02 August 2011

Ireland Through A Glass, Darkly

I'm a huge fan of The West Wing, and have watched it so often that I tend to recognise lines from the show being echoed -- Jason O'Mahony, for instance, in the context of a sensible and concise discussion of the death penalty, seems to be channelling a very good point about drug barons that Leo McGarry -- as distinct from Patsy McGarry -- makes in the third episode of the show:
'Oh, then you are just as stupid as these guys who think capital punishment is going to be a deterrent for drug kingpins. As if drug kingpins didn't live their day to day lives under the possibility of execution, and their executions are a lot less dainty than ours and tend to take place without the bother and expense of due process.'
In writing about Cloyne, David Norris, and sex abuse in general I've thought often of 'Two Cathedrals', the spectacular finale to the show's second season, which is structured around the funeral of President Bartlet's executive secretary and very old friend Delores Landingham. In a series of flashbacks, Bartlet remembers her trying to persuade him of the injustice of women in the school he attended -- and where his father was principal -- being paid less than the men.
'Numbers, Mrs Landingham,' he says, 'If you want to convince me of something, show me numbers.'
In the aftermath of her funeral, wrestling with the storms that surround him, he imagines her with him -- or he's haunted by her ghost, but let's run with the former -- as he wonders what to do.
'God doesn't make cars crash and you know it,' Mrs Landingham says. 'Stop using me as an excuse.'
'The Party's not going to want me to run,' insists Bartlet.
'The Party'll come back. You'll get them back.'
'I've got a secret for you, Mrs. Landingham, I've never been the most popular man in the Democratic Party.'
'I've got a secret for you, Mr. President. Your father was a prick who could never get over the fact that he wasn't as smart as his brothers. Are you in a tough spot? Yes. Do I feel sorry for you? I do not. Because there are people way worse off than you.'
'Give me numbers,' he says.
'I don't know numbers. You give them to me.'
'How about a child born this minute has one in five chances of being born into poverty?'
'How many Americans don't have health insurance?'
'44 million.'
'What's the number one cause of death for black men under 35?'
'How many Americans are behind bars?'
'Three million.'
'How many Americans are drug addicts?'
'Five million.'
'And one in five kids in poverty?'
'That's thirteen million American children. 3.5 million kids go to schools that are literally falling apart. We need 127 billion in school construction, and we need it today!'
'To say nothing of 53 people trapped in an embassy,' adds Mrs Landingham.
'You know, if you don't want to run again, I respect that,' says Mrs Landingham, getting to her feet, 'But if you don't run 'cause you think it's gonna be too hard or you think you're gonna lose - well, God, Jed, I don't even want to know you.'

So what's this got to do with sex abuse in Ireland?
As a country, and despite all the newspaper headlines, we simply haven't got to grips with the reality of child sex abuse. We've got some understanding of how damaging it is, because we've heard the heartbreaking stories of deeply brave people like Marie Collins and Andrew Madden, but we have no concept, collectively, of how prevalent it is, of how many people have experienced it, of how many people have committed it, of how many people know about it, of how rarely its perpetrators have faced justice, or of who the perpetrators actually are.

When it comes to child abuse in Ireland, most people haven't a clue. The problem, when we get down to it, isn't primarily within the Irish Church; it's within the Irish people. Truth be told, until very recently I don't think distinctions between the two are meaningful: given the huge numbers of twentieth-century Irish families with priests, brothers, or nuns in their ranks, I don't think we can speak of the twentieth-century Irish Church as though it was somehow discrete from the twentieth-century Irish Nation. I don't think we should discuss the abuse of thousands of children by Irish priests as though it's somehow a different phenomenon from the abuse of hundreds of thousands of children by other Irish people, and I don't think we can discuss the Irish Church's historical lack of will in taking action against child abuse as though it's somehow different from the Irish Nation's historical lack of will in taking action against child abuse.

And yes, I'm fully aware that not everybody in independent Ireland was Catholic, but insofar as the overwhelming majority were, I think we have to face the fact that the Church wasn't separate from society so much as it was a facet of Irish society, and one that reflected wider society, with all its vices and virtues. I've wondered about this kind of stuff many a time in the past, and friends have responded with disbelief, saying that while they realised that most Irish sexual abuse happened within the home, it was surely obvious that priests abused far more than other people. And then I raise the figures from the 2002 SAVI Study, and they look very doubtful.

