The three-monkeys principle — see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil — was, in the areas of physical or sexual abuse, close enough to convention for many generations. Its application, however, was uneven. The that-depends-on-who-you-are laxity still offers comfort to some of those who ignore environmental responsibilities, or others who might commit white-collar crime. Status acted as a shield. A farm labourer or a truck driver was more likely to be the subject of gossip, or worse, than the bishop who might in time confer those men’s children, while invoking the eternal majesty of his church. A senior figure in, say, a medical profession, a senior academic, or maybe member of the law library could indulge proclivities that offended laws and morals to abuse the vulnerable confident their position would protect them. The deference of the disadvantaged was the susceptibility exploited.
It was, and it may still be, a micro version of the too-big-to-fail principle that saved banks from any real consequences of their commercial recklessness. They were insulated from the idea of moral hazard and rescued, while smaller debt holders were bankrupted or evicted. Thankfully, those conventions no longer hold water, or at least as securely as they once did.
In recent weeks, a garda was jailed for two years for possessing images of children being subjected to sexual acts. An Irish Examiner and Evening Echo journalist avoided a prison sentence after admitting to having child pornography.
Even the boy scouts are not immune. Forty former scout leaders accused of child sexual abuse are, according to Scouting Ireland figures, alleged to have molested multiple victims. This growing scandal echoes events that did so much damage to Irish swimming some years ago. Swim Ireland’s successful determination to remake itself and protect children may offer a template to a beleaguered Scouting Ireland. The scouting abuse figures were shared with the Oireachtas committee on children and youth affairs. They recorded abuse of a non-sexual nature and 37 related to physical abuse, 13 allegations of emotional abuse, and five of neglect.
These are just sample cases of what happens when a society becomes confident enough to reject the three-monkeys principle and see it for what it is — a circular, cultural omertá that offers cover to all kinds of criminals. This positive, empowering change has not come easily and has been driven by some very brave whistleblowers and campaigners.
In recent days, a former Catholic cardinal was defrocked after the Vatican found him guilty of sexual abuse. Theodore McCarrick, aged 88, the most senior figure to be removed from the priesthood in modern times, was dismissed before Thursday’s unprecedented global summit on child sexual abuse in the Vatican. That this action was taken in McCarrick’s twilight years shows how slow Catholicism was to accept its responsibilities. It is almost as if McCarrick has been made a sacrificial lamb to satisfy the political needs of the day. However, it offers hope too. It, like the growing school protests around climate change, confirms change is possible but first the tree monkeys must get their marching papers.
Silence has been a form of subjugation for too long.