VICTORIA WHITE: Céad míle fáilte is my religion, the anti-Pope mob won’t shout me down

The Irish and Papal flags flying at Knock Shrine in Co Mayo, for Pope Francis's visit on Saturday. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

It is unfair to blame the Pope for the historical treatment of children in all Western societies, writes Victoria White

My friend was eight and living in Haiti when he won a holiday with a priest in a history competition.

He was to travel with the priest from Port au Prince to Belgium and from there to Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands.

He never got any further than Belgium. A Belgian friend and disciple of the priest said trailing around through several European countries for five weeks wasn’t going to be much fun for a young boy and he offered to let him stay with his family instead.

The boy didn’t leave that home until he was an adult.

He was adopted by the Belgian family and now calls the priest’s friend his “father”. He describes his adoption as his “out of the world experience” and adds, “I don’t need to win the Lotto anymore, I already did.”

The life of that impossibly poor Haitian boy, who is now raising his own family in Ireland, was utterly transformed by the concern of a young Don Bosco priest called
Fr Bohnen.

Bohnen set up multiple schools in Haiti and with other Don Bosco priests was educating 10,000 poor children when my friend left in the 1970s.

His order fed them all.

What’s more, the order fed the kids’ families, sending rice and beans and discarded army rations home with the children.

When you’ve done as much for your fellow man, let me know and I might listen to your blanket condemnation of the Catholic Church and all that sail in her.

The Catholic Church has, in the recent words of Mary McAleese, “no equal on the planet in terms of its outreach to the poor, the dispossessed the marginalised”.

In Ireland, the Catholic Church stepped in long before the State bothered: Think of the Holy Faith Sisters feeding and educating 1,300 children in Dublin’s impoverished Coombe in 1913.

Think, today, of the work among the homeless of Fr Peter McVerry and Sr Stan, of Br Kevin Crowley of the Capuchin Day Centre and the parish behind the Little Flower Penny Dinners in Dublin and on and on and on.

Then ask yourself if you want to insult their spiritual leader?

I am horrified by the howling mob which has come out against the visit of Pope Francis to our country. It is a mob, make no mistake about it.

The formation of the mob is not surprising, given that I have heard established commentators across the mainstream media, from this newspaper, to The Irish Times to RTÉ and Newstalk, speak in a way which to my mind grossly insults Catholics.

Writing in The Irish Times, the writer Fintan O’Toole suggested that the Pope was not a true Catholic. The Pope is Catholics’ spiritual leader and to insult him is to insult them.

To add further insult to injury, not all those with the strongest voices telling Catholics how to be good Catholics by shunning the Pope are Catholics themselves.

Céad míle fáilte is my religion, the anti-Pope mob won’t shout me down

They are an alternative Church, a citadel of certainty, telling me to “Stand for Truth” by meeting at the Garden of Remembrance on Sunday instead of going to the Pope’s Mass at the Phoenix Park by Tweeting, “We will not be complicit, we will not be silent…” Nor will I.

I won’t be complicit or silent in the face of the mob which has gathered against the Pope’s visit.

The mob has gathered on the issue of abuse of minors by priests and religious. Among them there are people whose lives have been damaged or destroyed by such abuse and they have every right to shout their hurt as loud as they can.

But the mob is not shouting for them, it is shouting for itself, to drown out all dissent from its doctrine.

The best estimates suggest that about 96% of Catholic priests and religious are innocent of abusing minors. The comprehensive John Jay Institute report to the Catholic Bishops in the US in 2004 reckoned the overall percentage of abusing priests to comprise 4.47% diocesan priests and 2.7% religious priests.

We have reached the point, however, that many opinion-makers seem to feel no need to stick to the evidence when making allegations against Catholic priests and religious.

Mary McAleese gave it as her opinion on RTÉ’s Marian Finucane Show that between 6% and 10% of Catholic clergy were child abusers, and this “fact” has been repeated many times by many people,
including Ivan Yates on Newstalk and Joe Duffy on RTÉ One.

We are now told, repeatedly, that child abuse is “endemic” in the Catholic Church. In fact, it is no more likely in the Catholic Church than in any other Church.

Celibacy was not found by John Jay to be a factor influencing abusers and most abusers were also sexually active with adults.

Appalling instances of abuse have been recorded among Buddhist and Protestant communities but they will never face the headlines Catholics face because they are not governed by a central authority and the blame can’t be generalised.

Abuse is as likely in any other situation in which adults have access to children, such as schools. In fact, John Jay reckoned the percentage of abusers among teachers to be slightly higher than it is among Catholic priests, at 5%.

As I have written before, when there was abuse of a minor at my Protestant school the police were not notified and the teacher was dispatched to another school with a reference.

It took me about two decades to find anything strange in that.

Our understanding of child psychology has, thankfully, profoundly changed in the last half-century, not just here, but throughout the developed world. It is unfair to blame the Pope for the historical treatment of children in all Western societies.

NOR is the lamentable instinct to cover up and defend the institution confined to the Catholic Church. This is the instinct of all institutions and their cover is usually only blown by the bravery of a victim or the occasional whistle-blower.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s call for the Vatican to institute mandatory reporting of the abuse of minors among its priests and religious, is wholly warranted and long overdue. The Irish State introduced mandatory reporting in 2015 but here the Catholic Church was ahead of the game when it set up its effective and independent National Board for Safeguarding Children in 2005.

Right now, I would feel my kids were safer in the environment of the Catholic Church than in most other environments.

They will be coming with me to the Pope’s Mass. The Pope is not my spiritual leader but he is an elderly and seemingly kindly man who has written passionately about climate change and greeted Syrian refugees with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch.

I am not a Catholic but I am Irish and the “céad míle fáilte” is my religion.

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