The good, the bad and the ugly: Media coverage of scandals in the Catholic Church in Ireland.
There's a very pertinent article by one Michael Breen in the Winter 2000 issue of the Irish Jesuits' journal Studies. Breen was then a priest and head of the Department of Communications and Media Studies at Limerick's Mary Immaculate College, where he is now Dean of Arts. In this article he argues that:
'As well as setting the agenda for public issues, the news media can also set the agenda for themselves by their repetitious coverage of a single event and their definitions of newsworthiness. People, including journalists, cannot pay attention to everything; they are selective. They take shortcuts by relying on the most accessible information sources. Frequent repetition of a given story at a national level focuses journalistic attention on that issue. The framing of a news story, therefore, is of critical importance in terms of the ultimate impact of a story.'
Breen recognises that the Church should be grateful to the media for it having exposed the horror of child abuse within the Church, thereby forcing the Church to deal with the issue. However, he also notes the anger of those who feel that the media in Ireland had created a narrative which convey the impression that the primary perpetrators of child sex abuse in Ireland are Catholic clergy. For example, with reference to the Irish Times, which certainly would not be the worst offender in this regard, Breen claims that between August 1993 and August 2000 -- at which point, presumably, he wrote the article -- the term 'paedophile priest' was used 332 times. In contrast, he says, the term 'paedophile farmer' was used just five times, and such terms as 'paedophile parent', 'paedophile teacher', and 'paedophile journalist' weren't used at all.

Central to Breen's argument is the idea that the general media failure to alert people to the fact that the vast majority of child sex abuse occurs within the home does child protection a grave disservice, and that this is exacerbated by 'a media concentration on clerical abusers to the virtual exclusion of most others'.

How bad was the situation ten years ago?
I first came across Breen's article when reading the 2002 SAVI Study, which alludes to the article once or twice. The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland Study, which I've mentioned a few times in recent weeks, was a huge survey, conducted in 2001 by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre. More than 3,000 people were interviewed in depth about a range of related issues such as whether they'd ever been a victim of sexual abuse or violence, the nature of that abuse or violence, the relationship they'd had with those who had abused or assaulted them, whether or not they'd ever disclosed their experiences before, and whether their experiences had been dealt with through the courts. The survey had a high response rate, and should be regarded as authoritative; to put it into context, in contrast to the more than 3,000 people interviewed for the SAVI Study, a typical political poll in Ireland is based on a sample of 1,000 people.

The Study, of course, dealt with both the abuse of children and of adults, but given that we're talking about child sex abuse now, the key findings are -- more or less -- as follows:
  • Roughly 27 per cent Irish adults in 2001 had been the victims of child sexual abuse. Given that the adult population in the following year's census was 2,904,172, this means that there must have been something of the order of 780,000 adults survivors of child sexual abuse walking around Ireland.
  • Just under 65 per cent of child abuse victims had been abused whilst under the age of twelve.
  • Over 48 per cent of abuse survivors had never disclosed their experiences to anyone before being surveyed.
  • Just under 52 per cent of abuse survivors surveyed had previously told family, friends, or others of their experiences.
  • Only about 5 per cent of abuse cases had at that point been reported to the Gardaí.
  • Just 16 per cent of 38 abuse cases reported to Gardaí had gone to court; of these six cases, only four had resulted in a verdict of guilt.
  • In other words, little more than 10 per cent of reported abuse cases had by 2001 led to a criminal conviction.
  • More broadly, only about 0.5 per cent of abuse cases had at that point led to a criminal conviction.
I said 'more or less' there because it's sometimes difficult to make the figures add up. I'm not sure why, but it seems that not everybody surveyed answered every question. Still, let's stay with that figure of 780,000 adult abuse survivors. I think we'd have to agree that that's abominable: it means that more than one in four Irish adults suffered sexual abuse when in their childhood or adolescence.

Now, one question we need to consider, if we want seriously to engage with Breen's argument that the media's excessive emphasis on clerical abuse is both misleading and dangerous, is the issue of how many victims of sexual abuse in Ireland were victims of people who they knew as priests.

Tables 4.10 and 4.11 of the Report give us the most important data in this regard, though, as I've said, the overall numbers don't quite add up, in that these tables seem to refer to just 722 people, whereas it seems that 844 people who responded to the survey said that they'd experienced child sexual abuse. So, combining the data from the two tables into one table, here are the facts as they stood in 2001, when the Study was conducted.

