03 August 2011

So Many Questions, So Few Solutions...

Fintan O'Toole has an absolutely brilliant article about double-standards in the Irish Times this week. In it he says:
'What saddens me about the whole David Norris affair is the proof that so many distinguished, thoughtful liberal intellectuals have refused to learn the lesson that we took it on ourselves to teach the Catholic Church over recent years. We despised the church for its moral equivocation, for its culture of denial, for putting tribal loyalty ahead of ethical honesty. When we saw the agony of church people at having to give up "one of their own", we thought that "people like us" would never be like that.

We would know, surely, that you don't need moral courage to point out the failings of the other side. You need it for your own side, for people you know and like and believe in. It's precisely when friendship and loyalty are at stake that morality is tempered in the fire.'
Oh wait. That wasn't this week, and it wasn't about David Norris. That was three-and-a-half years ago, and was  about the poet Cathal Ó Searcaigh, whose conduct with Nepalese youths had attracted attention through the documentary Fairytale of Kathmandu, and who had been defended by several of his literary and artistic peers, with a letter from them having been lauded in the Seanad by David Norris, who publicly called for the broadcasting of the film to be postponed, pending an investigation.

I'm sorry, I'll read that again
Fintan's response to the Norris affair has been rather different. He freely admits that it's unacceptable for any member of our parliament to seek to influence the sentence of someone being tried for a serious crime, and declares inexcusable Senator Norris having done so on official headed parliamentary paper, and in his capacity as a senator, a member of our parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs, and a possible future President. However, he says, this is no worse than the conduct of several other Irish politicians over the years, and as such should hardly demand a more serious penalty. Besides, he says, 
'It is quite understandable (even admirable) at a human level that he would have wished to make a plea for mercy for someone he loved... [Norris attempted to influence the Israeli High Court] out of a misguided sense of loyalty to someone who had been the love of his life... shouldn’t we feel uneasy at the notion that the gay man whose own sexuality was criminalised for so long is held to a higher standard than straight politicians? David Norris has a lot of explaining to do, but he should be allowed to do it in a free electoral debate.'
I happen to think Fintan's getting at something of value here, but still, as many of the comments on that article recognise, he's guilty here of the same double standards he so condemned in connection with those who would have defended Cathal Ó Searcaigh. And as we all know, and as Fergus Finlay admitted when talking with George Hook and John Waters on the radio the other day, if -- say -- Senator Ronan Mullen had acted in a similar fashion in connection with any priest convicted of behaving as Norris's erstwhile partner had done, then his political career would have been finished, and you'd have very few people defending him.

The Taoiseach's Speech, revisited
Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, which is one of the very best things I read as an undergraduate, says that an angry man is rightly praised when he is angry at the right things, with the right people, in the right fashion, at the right time, and for the right duration. Although I believe that the Taoiseach's speech on Cloyne failed this test by being deeply wrong in how it attributed blame to the Vatican and by implication to the Pope, I do believe the anger Enda was expressing was -- in general -- absolutely justified. Indeed, much of what he said in the speech was a real call to arms, a heroic declaration of how high our standards must be if we are truly to cherish all the children of our nation. 

In this light, it's rather ironic to see Irish commentators who'd lauded the Taoiseach's speech and those who over years have espoused the sentiments Enda expressed being unabashedly dismayed that David Norris has felt obliged to withdraw from the Irish presidential race. 

I'm only singling out Fintan as I expect more of him than others; as I've noted, he's has been curiously silent in the aftermath of the Cloyne Report and the Taoiseach's speech, perhaps because he realised how much of Enda's speech was directed at the wrong target. Nonetheless, given how often he's spoken out against the Catholic Church's influence in Ireland -- sometimes justifiably, and sometimes less so -- I'm quite confident that he has wholeheartedly embraced the Taoiseach's unambiguous declarations of the primacy of the Republic over the Church, and of his determination to protect our children, 'our most precious possession of all'.

If there was a central theme to the Taoiseach's speech, it's that the time for excuses is over. If we want to protect children, then we have to have high standards and we have to abide by them, and in this light it's worth thinking -- just for a moment -- about what David Norris did. Let's leave aside the question of whether Irish politicians seeking to influence foreign courts is appropriate, or whether Senator Norris's actions were wise or foolish. Let's just focus on the central point, which is that he argued that the rapist of a fifteen-year-old boy should not be imprisoned, and test it against the high standards the Taoiseach proclaimed and the country applauded...

One could easily argue that by appealing for clemency in 1997 for a man who'd been convicted of the rape of a fifteen-year-old, and by lauding in a 2002 Magill interview the idea of older men initating teenage boys into sex, Senator Norris had displayed 'a frankly brazen disregard for protecting children'. One could fairly ask whether David Norris believes young teenagers to be children whose integrity and innocence should be safeguarded, and whether he thinks of their childhood as a sacred space we should do all we can to protect. One could further ask whether anybody who at least until recently did not hold such views should even think himself fit to be the President of a Republic of rights and responsibilities where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version of 'morality' should not be tolerated or ignored.

Perhaps most strikingly, in view of how there are no shortage of people raving about David's integrity, as though he's a martyr to basic decency and letting one's heart rule one's head, one might wonder what it is that has rendered some of Ireland’s brightest, most privileged and powerful journalists either unwilling or unable to address these questions.

Is there a right to run for the highest office in the land?
What Fintan's latest article basically says is that standards have been lower in the past than they are now, and that it's unfair to force David Norris to pay the price now for having in the past abided by those lower standards.

