VICTORIA WHITE: Tarring all Catholic religious with sex abuse brush a horrible injustice

CATHOLIC priests are no more likely to abuse minors than men of any other profession. They are no more likely to abuse minors than priests of any other denomination. They are slightly less likely to abuse minors than teachers.

That’s what the international research says, including the John Jay Institute’s 2004 report to the American Catholic bishops.

Would you ever shut up, you’re saying. Don’t you realise that kicking old Catholic priests in the dentures is the easiest way for a journalist to get Facebook “likes” these days? Don’t you realise you’re going to get a slew of comments telling you the little-known fact that the Catholic Church had a policy of raping children? I hate the crime of child abuse and I hate those who abuse minors.

I am not a Catholic. The only reason I am writing this article is because I cannot stand seeing such injustice done to any group in society as is being done to Catholic religious. Few other groups in our society are the targets of such consistent slander. Maybe they should take a leaf out of the Travellers’ book and look for status as an “ethnic minority.”

The fifth and largest tranche of reviews of Catholic institutions in Ireland by the National Board for Safeguarding Trust was published this week and are available on www.safeguarding.ie. Though the board still found structural weaknesses, particularly in some missionary congregations, the reports on the dioceses were positive to the point of glowing.

The board found in the Diocese of Dublin, “an extraordinary degree of openness and accountability.” I was particularly impressed with the detail of the one-to-one monitoring and support of priests and former priests who “are considered to pose a risk to children and young people.”

In all, 98 allegations have been made against priests of the Dublin Diocese and 11 priests or former priests have been convicted in the courts. However, the damage even a tiny proportion of priests did was enormous because of the horror of the abuse and the numbers of minors which some abused.

There must never be any denial of the pain the survivors feel because of the actions of these predators and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin says in the Dublin report that his aim is to create “a safe place for those survivors who still fear telling their story and who live alone with their anguish.”

But the hard truth is that no other institution has dealt as comprehensively with child abuse in its ranks as the Catholic Church. It is probably one of the safest environments there is for a child or teen nowadays. Covering up and attempting rehabilitation for child abusers were normal practice throughout society until very recently; but while many covers remain in place, the Catholic Church’s has been blown.

The abuse of minors is as much an issue throughout society as it is in the Catholic Church. Ease of access is the only determinant of its prevalence in any profession. That’s what swimming coaches George Gibney and Derry O’Rourke had in common with Irish College founder Domhnall O’Lubhlaí and TV celebrity Jimmy Saville.

Thankfully, we don’t tell our kids to stay away from swimming pools and Irish college, but we blacken the name of the entire Catholic Church. Child sex abuse in the Catholic Church may be, in the words of The Guardian’s Andrew Brown, “the best reported crime in the world”. Brown thinks it’s a symptom of the general collapse of the power of the Catholic Church. He describes the scandal in Ireland as “loudest” and the reason for this is clear: we were more in the grip of Catholic authority than most other societies and were chucking it more quickly.

Apart from the victims and their families, who have abundant reason to curse the Catholic Church, the wider society has used the child sex abuse scandal as a metaphor to express its desire to leave its past behind.

I am also convinced that the fact that Catholic religious are obliged not to have sex has damaged their reputation worldwide. Enforced celibacy has fuelled anti-Catholic fantasies since the Reformation — as well as being the nub of the wonderful humour in Father Ted. No connection has been found between child sex abuse and celibacy (see the John Jay College Institute’s report) but we live in a world which can’t stand people who don’t have sex.

I happen to think obligatory celibacy is insane. But I don’t think people should be accused of being paedophiles simply because they don’t have sex with adults.

The vast majority of Catholic religious are wrongly accused in the public mind of hideous crimes and their entire life’s work has been rubbished. Many elderly religious now feel that their lives were, “unproductive and useless”, as stated in a CD “Recognising the Influence of Senior Religious” produced by Awareness Education to provide support to these senior citizens. A series of related seminars has been held for senior religious around the country, including one concluding today in the birthplace of Nano Nagle, Ballygriffin, Co Cork. The mention of Nano Nagle, who founded the Presentation Sisters and did so much to bring education and relief to the poor, is significant.

I HAVE spent weeks trying to find cumulative research on the economic return which religious orders have made to this state and there is none, despite the fact that religious orders founded our first hospitals and schools for the poor, our mental health services and our nursing tradition, all for no pay except bed and board.

Historian Dr Jacinta Prunty of NUI Maynooth has no comprehensive figures, but she looks across the road at St. Brigid’s National School in Dublin’s Coombe and makes the point that though it was founded in 1887 by the Holy Faith Sisters it wasn’t funded by the State until 1927. In 1913 it had 1,300 children, many of whom had their breakfast at school.

Today it is a multi-cultural inner city school whose website proclaims “we welcome, embrace and facilitate children of other faiths and traditions along with those of none”.

Writing in the Veritas-published book on religious life in Ireland, A Fire in the Forest, Dr Tony Fahey of the ERSI cautions against seeing these men and women as social reformers in the modern mould. But I would still argue that forgetting their contribution distorts our history.

History is one thing, but tarring all our Catholic religious with the sex abuse brush does a horrible injustice to a group of fellow Irish citizens, people who are our aunts and uncles, our sisters and brothers. Worse still, it provides a smokescreen behind which shocking abuse of children continues.

Some of it is lawful, such as that of tiny babies left all day in the care of a shifting staff of under-paid young women or that of the one-in-five children who are obese and whose health may never recover.


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