It seems, then, that in 2001, out of a sample of 722 self-identifying abuse survivors, 12 said that they'd been sexually abused in childhood by people they knew to be priests. Of course, it's possible that some of the 'strangers' were priests too, but given that it seems that clerical abusers abused their positions in society in order to gain access to children who they harmed, it seems unlikely that they'd have hidden the fact of their priesthood. That would have been their best way of ensuring their crimes were kept secret.

So, 12 out 722 seems to be the real figure for clerical abuse in Ireland, that being just under 1.7 per cent, and from a time when there were no specific child protection measures anywhere in Ireland, when there were far more priests than there are now, and when priests had a social status and an access to children that they haven't had in a very long time.

Are things really different now?
I think they are. Unfortunately, the State hasn't done a second SAVI study, but given how the findings of the first one seem to have had no impact on the national consciousness or official policy -- Vincent Browne, in a May 2010 Irish Times article, referred to it as 'the seminal but largely ignored report, Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland' -- I'm not wholly convinced that there'd be any point in doing more work in this precise area.

(Browne, it should be pointed out, has probably pointed to the Study more often than any other figure in Irish public life, and it was presumably in connection with this that he claimed in April 2008 that there are 'literally hundreds of thousands of paedophiles at loose' in Ireland. I don't think anybody was listening.)

Having said that, it rather looks as though it's not merely that 'most child sexual abuse happens in the home' so much as that 'almost all child sexual abuse happens in the home.' Maeve Lewis, on taking the helm at One in Four back in 2008, said that her organisation would be attempting to tackle sexual abuse in familes, saying that 'the most dangerous place for children is in the extended family,' but I'm not sure what they're doing about it. The Irish Times ran an article in February 2009 in which one Mick Moran, a Garda Detective Sergeant working with Interpol in fighting internet paedophiles, said that 85 per cent of child sexual abuse takes place in the family home or in the family circle. Perhaps even more horrifyingly, in November 2009 the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland revealed that 97 per cent of those who had been sexually abused as children and who had sought the help of Irish rape crisis centres in 2008 had been abused either by a family member or a friend of the family. What's more, a 2003 conference of the Irish Association of Care Workers was told that a third of all sexual abuse in Ireland was committed by adolescents, and indeed, there seems to be a fair amount of scholarly literature out there on the phenomenon of sexual abuse by adolescents.

This doesn't seem to be the impression the media gives...
I think most reasonable people will readily concede that most abuse happens within the home, and that the reporting of clerical child sex abuse is somewhat disproportionate, but will think that it's not wildly so. The thing is, I don't think the numbers bear this out.

For starters, how many people in Ireland have even heard of the SAVI Study? There was an excellent comment the other day which asked what the reaction to the SAVI Report had been, considering the reaction to the Cloyne Report, and this got me thinking, because I couldn't remember any reaction at all. I'm not even sure when I first heard of it, but  I think it was in passing about two or three years ago.

So, I went to the Irish Times website, and started trawling through its archives as best can be done without access to them, using its 'search' function to see how many articles and letters since April 2002 had mentioned the SAVI Study. I searched for 'SAVI' and for 'Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland', and looked at each partial result as best I could, and in the end came to the conclusion that between April 2002 and the other evening, the SAVI Study had been mentioned in total 63 times over the last nine years, often in connection with the rape of adults rather than the abuse of children. The most recent piece mentioning it was a letter on 13 June. To put this into context, I'd challenge you to find out how many articles or letters have featured the word 'Cloyne' in the last month alone. At least according to the Irish Times' own search facility, it comes to 163 pieces.

That's 163 articles or letters in just one month in connection with a report which told us that two people who had been in positions of authority didn't follow their own guidelines, as compared to scarcely more than 60 references over more than nine years to an report that told us that more than 750,000 Irish adults were sexually abused as children. Is it any wonder that people don't know about the SAVI Study?

And I very much doubt that the Irish Times is the worst offender in this regard; it certainly won't have been the most sensationalist, but given how good a paper it is in other respects, I think it should be better than this. The media may not decisively influence what we think, admittedly, but it surely has a huge influence on what we think about.

Breen's Figures, Updated: Or, how do the numbers stack up now?
The SAVI figures showed that for every victim of clerical child sex abuse, there were sixty victims of child sex abuse by people other than priests. The hints at modern figures I've been able to glimpse in statements from the likes of the RCNI and Mick Moran suggest that nowadays the gap is even more stark.

This makes sense:  we're very careful about strangers and people outside our own families and close friends, and we're especially so around  Catholic priests; indeed most priests are themselves scrupulously careful around children; however inadequate or however imperfectly followed they may be, churches, schools, health authorities, sports clubs, scouting organisations and so forth all tend to have child-protection policies, and indeed to have designated people to look out for children's safety.

