31 May 2009

As though Philip Zimbardo had a Whole Country to Experiment with...

Given the horrors we've seen in the Ryan Report, and having trawled through it here in recent days, I emailed Mark Shea my thoughts on it, thinking they might help explain things to Mark's American readers. He posted the text of my email the other day, so I may as well copy it here too:
I lived in Dublin till 2001, and again from 2006 to 2008, and it was blatantly apparent on my return there that whatever hope there is for the Church in Ireland lies with the like of Dublin's Archbishop Martin.

Between 1992 and 2002 the Church was hit by scandal after scandal, with early stories of what most Irish people would probably now see as minor misdemeanours in the scale of things being swept away by the revelations of child abuse in parish after parish and above all in the industrial schools.

I don't think you can grasp how shocking this all was at the time - effectively the country had been in denial since the foundation of the state, the people blind to monstrous things that were happening under their noses. I think everyone knew the industrial schools were horrible places, so whenever people heard stories of horrible things there, they just dismissed them as exaggeration. They were horrible places, of course, but they weren't *that* horrible. There was no way priests, brothers, and nuns would do that, surely.

People tended to see the Church as perfect, largely due to what it had achieved in building up a national network of schools and hospitals, and indeed because Irishness as a concept had become so tied to Catholicism. Criticising it - even doubting it - would have been unpatriotic and disloyal, in our newly free country, so desperate to justify our independence, such disloyalty would have felt like treason. And if the Church was perfect, well so must have been its agents, and if naughty little children said horrible things about them, well, they were obviously lying.

Added to this, I think, was the fact that there were some things that just weren't talked about. There was a child murdered in horrendous fashion by another child in my parish in the early seventies, and my brother, who was the same age as the victim, never heard about it until a few months ago. The newspaper reports at the time were astonishingly scanty. Things just weren't discussed. So if you heard monstrous tales about priests or nuns, not merely would you be inclined not to believe it, you'd be inclined not to talk about it either. I think that's at the heart of this - not that people didn't know, or at least not that they'd not heard, but that that knowledge was never shared.

The revelations of the mid-nineties changed all that, though, because the stories first appeared in the papers and on telly, carried by a media that had lived through the eighties, when the country had divided itself in a series of huge quarrels over the likes of abortion and divorce. There were enough people in the media by the early nineties who weren't in thrall to the Church and were inclined to actually ask questions and gather evidence, and so the first stories broke.

And then once this had entered the national conversation, people who'd been silent for all their lives spoke about what had happened to them. The last decade of the twentieth century was like a national purging, with horror after horror being revealed. And people were genuinely shocked. They hadn't expected this.

As a country, we'd colluded in this, but had done so through wilful disbelief, through a contempt for children, through a conviction in the impeccability of the Church, through a perversion of mercy. It was denial on a massive scale, and the scales fell from our eyes in the nineties.

Mass attendance collapsed, predictably, though not to the extent that people tend to assume - it basically fell from near total attendance to slightly more than half attendance - but this was as much due to a generation of ill-catechised Catholics growing up through the eighties culture wars and reaching maturity at a time when the country had money and we felt invincible, as it was a result of the scandals. Catholicism felt like a badge of the old poor Ireland, and it looked as ready to be ditched as the national language had been so long before.

Things are genuinely different there now. The Church is chastened, smaller, and much weaker than before. What's more, in the likes of Dublin's Archbishop Martin, it's seen as humbler, warmer, more honest, and more humane than the Church has been in living memory, and this is making a difference.

Indeed, in Martin's public opposition to the policies of his precessor in Dublin, he's done a phenomenal amount to restore some tiny piece of the Church's shattered credibility.

Congregations will keep falling, for a while anyway, because a generation was largely lost, and the older Catholics are gradually dying, but surprising numbers of the lost generation are starting to creep back to mass, and the new Irish - the Poles, etc - are making a real difference, giving the Irish church a much needed injection of enthusiasm, hope, and a more mainstream dose of Catholicism. And this time we'll look at the Church more honestly and realistically, and that can only be a good thing.

I don't think this report will make much of a difference, no more than the report on child abuse in the diocese of Ferns of a couple of years back. And the Ferns report dealt with a lot of abuse by priests of girls, incidentally, which should hush those who think this is just a gay issue, just as lots of the abuse described in this report predates Vatican II, which should hush those who think that the rot only set in with the Council. For a decade and a half we've known monstrous things happened back right up to the early nineties, in schools run by our Church on behalf of our State. We've known they happened on a horrific scale, and that unimaginable crimes were committed upon child after child. This report, though enormous in scale, and showing just how far back all this went on, won't really add to that.

The failure to use real names is a shame, I admit, but I can see why.

A major problem in cases of child abuse - especially cases where the crime happened long ago - is that the evidence is notoriously flimsy. There's never any physical evidence, and old childhood memories are incredibly unreliable, prone to distortion and invention. It's almost impossible to prove guilt, and we hold as a central legal principle that we should assume innocence until guilt is proven.

So the choice seems to have been a straightforward one: assume innocence and don't tell the stories, or assume guilt and tell them, but with the names changed. The latter option's been taken, and the names have been changed because the guilt is - legally speaking - assumed rather than proven.

There's nothing stopping anyone from taking this to court, other than than the fact that if the accused fight the allegations then the cases could run for years and in most cases couldn't be brought to a 'guilty' verdict. I think judgment on these matters shall have to lie with God, though I fear this will be of little comfort to all those so wounded by those claiming to act in his name, especially those who have been driven from the Faith by the wicked and vicious crimes that were enacted upon them. In the meantime we can only pray for comfort and forgiveness.

Don't forget that this was all done in the State's name, by the way - the new state lacked a proper infrastructure, and so it came to rely on the churches and hospitals etc that the Church had built up through the nineteenth century. Effectively what happened is that the State farmed out to the Church things it couldn't afford to do - and given that the State was overwhelmingly Catholic, I don't think many people saw a problem with this. This is why the State is bearing the bulk of the compensation for this, as in this context the Church was theoretically working for the State, and so the man at the top is taking the fall. It was the State's job to supervise these schools, and it spectacularly failed. The Church failed too, of course, abominably so, but the State allowed it to do so, and so this was a colossal failure on the part of the Department of Education, the Courts, and the Guards.

As to why any of this happened, beats me. The quasi-Jansenist nature of the Irish Church has some weight, I think, as do claims of sexual repression, in that vast numbers of clearly unsuitable people were accepted into religious orders and the Priesthood, but the broader Original Sin one strikes me as better, really. After all, Jansenism doesn't explain nineteenth century English workhouses, or Rwanda, or Bosnia, or Abu Ghraib does it? The Stanford Prison Experiment shows us to what happens when people are given power over each other. Power corrupts.

And Bill Donohue should consider his position after what he's said. Perhaps he might listen to Archbishop Martin. God neither needs or wants our lies.
There's no getting around how monstrous this is. Nor should there be. People shouldn't be denying the honours that were perpetuated in the name of the State. Equally, though, we've got to understand what the Report was trying to do, and not misrepresent its findings or torture its data so it tells us things we want to hear. The Ryan Report stands on its own terms, and the realities it reveals need to be faced honestly.

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