By Jason Michael

IRELAND HAS A DARK HISTORY. We have read the findings of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the ‘Ryan Report’), The Ferns Report, and The McAleese Report on state involvement with the Magdalen Laundries. The facts of clerical sex abuse in Catholic institutions are well known and their extent is truly shocking. Every conceivable form and permutation of violence and violation was rife in the Church-run institutions of ‘Catholic Ireland.’ Children in these hellish places were subjected to a degree of negligence, brutality, and violence no human being should be made to experience. This happened within an institutional culture in which violence against defenceless children was not only widespread, it was celebrated.

In the infamous industrial school for boys at Artane in Dublin, according to the Christian Brothers who gave evidence to the 2009 Commission, brothers were encouraged to beat the children in their care “extremely severely.” In chapter seven of the first volume of a five volume report we read:

One Brother related an incident where his fellow Brothers had burst into applause when he entered a room where they were, as it had been learned that he had punished one of his pupils by punching him in the face – previously he had not dealt out such harsh punishment.

Page after page of the thousands of pages of these reports is filled with evidence of physical beatings, psychological torture, cruelty, neglect, and rape and sexual violence. It is not comfortable reading, and it sheds light on a side of the Catholic Church in Ireland that is deeply harrowing and horrific. When incidences of this terrifying culture came to light in the past the hierarchy of the Church in Ireland put the reputation of the institution above victims and those who needed its help and care. The crimes of offenders were covered-up and hidden from the civil authorities, often offenders were moved on to other places where they simply continued as before.


Pope Francis’ visit to Ireland for the congress of the World Meeting of Families has sparked outrage. Journalist Vincent Browne said of RTÉ’s “reverential coverage” of the papal visit that it “was not journalism.” That is was “propaganda for an institution that has been criminally complicit in the rape and buggery of children.” Following the Holy Father’s address at Dublin Castle on Saturday, Colm O’Gorman – the Executive Director of Amnesty Ireland and an abuse survivor – remarked:

Pope Francis speaks of the pain and shame of the “Catholic community,” and then says he shares those sentiments. In doing this, he continues to suggest that such shame should be carried by the faithful of the church, by ordinary Catholics.

At some point, while fully appreciating O’Gorman’s right to be angry and the right of everyone to be angry, the disingenuousness of comments like this must be called out. There is, of course, room to allow for misunderstanding. What non-Catholics and some lay Catholics understand and what the Pope means when he speaks of “la Comunidad Católica” can be very different. Without trying to make excuses, the truth is that religious and secular language are not the same and often the nuance of what is being said is lost in translation.

The Catholic community – the Church – is not a community as secular society understands that concept. It is the community of the Christian faithful, similar in many respects to the Islamic idea of the Ummah, which shares a special set of religio-cultural, theological, and ecclesiological commonalities. As even the word ‘Catholic’ suggests; from the Greek adjective καθολικός, meaning ‘universal,’ Catholicism’s self-understanding is one of a wholeness in unity. Thus, when the clerical institution of the Church experiences pain and shame, the whole community experiences the same because the Church is “one body”- the Body of Christ.

Having said this, however, the dishonesty of O’Gorman’s comment is in the fact that in using this term, on this particular occasion, it was clear the Holy Father was referring to the clerical institution. Before mentioning la Comunidad Católica Pope Francis identified the subject of his discussion as those “members of the Church charged with responsibility for [the victims’] education and protection” – that is, the clerical institutions which were responsible for the “scandal of the abuse of young people.” With regard to this identification of those responsible and their “crimes” he criticised the failure of the Church authorities – bishops and priests (and popes themselves are bishops) – to address them. Pope Francis accurately identified the guilty and did not, in the use of “la Comunidad Católica,” shift blame – as O’Gorman claims – to “ordinary Catholics.”

Yet this mendacity is typical of the wider, popular attack on Catholics and the Church in Irish society. The protest in Dublin over the weekend against the papal visit was marked by extreme hostility; with posters insisting the Pope is the head of a “paedophile ring” and a complete unwillingness to even acknowledge the numerous apologies made by Francis and his two most recent predecessors. Contrary to the facts this protest swears there has been no apology. Essentially this is the fiction Colm O’Gorman is attempting to maintain here, supporting the popular anti-clerical slur that the Roman Catholic Church exists only for the “rape and buggery of children.”

What is evident is that no apology or action on the part of the Church will be accepted by this secularist protest movement. It is apparent from much of the discussion on Irish social media over the weekend that what many within this movement demand is nothing short of the complete destruction of the Catholic Church. Many are quite explicit in this demand, and it is not limited to the clerical institution of the Church but extends to la Comunidad Católica in its widest sense; evinced in the wholesale targeting and abuse of “ordinary Catholics” online.

Before we can begin to ask why this is happening there are a number of things which must be said about blame and accountability in the context of historical clerical abuse in Ireland. Few in Ireland are prepared to recognise the complicity of the state, civil society, and the general population in what was a culture of violence, deference, silence, and cruel indifference. Those within the Church who spoke out were silenced by both Church and state authorities. The conclusion drawn from this is that the state was in fear of the Church; a false conclusion which implies the members of the judiciary and the Gardaí who delivered women and children to such institutions were living in fear of nuns and religious brothers – a preposterous thing to believe.

Ireland was a state founded in armed rebellion against the greatest empire on earth, and many of those who imprisoned the weak and vulnerable “in the care of the Church” were veterans of 1916 and the War of Independence – risings for “all the children of the nation.” It is unimaginable that these people would be so willingly complicit in these crimes unless other things were awry in wider Irish society. This indeed was the case.

