Fall 2009, Vol. 12, No. 2

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Spiritual Politics blog

Articles in this issue:

Table of Contents

From the Editor:
Family Ties

Sanford and Wife

Who Killed George Tiller?

Obama in Cairo

When Push Comes to Twitter

Airing the Syrian Laundry

Our Crowd

The Irish Map of Hell

The Baptists Shrink

The Episcopalian Split

Claiming The King's Soul


New books



The Irish Map of Hell
by Christine McCarthy McMorris





On June 10, 7,000 survivors of institutional child abuse and their supporters conducted a silent March of Solidarity in Dublin. The march began at the Garden of Remembrance that honors Irish fighters for independence and proceeded to the General Post Office, which was partially destroyed by British gun ships in the 1916 Easter Rebellion.

There, organizers raised a banner quoting the Proclamation of the Irish Republic: “Cherishing all of the children of the nation equally.” The crowd carried white ribbons and held single children’s shoes above their heads on walking sticks in order, the Irish Times reported the next day, to “symbolize the innocence of so many lost childhoods.”

The march ended at Leinster House, where the Dáil, the Irish Parliament, sits. As shoes, ribbons and wreathes were laid in a pile, the silence gave way to an outbreak of weeping, shouting, and fury. Cries of “Compulsive liars!” and “We were not criminals!” and chants of “Tell the truth, tell the truth!” overwhelmed the designated speakers at the podium.There was, wrote the Irish Times’ Carl O’Brien, “no way now of containing decades of grief, frustration and anger” suffered by “thousands of children who passed through more than 200 Catholic-run institutions over the past 70 years.” The impetus for the march was the May 20 release of the Irish government’s Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (popularly known as the Ryan Report after the commission’s chair, Justice Seán Ryan). Journalists, critics, and clerics alike wondered what impact it would have on the already faltering Catholic Church in Ireland. “Is the Catholic Church entering into exile?” asked the Rev. Dr. Patrick Claffey in an Irish Times op-ed August 25.

The five-volume report was the result of a nine-year investigation into the treatment of 35,000 mostly poor children sent to more than 200 industrial schools and reformatories run by 17 Catholic Orders under the supervision of the Irish Department of Education, most of them between 1936 to 1973. One thousand ninety men and women with complaints of abuse were interviewed, along with 800 abusers.

The Ryan report, which can be downloaded in its entirety at, confirmed sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, and emotional deprivation. Most damningly, it placed the blame on the entire system: “[The abuse] was systemic and not the result of individual breaches by persons who operated outside lawful and acceptable boundaries.”

Reading 2,600 pages detailing the rapes, molestations, beatings, neglect, exploitation, humiliation and starvation is not for the faint-hearted. Here’s a tiny sample from the victim statements:

· “When I told nuns about being molested by ambulance driver, I was stripped naked and whipped by four nuns to ‘get the devil out of you.’”

· “I was tied to a cross and raped whilst others masturbated at the side.”

· “The worst thing was the overall effect of breaking my spirit; the violence; and             the constant blanket of terror.”

 The day after the report’s release, Ireland’s three major dailies splashed the bad news all over their front pages. Under the headline “State of Shame,” the largest-circulation Irish Independent declared, “The State stood idly by as thousands of children were subjected to a horrific litany of physical and sexual abuse in institutions run by religious orders.” The Irish Examiner, read widely in the south, simply proclaimed “Shattered Lives.”

And the Irish Times, once mistrusted by Catholic Ireland as pro-British, published “The Savage Reality of our Darkest Days,” an editorial far more emotional than its usual paper-of-record style. Arguing that this “map of an Irish Hell” would have a major impact on national identity, it said the report compelled acknowledgement that “alongside the warmth and intimacy, the kindness and generosity of Irish life, there was, for most of the history of the State, a deliberately maintained structure of vile and vicious abuse.”

The report sent shock waves far beyond the Emerald Isle, with prominent articles appearing on May 21 in most major newspapers around the world, from the New York Times’ “Report Details Abuses in Irish Reformatories,” the Washington Post’s “Irish Inquiry Indicts Church-Run Schools,” and the London Times’ “‘Irish State’ colluded with religious authorities to hide child abuse” to Le Monde, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Toronto Star, the Times of India, and on and on.

Most of the articles mirrored the New York Times’ Sarah Lyall in quoting both the apology by Cardinal Seán Brady, primate of Ireland (“profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed”) and reactions from such anti-abuse activists as David Clohessy of the St. Louis-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, who called the report proof that “the finger-pointing and blame-shifting and excuse-making of the church hierarchy is bogus.”  

 Most U.S. papers noted that, unlike report on cases of abuse in Catholic dioceses in Boston, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Honolulu, and elsewhere, the Ryan Report did not release the names of any of the alleged perpetrators to the public. In fact, the Christian Brothers, whose schools had more allegations made against them than all the other institutions combined, successfully sued the Irish government in 2004 to prevent the identification of any of their accused members.

With the majority of the tarnished institutions run by the Christian Brothers, it’s important to understand how it led the way for religious orders to become so involved in the education and care of Ireland’s children.

The Congregation of Christian Brothers was founded in 1802 by Waterford merchant Edmund Rice, with the mission to educate and evangelize the poor shortly after Britain’s Penal Laws prohibiting Catholics from teaching children or running schools had been repealed. Seen as a homegrown alternative to British workhouses and celebrating Irish sport, language, and nationhood, the Christian Brothers’ industrial schools and reformatories took over the care of poor, orphaned, and “troubled” children.

