Orders must not only atone but be seen to atone

Story by Tom Kelly

Wednesday, 27th May, 2009 7:20am

The truly stunning scale of the abuse - sexual as well as physical - meted out to young children in institutions run by religious orders in Ireland has in the past week shocked even the most hardened hearts. The wanton cruelty inflicted upon those in the care of Catholic-run industrial and reformatory schools was, indeed, in the words of President Mary McAleese, 'an atrocious betrayal of love'.

And yet, disgusted as everyone with a conscience is about what went on behind the high walls of these forbidding places - and leaving aside the culpability of those so-called men of the cloth who perpetrated such evil acts and the fact that the State stood idly by - Irish society itself must bear at least some of the blame for allowing such barbarism to flourish unchecked. The Ireland of the 1950s and '60s was a country in thrall to the Church and religious orders, submissive and deferential to the all-powerful clergy. And there were many who knew something was going on - or at least had some idea - but no-one called a halt.

Certainly, physical punishment was part and parcel of growing up in that era, the cane at school and the belt at home. Most people accepted it once it was used in a limited fashion. It was the way of the time to discipline children and deter them from wrongdoing. However, the routine systematic physical cruelty and abuse carried out in places like Artane, Goldenbridge, Letterfrack and Daingean was on a completely different level and was criminal and evil. It was not meant to chastise but to destroy.

Of all the horrifying truths laid bare last week in Judge Sean Ryan"s watershed Report of the Commission to Enquire Into Child Abuse - and there were many - the conclusion that what has now been revealed about these institutions was at the very least suspected at a number of levels in society at the time is shameful. Those members of society who had contact with these schools or who lived in the surrounding communities - health professionals, Gardai, government inspectors, teachers - all of them had roles in looking after children in care. But nothing was done to stop the cruelty.

Also heavily criticised in the report is the Dept of Education"s deferential and submissive attitude to the religious congregations which, the report states, compromised its duty to monitor and inspect these schools and ensure the welfare of those who resided there.

Now, with the devastating truth out in the open, insult has been added to injury by the attitude of the religious orders who do not want to reopen the highly questionable deal concluded in 2002 on abuse compensation which effectively let the perpetrators off scott-free by allowing them promise a paltry €127 million and getting indemnity from prosecution in return. The orders may not be legally obliged to revisit the issue but the overwhelming feeling in the country right now is that they are morally obliged to do so. Decent men within the Church like Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin have added their voices to the growing clamour which wants to see moral justice done.

In the dying days of Bertie Ahern"s administration in 2002, agreement was reached on how to share the cost of compensation for the scandal, capping the religious orders" amount at €127m and indemnifying them. The Government was to pay the balance, based on the assumption that the whole scheme would cost €254m. The cost, however, has since rocketed and is now estimated to have cost the taxpayer over €1 billion at a time when the Government"s coffers are bare. Just one-tenth of the figure has been contributed by the orders.

Those who are primarily responsible for this scandal which has left so many damaged human beings walking our streets should now have the moral courage to hand over at least half of the final figure, and be grateful that is all they are being asked to do. If they choose not to do so, then the Government must use every legal means at its disposal to revisit and try to dismantle the agreement from 2002 in order to seek a more proportionate sharing of the compensation burden - not necessarily because this should be solely about money, but because it is about living up to responsibilities and having the moral courage to properly apologise for the actions of the religious orders" own delinquents.

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