Unfortunately, these realities don't seem to be reflected in the media. Again, wholly relying on the Irish Times' search facility, and without access to its full archive and without time to do the serious work even if I had access, what can we say about how the Irish Times has reported on child abuse since Michael Breen commented on how things stood up to August 2000? Well, bearing in mind that this isn't as systematic an analysis as I would like to do, and hoping that a proper media student will do the real legwork at some point...
  • The word 'paedophile' seems to have appeared in 1,320 articles or letters since September 2000. In 295 of those pieces, the term 'paedophile priest' was used; putting it another way, despite the fact that just 1.7 per cent of survivors of child sex abuse in Ireland were abused by priests, 22.3 per cent of all  Irish Times pieces mentioning paedophiles use the term 'paedophile priests'.
  • Compared to the 295 uses of the term 'paedophile priest', the term 'paedophile teacher' has been used three times in the Irish Times since September 2000, while the term 'paedophile journalist' has not been used once.
  • The phrase 'sex abuse' has been used in 2,295 pieces, but in 1,056 of these pieces, it appears as part of either the phrase 'clerical sex abuse' or 'clerical child sex abuse', such that 46 per cent of all Irish Times articles on sex abuse appear to explicitly link it with the clergy.
  • A search for 'child sex abuse' brings up 1,190 results, but of these pieces, 579 use the phrase 'clerical child sex abuse', such that 48.7 per cent of all Irish Times articles on child sex abuse appear to explicitly link it with clergy.
  • Of the last hundred articles to use the phrase 'child sex abuse', in 61 cases the phrase 'child sex abuse' was preceded by the word 'clerical', and a further 28 cases used the phrase in connection with the Catholic clergy, such that 89 per cent of the Irish Times' most recent articles or letters mentioning child sex abuse did so in relation to the Catholic Church.
Again, I'm not claiming that these are formal figures; they're ballpark ones, based on simple searches of the Irish Times' own electronic archive. You can and should check them yourselves. A real researcher could do important and substantial work on this. Still, even as a crude survey, I think they give a pretty strong indication that Ireland's newspaper of record has played no small part in fostering a popular belief that the institutional Church is a singularly malign force in Irish life.

By doing so, it bears an enormous responsibility for having distracted the Irish people away from the horrific reality that the overwhelming majority of child sex abuse happens with the family circle, being committed by family members, neighbours, and friends. In this it's not alone, and I believe the Irish media in general is effectively endangering Irish children even now, facilitating their abuse by diverting attention from the fact that it's happening. The prevailing narrative that the Irish media has pushed for years, concentrating on elderly clerical abusers and largely ignoring the far greater dangers in the Irish home, diverts attention from the fact that huge numbers of Irish children are being sexually abused across the land every day, and they are not being abused by priests.

So what's going on?
In an Irish Times article in June 2006, Breda O'Brien quoted Hannah McGee, Chair of the Department of Psychology at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and one of the original authors of the SAVI study, as saying that 'We like our scapegoats, we like our simple stories.' 

The problem, basically, is that it would be easier for us all if we could single out clearly-identifiable groups in our society as being  responsible for most sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the horrendous reality is that we can't. That's like cursing one tree when we're standing in a forest. Child sexual abuse has been -- and may still be -- endemic in Irish life, such that, as the article says 'it is so pervasive as to be almost beyond comprehension'.

We have to figure out a way of dealing with this. Scapegoating priests and pointing fingers at other people isn't the answer. I'm not sure what is, but it's certainly not that.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if SAVI made distinctions in the nature of the abuse it reported on? I, as a schoolchild, along with other children in my class, was genitally fondled by a particlular teacher (not a religious, as it happens.) And years later I met others who as children had had similar fondling experiences. No doubt such fondling is sexual abuse, but I think it cannot be compared to being raped, or to more nakedly sexual encounters. I don't believe I've been traumatized by this sexual abuse, nor do I believe that 27% of Irish adults are so traumatized. Rather than going on autopilot about how horrific child sexual abuse is we need to get some sort of perspective. May I say that? Children are pretty resiliant, and most of them develop a sense of humour and pragmatism with respect to their experiences. I agree the reporting of clerical abuse is disproportioned in the scheme you outline, but still it does not follow that this reporting is invalid. Let's expose and respond to what needs to be exposed and responded to with respect to the clerical abuse of children. And do so in the reasoned way you have been doing. Then let us move on and acknowledge the wider problem of child abuse. But in a sane way. Love does not cover up a multitude of sins by facilitating them, but by allowing one to deal with them with justice and mercy.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

SAVI made a lot of distinctions -- table 4.3 is the key one -- but I didn't want to go into them all here.