After the establishment of the Irish Republic in 1919, the Christian Brothers’ schools—together with those created by other religious orders—provided services the new state could not, while the Department of Education provided only cursory oversight of their administration. On the strength of their “success” in Ireland, the Christian Brothers expanded to England, Australia, New Zealand, and Newfoundland—with scandalous accusations of sexual and physical abuse resulting in each location.

 International coverage of the Ryan Report dwindled quickly, but the tumultuous aftermath dominated the news in Ireland for months, with public figures on all sides weighing in on the significance of the report and on what needed to be done next.

Among government officials, Irish President Mary McAleese, whose job as head of state is mostly ceremonial, was in the forefront, demanding on May 28 that the perpetrators be prosecuted. The scandal was “an atrocious betrayal of love,” she said in a speech in Boston reported in the Irish Times. “I think that now what we can do is show ourselves, show the victims and show the world, how we respond to this.”

Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern agreed that prosecutions could go forward if witnesses “co-operate in helping convict perpetrators who have yet to face justice,” though he admitted for the mostly now-elderly victims, “it will be very difficult.”

 Reporting June 12 on the Dáil’s two-day debate on the report, the Irish Examiner’s journalist Mary Regan noted Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Brian Cowen’s “long overdue and sincere apology” to the victims of abuse on behalf of the Irish State. On July 28, in response to the report’s recommendations, Minister for Children Barry Andrews announced a 99-point plan to strengthen the state’s child protection system.

 The victims themselves began speaking out, angered by the Christian Brothers’ tepid response (the report called it “guarded, conditional and unclear”) as well as the order’s 2001 deal with the government that capped its total payments to survivors at €128 million, a small fraction of the €1.3 billion and counting that the government has paid out, all in the midst of an economic meltdown.

 John Kelly, a prominent spokesman for Irish Survivors of Child Abuse, questioned the government’s interest in prosecuting the religious orders, telling Aine Kerr of the Independent July 29, “There isn’t any point in the Taoiseach being in office if he’s not in power.”

 The national anguish was captured in a much-replayed appearance (available on YouTube at by Michael O’Brien, the former mayor of Clomnel and survivor of an industrial school, on “Q and A,” a public affairs program of Ireland’s public broadcasting service RTÉ. O’Brien’s demand to abashed representatives of the two major parties, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, that the government stop giving legal reasons for not freezing the funds of the religious orders, was painfully raw: 

You hurt us when you do that. You tear the shreds from inside our body. For God’s sake, try and give us some peace. Try to give us some peace and not to continue hurting us….[H]ow many times I jump out of the bed at night with the sweat pumping out of me. Because I see these fellas at the end of the bed with their fingers doing that [gestures] to me. And pulling me in to the room, to rape me, to bugger me and bate the shite out of me. That’s the way it is.


As for the reaction of the Catholic church, apologists (outside the Christian Brothers) were few and far between. In England, Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols was quoted May 30 in the Guardian as saying it took “courage” for the religious orders “to face these facts from their past which instinctively and quite naturally they'd rather not look at.” But even the conservative weekly Irish Catholic issued a May 21 editorial calling for a Day of Repentance “to seek forgiveness for the sins of the abuse of children by priests and religious.”

Catholic Primate Seán Brady and Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, who is considered one of the most progressive members of the hierarchy, traveled to the Vatican June 8 to inform Pope Benedict of the contents of the report. The pope, Martin told the Irish Examiner June 9, “was visibly upset,” Martin’s own reaction, in a May 25 Irish Times op-ed, had been blunt: “The church has failed children. There is no denying that.” He went on to warn that his own report on abuse in his archdiocese, due out in December, would “shock us all.”

Where does the release of the Ryan report leave Irish Catholicism, once one of the sturdiest pillars of the Roman Catholic Church?

Well before the summer of 2009, Irish Catholics had begun behaving more like Catholics in the rest of the EU. Weekly mass attendance is half of what it was a generation ago, declining from 90 percent in the 1970s to 44 percent today. A country that used to export priests to the rest of the world now numbers annual vocations in the single digits.

Nor does the church wield the kind of influence on public policy that it used to take for granted.

Despite fierce opposition from the hierarchy, contraception was legalized in the 1970s and divorce in 1995. A 2007 Irish Examiner poll found that two-thirds of the Irish people support legalizing abortion in cases where the fetus cannot survive outside the womb. (Currently, abortion is only legal to save the mother’s life.) In July, a law was passed permitting gays and lesbians to enter into civil unions as of December.

 A month after the release of the Ryan Report, the Irish Examiner published a survey showing that, in contrast to the rapturous reception that John Paul II received in 1979, 51 percent of the Irish would not welcome a visit by Pope Benedict. In addition, 70 percent said that all primary schools should be run by the state. (Currently, 92 percent are church-run.)

Reporting on the poll in June 29, Caroline O’Doherty wrote:

Typical responses by those opposed to a Papal visit included: “A visit now is just tokenism” and “Until he condemns what happened and pays compensation for his vile colleagues’ actions, then he shouldn’t be allowed set foot in this country.”

Those in favour of the State taking control of all primary schools made comments such as: “It’s about time that Ireland became a secular state. Theocracy has had its day here” and “The Church can run schools if they want, but they should receive zero funding from the State.”

And then there was Fr. Kevin Hegarty, exiled to a remote parish in Mayo for writing about clerical child abuse in the 1990s. In a searing op-ed in the August 24 Mayo News in which he quoted James Joyce’s line from Ulysses, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake,” Hagerty asked: “Where does the Church go from here?”

 In the wake of the report, a better question might have been, “Whithersoever the Church goes, will Irishmen and Irishwomen follow?”


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