27 May 2009

Time to finish what Henry VIII started

As we were living in the Have' in 2002, I missed the whole agreement between the Irish Government and the Catholic orders on the compensation of abuse victims.

For some reason still unfathomable to me the Government agreed to limit the maximum amount the orders would have to pay out to victims of clerical abuse to €127 million, with the Government, ie the Irish taxpayer, generously agreeing to pick up the rest of the tag. The total amount owed to victims now is in the region of €1.3 billion. Furthermore, of that €127 million less than €29 million was actually in the form of a cash settlement, the rest was composed of the transfer of physical assets, mostly property, to the State and the creation of a number of educational trusts to provide counseling to victims and the like.

The Government's liability stems from the fact that the cases of abuse in question occurred within the education system, primarily in the Industrial Schools, where orphans and children from deprived backgrounds were sent by the State, and which were run by religious orders. The Government was the ultimate employer in these institutions, and failed to protect those citizens whose care they contracted out to the religious orders. However, the fact remains that the systematic abuse conducted on such a scale that it is impossible not find the whole Catholic Church in Ireland complicit was carried out by priests, brothers, nuns and laity, not by members of the government, and yet almost no members of those orders have been brought to justice.

It is as if we have a perpetratorless crime; a crime was committed, the victims are being compensated, but no single individual has had to come forward and pay for their heinous acts, instead it is we the taxpayers who are having to shoulder the burden for the evil committed by these men and women of the cloth.

I attended a Christian Brothers' secondary school in the mid and late eighties. When I started, age 12, there were still three or four Brothers on the teaching staff, almost all in their early sixties. In first year, after gym/PE class, one particular Brother would always come round to the showers to make sure that "everyone was washing properly". No physical abuse ever occurred, but we all still knew that what he was doing was very, very wrong. Everyone knew that he was getting a thrill out of being there, and that's why he was there, and yet as twelve year-olds we also all knew that there was no point in saying anything to anyone about it; everyone in authority at the school knew it was going on and yet no-one had ever done anything to stop it, the feeling of powerlessness was total. All we could do was start wearing swimming trunks in the showers and ignore him when he walked in to check on us.

At the same time, though unknown to us until many years later, our local Parish Priest had been transferred into our Parish after abusing alter boys and children in a hospital in Cabra. Although the Dublin dioceses knew his history, he was still allowed uncontrolled access to children and continued his abuse in our Parish until finally being convicted in 1998 on thirteen sample charges. The Dublin dioceses knowingly allowed a sexual predator to continue his abuse for a further thirteen years after first being alerted to his crimes. This priest, naturally, sat on the board of our school.

My experience is certainly not unique, and after talking about it with friends who went to other schools with clerical staff (the vast majority of high schools up to the late eighties) it seems that in almost every school there was one Brother or Priest that all the kids knew not to be left alone with, not that any abuse would necessarily take place, just that the individual in question made all the kids very, very uncomfortable. But similarly no-one ever reported it or complained about it, because everyone in authority in the school already knew about this and it was just accepted as the way things were.

What is infuriating is that almost twenty years later the Catholic hierarchy still had such an influence in this country as to force the Government in 2002 into shouldering the burden for compensating the victims of its abuse, and that even today the Taoisach and his Ministers are claiming they are powerless to force the Church to pay any more, and reduced to calling on the orders to do the moral thing and voluntarily pay more, a call that the Church has been slow to respond to. If the Criminal Assets Bureau can seize the bank accounts, houses and other assets of suspected criminals without the necessity of an actual criminal conviction, how can the same mechanisms not be used to against an organization that has been proven to be complicit in hundreds of cases of abuse?

It is also interesting to note that while the revelations in the Examiner last week on illegal contributions to all the main political parties elicited almost no follow-up either in the media or within the Dail, both the press and the opposition can't say enough about the Ryan Report into clerical abuse in industrial schools, and the Government's response to it. As I noted in a previous post, it wasn't the financial scandals that brought down the Fianna Fail/Labour government, it was the mishandling of a clerical abuse case and the undue influence the Catholic Hierarchy exerted on members of that Government that caused Labour to withdraw. I'm sure that this is also very much in the minds of both the Taoiseach and John Gormley right now.

€1.3 Billion is something that the Exchequer cannot afford to pay out at the moment, though morally the victims of clerical abuse must be compensated. If the Church is unwilling to accept its role as the abuser and pay the vast majority of the court assigned compensation, then its assets must be seized and liquidated, and all victims compensated appropriately.

I am often asked how can I as a theologian be an atheist and so distrustuful and condemning of organised religion. My reply is always the same, that as a theologian, how could I not be.

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