Fergus Finlay: What is it about religious orders and land? It makes me want to gag

Fergus Finlay: What is it about religious orders and land? It makes me want to gag

'The Holy Ghost fathers have a lot of worse skeletons in their closet. Ten years ago, an audit by the Church’s National Safeguarding Body found at least 47 abusing priests in the order in the past.'

You couldn’t be up to them, could you? The religious orders in Ireland, I mean. Let’s talk about one of them in particular, the Holy Ghost Fathers. Or the Spiritans, as they’re grandly called. It was an interview about them that made me almost gag this week.

I suppose I should declare an interest first of all. When I was younger I had an uncle who was a Holy Ghost priest. Not quite an uncle, he was my mother’s first cousin, and the same age as her. Father Jack we called him. He died when I was in my 20s, but he used to visit our house fairly regularly when I was a kid.

I remember him as kindly. His face was always grave, but he never left the house without distributing shillings amongst us. I was fond of him, I guess, and that was why in later years I asked a few people who had been taught by him, mainly in Rockwell College, if they remembered him.

I can still remember the reaction of the grown men I spoke to. They each, literally, went pale at the mention of his name, and one or two found themselves unable to speak. Little by little, I discovered that he had a deep cruel streak. He had a way of belittling young people that would reduce them to nothing, and leave deep lifelong scars.

I had occasion, many years later, to speak in Rockwell College, and I asked some of the priests there about him. He wasn’t someone they really wished to talk about, but I was later sent a little book called Spiritans Remembered — basically a list of all of them with a little pen picture of each.

In relation to my uncle, he was described as a “strict disciplinarian” and the following appeared: “His coldness of temperament and his austere approach to life somewhat curtailed his influence for bringing out the best in those with whom he had to deal”. I had to grudgingly admire the use of the word “somewhat” to describe boys who were terrified of him.

The Holy Ghost fathers have a lot of worse skeletons in their closet. Ten years ago, an audit by the Church’s National Safeguarding Body found at least 47 abusing priests in the order in the past.

 “There is evidence that there were serial abusers who worked in school communities in Ireland. They went undetected and unchecked giving them unmonitored access to children during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s,” the audit report said.

The Holy Ghost fathers apologised, of course. I don’t know, however, if they ever made any contribution to the compensation fund that was established by the government to make restitution to survivors of abuse. If they did, it presumably would have been a small part of the paltry contribution made by the church and religious orders to the overall fund, under the infamous indemnity deal negotiated by the then government.

I’m pretty sure they could afford it. Not only do they own some of the most valuable lands in Ireland, they also run some of the most expensive schools here. If you visit their website, the first thing you see is a big yellow button with the word “Donate” on it. The second is their motto: “In Service of those in greatest need”.

Private, fee-paying schools

But the fact is, with one exception all the schools they run are private fee-paying schools. Places like Blackrock College are not for those in greatest need — they are for the young male children of the better off. They promote and preserve privilege.

Which is why I nearly threw up when I heard a minister of the government on radio the other day offering her sincere gratitude to the order for their generosity.

The Minister was Josepha Madigan, whose brief is special education — the education of children with additional educational needs. In the main, these would be children with intellectual or other disabilities.

As an aside, I have to tell you I hate the use of the word special in this situation. 

Children with disabilities aren’t special — they are children with additional obstacles in the way of their growth and development, children who used to be institutionalised and are still often discriminated against

But they’re children — citizens of Ireland in exactly the same way as every other child. And they have a constitutional right to an education, just like every other child.

Orders like the Spiritans have always ignored this constitutional right. You get to go to a Spiritan school in Ireland if you fulfill three criteria. You must be a boy. You cannot have an intellectual disability. And your parents must be willing to stump up the fees (in the case of Blackrock College, that’s around €9,000 a year for day attendance and €25,000 for boarders).

But now they have agreed with the minister to start providing access and facilities for children with additional educational needs. Initially in their only non-fee paying school, Templeogue College, but there is the possibility that special classes and or schools could be built on Holy Ghost land in Blackrock and Rockwell, among other places.

These classes or schools would be entirely paid for by the state. The staffing requirements would be entirely paid for by the state. The land would be donated by the order.

Well, actually, not quite. The land would be “licenced” by the order, under a vague and meandering Memorandum of Agreement that could well take years to turn into meaningful action.

Gratitude? Why?

But what killed me about the way this was announced was that the minister appeared to be required to express her particular gratitude to the Spiritans for the fact that children with disabilities will not be charged fees for admission to any of the special classes or schools that may be built on Spiritan land.

Oh please. Gratitude, really? A religious order has given permission to the state to make a considerable investment in the provision of necessary facilities, in order to enhance the delivery of a constitutional right to children who would otherwise have to queue elsewhere for it. And we have to be grateful?

I’ll be honest. From personal experience, and despite my jaundiced views about the role of religion in the provision of education — and despite their chequered history — I know there are many good and decent people in the Holy Ghost Order, and I know many people who are grateful for the role the order played in their growth and development.

But what is it about religious orders and land? Why can’t they just persuade themselves to give the land? Why are they going to insist on complicated contractual arrangements to ensure that the people never get to own the schools they will build? Why can’t they just acknowledge the right children have, on the one hand, and the debt they owe from history on the other?

If the Spiritans could accept that, and give the necessary land as a gift to the state to enable critical facilities to be built and staffed by the state, I’d be first in line suggesting that a bit of gratitude was in order. Until then I’m sorry. Nothing to be grateful for here.

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