Lessons from Ireland

Child abuse in IrelandEmmet O’Cuana grew up in Dublin, Ireland and emigrated in 2008 to the other side of the world. He discusses the impact of investigations into child sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church has had on the country of his birth, as well as what the scandal has revealed about the broader culture, and considers the lessons for Australia.

When Prime Minister Julia Gillard first announced the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate charges of institutional child sex abuse, comparisons were made in the media with Ireland’s own process. The Australian prime minister was even compared unfavourably to her Irish counterpart Enda Kenny, seen to have taken a stand against the Church despite its influence on his country’s domestic politics.

While there may appear to be similarities in the circumstances, it is important to note some key differences.

For example, the role of the Catholic Church in Ireland is enshrined within the Constitution of the Republic itself, given that it is the official state religion. This is why so many institutions such as orphanages, schools and work houses were run by the Church. This is also why there was no proper oversight by external groups with authority, such as the government. Irish politicians in turn heavily relied on the support of the Church to stay in power.

Unlike in Australia, the Irish sense of identity is strongly linked to their religious faith, with the majority of the population born Roman Catholic.

The centrality of this faith to public life in Ireland has been a major impediment in the pursuit of justice for victims of sexual abuse. Tragically there have even been occasions when communities turned on children who were victimised, as well as their families, as the idea that members of the clergy could commit such crimes was simply unthinkable.

The death of 31-year-old Savita Halappanavar at University Hospital Galway in the west of Ireland on 28 October 2012 was clearly avoidable. It set in motion a series of protests around the country.

One of the key triggers for the spontaneous protest action, beyond the needless loss of life, was the widely reported refusal to Halappanavar’s request for an induced labour when she was found to be miscarrying – ‘This is a Catholic country’.

Instead, the patient was left by staff to suffer three days of pain, before eventually developing septicaemia and dying.

Public anger was further stoked by the opposition of the country’s bishops to calls for a review of legislation on a citizen’s right to a termination. While previous amendments to the Irish Constitution have guaranteed protection of the mother’s right to life, no such protection in the Halappanavar case had been exercised, widely assumed to be due to perceived religious pressure.

More definitive legislation has been called for, with Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny’s proposed Protection of Human Life during Pregnancy Bill put before the two houses of The Dáil (Parliament) on 14 June 2013 for resolution before the summer recess.
Kenny went further by making a statement that would have been unthinkable less than a decade ago, even at the height of the child sex abuse scandal in Ireland:

“I am proud to stand here as a public representative, as a Taoiseach who happens to be a Catholic, but not a Catholic Taoiseach.”

The choice of wording is a deliberate allusion to previous political leaders within the country’s history as a Republic that first and foremost promised their allegiance to their faith. It is the kind of move that has helped to create the impression in the international media of Kenny as an anticlerical firebrand.

He famously condemned the Vatican and the Irish Catholic hierarchy following the conclusions of the Cloyne Report into allegations of abuse within that parish. Once again his speech made headlines around the world:

“Because for the first time in this country, a report into child sexual-abuse exposes an attempt by the Holy See, to frustrate an Inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago, not three decades ago. And in doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, the disconnection, the elitism […] that dominate the culture of the Vatican today. The rape and the torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, its standing and its ‘reputation’.”

What is perhaps missed in commentaries from journalists and observers outside of Ireland is how Catholicism’s sway in the country is not simply due to the numbers who attend mass.

The Irish Constitution intrinsically links faith to the ethos of Nationalism that led to the Republic. This was inspired by the oppression of Irish Catholics under British rule, with the massacres conducted by Papist-fearing Oliver Cromwell or talk of secret masses conducted in fields – keystones in the Irish sense of identity.

This is why simultaneously the Irish government has moved so slowly to investigate claims of abuse – and why the movement to expose said abuses has waged so fiercely.

Not only has the horrific abuse and cover-up of the abuse of children by priests traumatised many, it has struck to the very heart of the sense of national identity. Politicians were made complicit in the cover-up of these crimes, as well as members of the Garda Síochána (police force), by ‘looking the other way’, allowing the clerics responsible to be moved from parish to parish – or overseas – instead of facing criminal charges.

Clearly there was a widespread fear of what the religious lobby, so closely allied with that sense of identity, could do. This very same attitude was at the root of that hospital staff member’s statement – ‘This is a Catholic country’. It is a phrase that speaks to a sense of powerlessness, the very same impotence that allowed for the unchecked rape and physical abuse of children over decades.
Catholicism in Australia has its origins less in the controlling presence of the Vatican on the horizon – a source of Anglican paranoia towards the proto-revolutionary Catholics in Ireland – than in the pioneering spirit of Mary MacKillop.

It was no accident that retired Bishop Geoffrey Robinson launched his book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church from the Memorial Chapel dedicated to her in North Sydney in August 2007, given the book’s criticisms of the Vatican’s role in covering up abuse.

MacKillop’s independent character was as much a testament to her own force of personality, as it was essentially Australian. Hence the significance of her canonisation by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 – it was an attempt to bring her into the fold.

The forthcoming royal commission, however, should not be cowed by the frustrations and delays suffered by the Irish tribunals into clerical abuse. The circumstances are very different, as are the strengths of the respective lobby groups.

Ireland’s 10 years of investigation into stories of horrific treatment at the hands of trusted wardens, teachers and carers who were members of, or employed by, the Church have only begun to lift the veil on decades of silence. The recently acquired backbone of its politicians has allowed them to speak critically about those responsible, instead of enforcing the chilling Omertà.

Rather than looking to Ireland for an example of how to conduct its inquiry, Australia simply needs to do what is right by the victims and their families.

If you or someone you know has been affected by child abuse, help and support is available from the ASCA helpline on 1300 657 380
If you are depressed or contemplating suicide, help is available from Lifeline on 131 114. Kids Helpline can be contacted on 1800 551 800.

If you would like to tell your story to the Royal Commission, call 1800 099 340 or send an email to registerinterest@childabuseroyalcommission.gov.au

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