Talk about scandal after scandal changes nothing, let’s have action

IT’S nearly 30 years since Albert Reynolds’s government fell over a controversy around the paedophile, the Norbertine Brendan Smyth. The intervening decades have been marked by one scandal after another, one excoriating report on child abuse after another.

Talk about scandal after scandal changes nothing, let’s have action

Despite that litany, we treat each new revelation as if it was the first and that it should not have consequences beyond expressions of heartfelt contrition or maybe a commemorative garden to assuage our guilt. That process continues today — the grotesque known-unknown in Tuam and the Grace outrage which looks ever more like an Irish Josef Fritzl nightmare.

Taoiseach Enda Kenny made a contribution to that process when he spoke in the Dáil, saying the Tuam revelations were a cause of shock and shame and pointed to the complicity of all of society. He spoke passionately but in the end, his speech may count for little enough. The record shows it might be unwise to expect equally forceful action.

In July 2011, after the Cloyne report was published, Mr Kenny criticised the Vatican in unprecedented terms. That speech confronted the cancer at the heart of the issue and suggested that change was at least possible. The Irish embassy in the Vatican was closed — “to save costs” — but it was quickly reopened. That empty gesture has become symbolic. Mr Kenny has been Taoiseach since then, but the fundamentals in the relationship between the State and Catholicism are unchanged. More than 90% of national schools are under Catholic patronage. A Government policy to change that has been defeated; barely a dozen schools have left Catholic patronage. This degree of reform hardly reflects the passion in Mr Kenny’s speeches.

That the Comptroller and Auditor General reported yesterday that Catholic congregations have paid just 13% of the cost of the child abuse redress scheme, instead of the 50:50 ratio agreed, must also dilute the impression created by those fiery speeches. The child abuse inquiry and redress scheme cost €1.5bn to the end of 2015. The redress element cost €1.25bn, five times the estimate of €250m. Legal costs are, incredibly, around €200m. This suggests little government enthusiasm for enforcing that deal, or even the spirit of it.

No-one, least of all Catholicism, benefits from this unending shame, so a formal of acknowledgement of the evils so active for so long, and our complicity, is necessary. To that end, Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone yesterday suggested we consider transitional justice, which the UN describes as a way to deal with large-scale abuses. Speaking earlier this week, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin suggested that the Church must hand over hospitals and schools to the State. A combination of those proposals seems appropriate even if that would require something more concrete, something far more robust than speeches to realise.

This relentless, draining saga has gone on for far too long. Government must assert its authority and redefine the State-and-church relationship to reflect today’s Ireland. It cannot allow the forces behind so many scandals to win by wearing down, by outlasting those who would remake Ireland.

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