Sunday, May 24, 2009

Abuse by Catholic Church

An abuse too far by the Catholic church
Tales of systematic abuse in Irish Catholic institutions leave me wondering how long I can continue to feel part of this church

Madeleine Bunting, Thursday 21 May 2009 16.31 BST

This could not be worse. The Ryan report is the stuff of nightmares. It's the adjectives which chill: systemic, pervasive, chronic, excessive, arbitrary, endemic. They pretty much tell the whole story of the violence and sexual abuse suffered by a generation of some of the most vulnerable children in Ireland over several decades of the middle of the 20th century. This is a crisis for Ireland – Irish bloggers yesterday were describing the scandal as their equivalent of the Holocaust – but it is also a crisis for global Catholicism. After all, it is not just Ireland going through this terrible reckoning with its Catholic history but the US, Australia and to some extent the UK.
The Ryan report's meticulous gathering of evidence over several volumes paints a picture of a system of church and state in Ireland which was horrifically dysfunctional with its combination of sadism and deference. Page after page punches the point home with relentless clarity. Squarely in the frame are the religious orders who systematically protected and tolerated their members' actions even when they knew they were breaking the law. But also culpable is the state charged to inspect the childrens' homes and schools. It was too deferential to the Catholic church to ever do the job properly.
When child abuse in the Catholic church first began to be taken seriously in the late 80s/early 90s, the line of argument reluctantly conceded after straight denial became impossible to sustain, was that it was all about a "few bad apples". But the Ryan report destroys this fig leaf of a defence because of the sheer scale of what went on. The report rightly challenges the relevant religious orders to "examine how their ideals became debased" and why it was that they consistently put the interests of their institutions before individuals.
The report is so damning, not just in dealing with the past, but on how it calls up short present behaviour – the lamentable reluctance of the religious orders to engage with the inquiry or fully accept their role. The report argues that the public apology by the Christian Brothers was "guarded, conditional and unclear", and that "it was not even clear that the statement could properly be called an apology".
The Irish government has officially apologised and is footing the lion's share of the bill for compensation to victims. The Ryan report calls for a national memorial. There is growing pressure for some commensurate gesture of atonement from the Catholic church. The apologies flooding out yesterday seem too little, too late. And there is still, extraordinarily, denial – ranging from Mary Kenny's jaunty variety of "I've never met a priest who is a paedophile" to the new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, who praised the courage of the religious orders concerned and seemed to exonerate their reluctance to face the past as "instinctive and quite natural". It's a form of wording which, from such an experienced media operator as Nichols, beggars belief.
There needs to be a far more probing analysis of the structure of authority within the Catholic church, and the culture of deference and obedience expected of lay people towards priests. These bred a preoccupation with maintaining the prestige and authority of church institutions; any threat to that priority – regardless of the cost to the welfare of individuals - had to be stifled. These are the characteristics which have made the Catholic church morally bankrupt.
As one Jesuit-edited blog put it this week:
Why did so many Catholic institutions fail so appallingly? A hundred reasons can be suggested, but three come to mind: undue respect for authority (which was self-justifying and rarely self-critical); religious authoritarianism (government of communities by self-perpetuating cliques, who rarely saw the need for fresh thinking); and a rancid clericalism (product of a religious culture that increasingly turned in on itself).
How can this cosiness by shaken up, challenged and reformed? This is not a new debate within the Catholic church; ever since the second Vatican council in the early 1960s there have been a minority who believed that the hierarchy of the church owed more to the Roman Empire than it did to the Jewish carpenter, and have sought measures of reform. But their efforts have met with so little success that they have retreated to the margins faced with a resurgent conservatism. Many others have given up the fight, and abandoned Catholicism altogether as too irredeemably unreformable.
The whole sorry chapter raises a very private dilemma. For years now, I've had an intermittent conversation with an admirable and devout relative: How long can we hang on? When do our fingernails break? Belonging to any institution involves sometimes having to clamp a clothes peg on your nose, as my colleague Polly Toynbee urged in the very different circumstances of disaffected voters sticking with Labour in 2005. But there comes a point when the clothes peg option runs out, the fingernails break.
The Catholic church is one of the world's most enduring institutions: no other global body counts more than a billion adherents whose practices and behaviours are guided by an organised, disciplined hierarchy, but this whole awful history of abuse is a reminder that too often in history that institutional survival has come at the cost of everything it purports to believe.

'Devastating report' into Catholic schools abuse
20 May 2009:
The Guardian's Ireland correspondent on a long-awaited report into abuse suffered by thousands of children at institutions run by priests
More video
10 Mar 2008
Pope could face protests in Ireland over abuse cases
28 Feb 2008
The question:
3 Feb 2008
Call to seize secret church abuse files
8 Jan 2008
Catholic church under pressure to stop sale of paedophile's book

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