The power behind the shame
I travelled to Dublin in the early 1950s as a member of a delegation from a Northern Ireland Labour group. Our purpose was to discuss with the leaders of the Irish Labour Party the desirability and feasibility of extending this party into Northern Ireland.
The Irish Labour Party was then part of the coalition government which abandoned the constitutional ties with Great Britain and declared the state of Eire “The Republic of Ireland”. Its leader was William Norton who was the Coalition’s Deputy Prime Minister (Tanaiste) and Minister of Labour. He was the Leader of the delegation we were meeting on the Sunday morning. The rest of its delegates were Senator Luke Duffy, the Party’s General Secretary, James Larkin (son of the courageous Labour Leader of 1912 fame) and Roddy Connolly,(the son of James Connolly, the erstwhile socialist who was executed by the British for his part in the 1916 Easter Rising).
We met in the Tanaiste’s office, a very grand location in, if I remember correctly, Merrion Square. Connolly had met our delegation the previous evening and he and three of our delegates were nursing the consequences of the hospitality. Norton sat in grandeur behind a massive desk that would have silenced the impoverished; he looked and sounded unctuous, distracting from his excellent delivery with a continuous ’washing’ action of his hands.
I threw a bomb into the pleasantries when I asked him if it was true that he had told journalists during the elections just passed that Labour’s policy was not only compatible with Catholic social doctrine but was actually based on Rerum Novarum, a Papal Encyclical “on the Condition of the working classes”, from the prolific pen of Pope Leo XIII released some 59 years earlier in May 1891.
Norton prefaced his politician’s reply with a sloppy compliment to my youth and what he perceived to be the intensity of my idealism. but I had to learn that politics was the art of the possible. Another member of our delegation, Michael Callaghan – the only one who, like me, was not a Catholic – equated the remark I had attributed to Norton with the comment of a North of Ireland Prime Minister that his was a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people.
Larkin stood by the window, silent, sullen; Connolly, too, despite pledges of the previous evening, when he’d quipped about bishop’s with invisible Ministerial portfolios, was silent. On being pressed to answer Norton agreed that he might have made the remark. Rerum Novarum was an old document…he couldn’t exactly remember the detail of its main thrust – but Russian ‘communism’ had made things awkward for Labour in a Catholic country.
The rest of our delegation were untroubled by the implications of the suggestion that the Leader of the Irish Labour Party who held the Labour portfolio in the Irish government overtly agreed with the bitterly anti-socialist, anti-democratic Papal bigot whose conception of freedom was naked corporative capitalism under the hegemony of the Roman Catholic Church. They were there to make history and, anyway, we had to show courtesy.
Callaghan and I knew we had been rebuked by serious aspirants to professionalism – and political ambition in a country where the Church was an invisible upper chamber had frightening portents. The reality of these were corruptive of the democratic process in an allegedly democratic country.
The Unfree State
When the British withdrew from the greater part of Ireland, henceforth to be called the Irish Free State, the IRA split on the terms of the settlement with Britain, and a bloody civil war ensued. Under these warring conditions administrative structures had to be developed. The war with Britain was for faith and fatherland; those who were killing one another in an internecine war over the nature of the fatherland were at least united in faith and there was no discernable concern about the Catholic Church becoming almost wholly responsible for the general ‘education’ of the young, including places of care and security like orphanages and juvenile penal institutions.
The approximately 27 percent of the population of Ireland who were not Catholics and might have acted as a counterweight to the arrogant authoritarianism of the Catholic bishops were now largely concentrated in Northern Ireland. Only some 9 percent of the population of the Free State was non-Catholic, mainly Protestant. These latter had been identified with the enemy during the three years of fierce guerrilla war that preceded the new constitutional arrangements and they were not anxious to be involved in controversy, especially controversy pertaining to the power of the church.
There were from time to time minor scandals involving clerics but journalists ‘blessed’ themselves in the presence of a priest and ‘housewives’ brought out the china cup and saucer for his visit and, of course, everybody knew that the pleasant-looking young ladies that frequently wined or dined with them in the local hotels were their sisters. The State maintained a censor and an Index of banned books on which appeared the titles of any Irish writer who ever wrote an honest word. Nothing of significance happened without the attendance of a priest.
In 1926 the republican rebels who had been defeated in the civil war reformed politically under the aegis of Fianna Fail and achieved control of government in 1932.The new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) was Eamon De Valera, the main architect of the civil war; an austere, well-informed Catholic. In 1937 his government changed the name of the state to Eire and introduced a new constitution in which was mentioned the favoured place of the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The New Republic
In 1948 the political inertia of the years of official neutrality during the second World War to end all wars came to an end with the spawning of yet another incarnation of republicanism in the shape of the Clann na Poblachta. The new Party was led by Sean McBride who had been chief-of-staff of the IRA before the war and had resigned his position when the IRA’s Army Council agreed to the planting of bombs in England. McBride was a French-educated lawyer and senior counsel who, incidentally, was later involved in the founding of Amnesty International.
The new Party was optimistic about it chances of winning a majority in the Dail (Irish Parliament).In the event they won a credible ten seats and went into a coalition with the Irish Labour Party, Fine Gael, National Labour and a Farmers’ Party – the latter two now demised – under the leadership of John A Costello. The coalition contained some figures regarded as radical within an Irish context; it made Eire “the Republic of Ireland” , it flirted with notions of changes in education and health but it surrendered before the power of the bishops and their priestocracy.
