostitution“; juvenile prostitution being a young child being given a reward (usually a sweet or money) for a sexual act.

Secondly, we must never forget that the wide-reaching power of the Catholic Church in Ireland was only solidified in the post-famine period. Upon independence, the Church consolidated this power, and society reacted with the respect and veneration that I and previous generations remember vividly.

My generation has, to a large extent, rejected the Church and all its trimmings. We want abortion legalised, we want secular education, same-sex marriage, women to be seen and viewed as equal (within and outside the church). Mostly, we want religion to be kept private, we want a secular society.

Yet the Church is in no way the only protagonist. The state has had an easier critique throughout the reports and media attention. The redress scheme ensured that no ex-resident of the industrial school system brought a case through the courts. The Ryan Report resulted in no prosecutions. So many abuses, but a good deal done for those in power by Bertie Ahern and Michael Woods in the 1990s; one that has enabled the state to put the industrial schools debacle “in the past”.

Yesterday, the Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald stated: “Never again will someone be allowed to place the protection of their institution above the protection of children.”

This is not the first time such promises have been made by politicians in contemporary Ireland, lending little comfort to families and society. If change is to occur we must challenge old institutions, acknowledge who the vulnerable children are, accept as a society that a child from the travelling community or a working-class community has equal status to a child from a middle or upper-class family. Abuse is about power, we must create a society where social justice is paramount, and then perhaps we can stop repeating the abuses of the past.

* Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley is a lecturer in the School of History, UCC. Her work centres on the history of child welfare and child protection in Ireland. She is originally from Cobh, Co Cork.

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