Partly this was simply on grounds of taste, and partly because it'd make a long post complicated -- I think it's clear as it stands, even though it's long, but complication would be likely to distract from the central points. There's also the fact that what SAVI would term 'non-contact abuse' could conceivably be more damaging to one child than penetration could to another. I'm uneasy with the supposition certain forms of abuse might be harmless; for some, perhaps, but not for others.

In respect of this, as far as I can recall Cloyne is rather vague about the types of sexual abuse alleged, and there seem to have been very few at the more obviously traumatic end. But the fact remains that they're still violations. The danger is that by speaking of, in effect, some things as only being molestation rather than rape, we run the risk of saying that that doesn't matter.

But yes, I take your point. The trick, I think, is to start by recognising that this is all bad, and all damaging, and then to approach it honestly and with an awareness of nuance. Caution, honesty, and intelligence are all needed here, as we can hardly hurl hundreds of thousands of citizens into prison.

Essentially, I don't think we can work on healing an illness until we've identified what that illness is and how far it's gone.

Thank you, too. Good comment.

Anonymous said...

I wonder will Fr. Breen tackle the under-reporting of child abuse by clergy? Did I say 'under-reporting'? Sorry! I meant non-reporting of child abuse by clergy. It is laughable that a member of an organisation, that NEVER reported child abuse by their clergy, is complaining about the media over reporting child abuse by clergy.

Is the priest looking for balance?

If it is reported that one child is abused clergy does that mean that only one story should be published? Supposing 14,000 children were abused - say it was physical & sexual abuse, enslavement, starvation, and gross neglect (see Ryan Report); would 332 reports be a fair balance of reporting on such a story?

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

He's not Father Breen anymore -- he left the priesthood quite a while back, and is now married with children, which is why I say of his status in 2000 that he was 'then a priest'. It would be odd, too, for him to do research into the clergy's own failure to report abuse to the authorities, given that he's a professor of media studies, and his work in this field has been on how the media has reported on abuse.

More importantly, as I've said, Breen's main concern is not that an injustice is being done to the Church through the Irish media's disproportionate focus on the clerical abuse, but rather that that the real injustice is being done to Ireland's children. Even in the past, when there were far more clergy than there are now, and when the Church was far more powerful than it is now, for every child abused by a priest there were sixty abused by people who were't priests. Nowadays there must be far more. Breen's central point is that by creating a false narrative that the clergy are the principal perpetrators of abuse, the media is throwing a huge cloak over the far greater problem with is the fact that abuse is endemic in Ireland.

In practice, by constantly talking of clerical abuse, the media is distracting people from the always vastly greater problem that abuse is happening every day in our own homes.

As for the Ryan Report, while that describes horrendous stuff, it hardly ever -- if at all? -- describes this having happened at the hands of clergy. On the contrary, it deals with abuse by members of religious orders and people who worked for religious orders, all under the supervision, not of the Church hierarchy let alone Rome, but of the Department of Education. The data in the Report, in any case, was never intended to be of quantitative value; although I don't dispute any of it, it's anecdotal rather than statistical in nature.

We can't just take the Ryan data based on interviews with 493 witnesses, assume it to be true, and extrapolate it to conclude that -- say -- 14,000 people were treated in that way. We just don't have the evidence for that. The Ryan Report was never intended to support such claims. The SAVI data, on the other hand, does allow us to say that about 13,000 people -- as of 2001 -- had been sexually abused in one way or another by religious brothers or sisters. We can argue that from SAVI; we can't argue it from Ryan.

The fact remains that we live in a country where 780,000 or so of us were sexually abused as children, where 530,000 of us were subject to physical sexual abused by our abusers, and where 120,000 of us were raped by them. We live in a country where this abuse still goes on, overwhelmingly in family homes, and where this is hardly ever reported. And we live in a country where by focusing on crimes committed in by priests decades ago, the media distracts us constantly from the massive and very real problems we face today.

We can't deal with this sickness unless we can honestly and accurately identify it. Our media does its damnedest to prevent us from doing that. And that was Breen's main point. He wasn't looking for balance: he was looking for us to talk honestly so that we could protect children today.