It was Irish families and not the Church that ridded themselves of their unwanted daughters. It was fathers who dragged their girls kicking and screaming to the laundries and not the nuns. Even without the participation of the Church this process of exclusion was widespread in Ireland. The poorhouse and the mental asylum were frequently used by Irish families as a means of disposing of unwanted children and other relatives. These were not Church institutions, but institutions of the state and the civil authorities. Nothing of this by any means absolves the Church for the actions of abusers within it or the actions of those in the hierarchy who protected them, but it does speak of an endemic sickness in Irish society – of which the Church in Ireland was a product.

Catholic priests, bishops, and members of religious congregations were the sons and daughter of Irish families. There behaviour, then, has to be viewed in the context of past conditions of this society. They were reproducing the sick and distorted culture of their native society. Honesty requires that this dynamic of the abuse scandal be discussed further as part of the healing process. Much of what happened may be explained by the historical social trauma suffered by Ireland as a British colonial possession and the long history of extreme poverty and famine. These still unresolved factors, it may be fair to say, shaped Ireland as a society and may have been working themselves out in how the whole of Ireland treated those of its children it did not want.

There is simply no denying the part played in this scandal by people throughout Irish civil society; priests and nuns, social workers, teachers, doctors, the police, judges, and even members of the government. The fact that the overwhelming majority of the victims were from poorer socio-economic backgrounds at least points to the possibility of a class-based motive for the open hostility towards these woman and children – and to working class people in general. The behaviour of the state and civil society towards the poor, the homeless, the Pavee, and others on the peripheries today strongly suggests a historical antipathy towards the same and similar groups in the past.

So why is the focus today almost exclusively on the crimes of the Church? The Church was – as it remains – only one element of Ireland’s privileged class. Singling it out when this pattern of abuse was being repeated and protected by the whole of Irish civil society smacks of diversionary scapegoating. By keeping the focus of our attention squarely on the Church others are escaping justice.

Another factor is social change. Both secular society and the Church have changed over the past century. Neither of them is as it was at the foundation of the state. But the Church remains critical of the objects of secular societies’ social and political affections; individualism, materialism, consumerism, and unfettered free market capitalism – a culture which is “making us,” as Pope Francis said in his Dublin Castle address, “more indifferent to others, especially the poor and the unborn.”

It is difficult to see how such a sentiment, deeply rooted in the Gospel and two millennia of Christian life and tradition as it is, cannot but offend people of a certain secular persuasion. Perhaps it was to them the Roman Pontiff was referring in his Papal Mass homily on Sunday when he said:

But let us also humbly acknowledge that, if we are honest with ourselves, we too can find the teachings of Jesus hard.  How difficult it is always to forgive those who hurt us; how challenging always to welcome the migrant and the stranger; how painful joyfully to bear disappointment, rejection, betrayal; how inconvenient to protect the rights of the most vulnerable, the unborn or the elderly, who seem to impinge upon our own sense of freedom.

Not only is modern Ireland, one suspects, scapegoating the Church in order to bury its own past misdeeds and complicity, it is also trying to destroy a locus of ethical and moral life and practice which it perceives to be impinging on its own sense of freedom. This freedom, as Colm O’Gorman sees it would have human life at its most vulnerable stage of development reduced to a mother’s choice, an expression of her freedom. This freedom sees human dignity of such little worth that his organisation can promote as a moral and economic good the idea that a woman living in poverty become a prostitute, using her choice and freedom to better her lot.

This self-serving and arrogant secular ideology is wholly inconsistent with the faith of the Christian, the Gospel, and the teaching of the Catholic Church. It cannot thrive so long as religion offers an alternative to the economic dehumanisation of ‘secular morality.’ Why then is the secular assault on Christians and the Church so intense and ferocious? The abuse scandals? No, that would be rank hypocrisy! The reason is quite simple: “If there is no God,” as Dostoevsky wrote, “everything is permitted.” Sin, as the Church teaches, is a serious business.


Áras Attracta: Ireland’s abuse scandal goes way beyond the Church

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3 thoughts on “Sin is a Serious Business

  1. “it does speak of an endemic sickness in Irish society – of which the Church in Ireland was a product”

    Sorry Jeggit – your reasoning breaks down here. I do not debate the collusion of the entire irish society in upholding the status quo as established by the Catholic church.

    But remember it was the catholic church’s teachings that set up the problem of unmarried mothers and unwanted children, blocked any alternative solutions and then established how the issue would be addressed in a way that made money for them through slave labour, costs of illegal adoptions etc.



    1. No. My reasoning is perfect and faultless. The discussion around single mothers has been going on longer than the history of Christianity and is wider than the present Christian faith. In fact guilting “single mothers” is more a Jeremy Kyle thing than it is a religious thing. Unwanted children? The Church has never accepted the idea of unwanted children. Again, this is more of a secular thing. I note you have not discussed the instances of abuse – discussed above – that did not involve the Church.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am no fan of The Church, any church, and have no wish to exonerate the catholic church from the evil sins committed by its clergy but this article strikes the nail firmly on the head. The evils committed by Germans & other peoples under the Nazi regime cannot be laid entirely at the door of the members of the Nazi party or its officials at many ordinary people actively participated in the actions were now abhor so much. Similarly, as the news reported today, British people were complicit in sending unwanted young children to Australia to be abused & worked rather that cared for & protected. People do horrible things to other people & too many of us look the other way.

    Liked by 1 person

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