The Coalition’s Minister of Health, Dr Noel Browne, was a young medical doctor who was in remission from tuberculosis – a poverty-promoted pulmonary illness rife in Ireland. I had met Browne at an early meeting of the Clann na Poblachta; he claimed he was a socialist but his sole political preoccupation seemed to be a well-intentioned obsession with the need for a system of state-structured health care and it was no surprise when he introduced a Bill to provide free health care for pregnant women and children up to the age of sixteen.
Unfortunately, health, like education, was deemed by the bishops to be a vital part of the Church’s constituency. Governance over education was clearly prescribed under the Church’s Code of Canon Law cc. 1381, 1382. Control of the minds of the young was vital to the adult acceptance of the outrageous basis of religious belief while control of the ramshackle health provision was an important instrument of social control and evidence of a ‘caring’ church.
The threat of even a very limited secularised health service enraged the bishops. They were, of course entitled, like any other interested party, to offer their opinion but they were not ‘any other interested party’. The then Archbishop of Dublin. John Charles McQuaid issued an instruction for Dr Browne to meet him and a coterie of his arrogant colleagues at the Archbishopric at 24 hours’ notice. The proposed health service was abandoned and the Minister of Health replaced; the puny mercies of the proposed service would have to wait for another day when material conditions would clear away some of the cobwebs of ignorant and superstition that history had imposed on the people.
Just as electricity had played a major role in banishing the fairies new material conditions in the Republic were putting the myths under strain. Those who knew from their awful experiences – and there were thousands of them – that many of the Church’s educational and ‘care’ institutions were cesspits of sexual, physical and emotional depravity were terrorised into silence but there were whisperings now; the Index, as the banned books listings was called was no longer tenable and the bishops could not ban the airwaves. Even more pertinently, Ireland was strategically placed on the western flank of an expanding Common Market. New technologies were leading to much greater mobility of capital which, in turn demanded vastly expanded educational and training facility.
All the sexual taboos which Popes railed about, while the Church manoeuvred its clerics around the world to escape child abuse charges, were increasingly unenforceable in the Republic. New living standards needed two incomes and the ‘rhythm method’, the Church’s absurd means of contraception, was not only emotionally sordid and restrictive but often ineffective. Wits in Ireland were known to question where they would get a ceili band in the middle of the night and when an Irish-American beauty revealed that the father of her teenage son was the stringent Bishop Casey of Galway it was legitimate to ask why he was not using the rhythm method.
The church’s dirty washing was becoming public. Early offerings were decent priests who had abandoned the holy pretence to identify with their sexual partners and provide for their children. They were not the ‘bad apples’ the very devout perceived them to be; the real bad apples, whole orchards of them, priests, nuns and Christian Brothers remained in the fold to torture and rape innocent children whose care they had been charged with all sorts of power-lusting, creative abuse was waiting to be revealed by tens of thousands of victims against a thousand members of religious orders.
Eventually public disquiet became so clamorous that the Irish government, fearful of legal action by victims for dereliction of the State’s duty of care had to do something about it. Given the abundance of proven cases not only in Ireland but in other countries throughout the world where paedophile Irish priests had been moved by church authorities in order to escape the opprobrium that their public conviction would bring on the Church, it was reasonable to expect swift and intensive action into sources of information that would help the Authorities to get details of the identity of the criminals and their current location. But the Garda did not bring their battering rams to the doors of Bishoprics where such information might be found. Not a single officer of the Church who was complicit in withholding information into these utterly heinous crimes appeared in the dock.
Instead the state went into negotiations with the church authorities about setting up a Commission of Enquiry into the disgustingly unsavoury affair and the church authorities – presumably the cardinal and the bishops – agreed to co-operate with the Enquiry on the basis of an undertaking from the State that it (the church authorities) would not have to reveal the identity of its miscreants and that the Church’s liability for financial compensation to victims should be capped at some 128 million euro. This latter is currently estimated at 1.3 billion euros which leaves the Irish taxpayer liable for some one billion euros for the crimes of the clergy.
The Ryan Commission heard evidence from literally thousands of victims into rape, buggery and brutality in Catholic institutions where children and young people had been placed by the State for care and protection over a period of some four decades. The Enquiry took ten years and its conclusion was that these utterly depraved practices were ’endemic’ in such institutions.
It is hard to imagine the magnitude of suffering inflicted on children of all ages over decades by brutal priests and nuns numerously permeated into a grossly arrogant and sanctimonious church whose maintained code of silence must surely have equalled the evil of its utterly debauched clerics.
There is no suggestion that the church promoted or encouraged this depravity but it must be obvious that the offenders, especially paedophiles, recognised the opportunities the Church with its regime of power and unquestioned obedience offered for the pursuit of their foul practices.
The guilt of the Church was, and is, in the appalling fact that in order to preserve its awesome power over its credulous membership it was prepared to protect those engaged in the most vile practices against children. Those who rape, sodomise, and physically abuse defenceless children have deep and intractable problems; this writer does not pretend to understand the causes of such behaviour but assumes their mental condition is a factor in their guilt. There is no such subtlety in the behaviour of an organisation that conceals such depravity in order to preserve its power and privilege.