I see Fintan's point, though in picking his examples of Irish politicians who weren't punished for having written letters or posed Parliamentary questions in connection with criminals, he conspicuously omits the example of Trevor Sargent, who resigned as a junior minister in February 2010 in recognition of how his having contacted the Gardaí in connection with an assaulted constituent could be seen as having been unlawful. He also omits the fact that the Presidency is the highest office in the land, and thus an office with which the highest standards should be synonymous. Perhaps most troublingly, he commits the common error of making it seem as though Senator Norris had been entitled to stand for the Presidency, as though other members of the Oireachtas had a moral obligation to support his candidacy.

I appreciate that Norris has achieved a lot in all his years in the Seanad, and that he had huge popular support before the weekend, but I'd be very curious to know what his support was on Monday or Tuesday. Sure, his most ardent supporters have made their views well known, and there are certainly no shortage of them, but beyond that hard core? I'm not sure. We'd need to poll people asking not 'do you thinking David Norris should have been allowed run for the Presidency?' and not 'do you think Finian McGrath, John Halligan, and Thomas Pringle were wrong to withdraw their support for David Norris' presidential campaign?' but 'If you could, would you vote for David Norris as President of Ireland?'

The Constitution doesn't allow just anybody to run. It has clear criteria, and I've not yet seen any serious popular demand that these criteria be changed: candidates for the Presidency must be citizens of at least 35 years of age and must be nominated by at least twenty members of the Oireachtas, or by at least four County or City Councils, or by themselves, if they are a current or former President. On this basis, the absolute maximum number of people who could run in the 2011 Presidential election is twenty: eleven nominated by members of the Oireachtas, eight nominated by councils, and Mary Robinson if she nominated herself. There's no obligation on anybody to support anybody else's nomination, irrespective of how popular opinion polls say they are, if they don't like the idea of that person being President, or if they'd rather wait to see if somebody else better might come along before the deadline. Nobody's allowed to nominate more than one candidate, after all.

There's a strong case that these criteria should be changed, so that with a sufficiently large proven support base candidates could run without needing -- in effect - the approval of those people we elect to represent us at local or national level, but that's a debate for another day.

Withdrawing with grace
I've watched the video of David Norris's withdrawal speech, and have read it too, and think it's a touching piece of rhetoric. I'm still confused about why he refers to Ezra Nawi as his 'former partner of twenty five years ago' when in a 2002 interview he said their relationship only ended in 2001, but still,I'd recommend studying the speech as I think it raises some important points. Having described his former partner's rape of a fifteen-year-old as 'disgraceful', Norris said:
'I do not regret supporting and seeking clemency for a friend, but I do regret giving the impression that I did not have sufficient compassion for the victim of Ezra’s crime. I accept that more than a decade and a half later when I have now reviewed the issue, and am not emotionally involved, when I am not afraid that Ezra might take his own life, I see that I was wrong. He served his time and never offended again. Yes, his actions were terrible but my motivation to write the letter was out of love and concern. I was eager to support someone who had been very important in my life.'
I think Norris, in saying this, has effectively revealed and conceded something very valuable. Faced with the reality of someone he knew having -- let's be frank -- taken advantage of a child for his own pleasure, Senator Norris had responded with love and concern, but with love and concern that was directed wholly towards the person he knew.

This, as it happens, is how I think huge numbers of Irish people respond when they hear that people they know have been accused -- or even found guilty -- of such crimes. In their minds they rationalise the behaviour of their loved ones, they minimise the damage that was done, and say that whatever their loved ones may have done, they're still their brothers, or their sons, or their friends. This is, in fact, exactly how Denis O'Callaghan behaved in dealing with allegations of abuse in Cloyne. The Cloyne Report recognises his personal kindness but quotes him as admitting that he sometimes tended to show favour to accused priests, having been emotionally drawn to their plight, in such a way that that compromised his care for complainants.

Things to keep in mind
There are certain key things that I think we need to keep in mind in any sober discussions of child sexual abuse in Ireland. Chief among these are that the use of children by adults for sexual gratification is always wrong, that child sexual abuse is deeply damaging although different people can be damaged in different ways, that child abuse endemic in Irish life, and that the vast majority of instances of abuses are committed by people related to the abused children or by friends or neighbours of the family.

The all-pervading cancer of child abuse in Irish life is something I've referred to often in recent weeks, pointing to the SAVI Study's 2002 finding that 27 per cents of Irish adults had experienced sexual abuse in their childhood or adolescence. Vincent Browne, in today's Irish Times, goes some way to explaining what that figure means, focusing on the numbers who'd experienced contact abuse and rape:
'A report funded by government departments and published almost a decade ago, Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, revealed that one in five women reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood and a quarter of these (5.6 per cent of all girls) reported having been raped in childhood. One in six men (16.2 per cent) reported experiencing contact sexual abuse in childhood and 2.7 per cent of all boys reported having been raped in childhood. We are talking here of more than 100,000 women having been raped in childhood and about 57,000 men.'
Vincent's figures aren't quite right here, though he's on the right track. The SAVI data is based on people who were adults in 2001, and so we need to look at the nearest census figures, those being the 2002 ones. In 2002, there were 1,426,681 adult males in Ireland and 1,477,491 females. Tables 4.3 of SAVI gives us a detailed breakdown on the prevalence of different types of abuse experienced by the survey respondents, with table 4.5 breaking down the respondents in terms of the most serious types of abuse they'd experienced. Focusing on the percentages, with a view to applying the SAVI figures to the general population, the essential SAVI data is as follows:

Based on the 2002 census figures, this means that ten years or so ago, there must have been about 530,000 adult survivors of contact sexual abuse in Ireland, with about 38,500 of them being men who'd been raped in childhood, and about 83,000 of them being women who'd been raped in childhood. The figure, then, for Irish adult victims of childhood rapes should be regarded as more like 120,000 than 160,000. Either way, we can all surely agree, this is an abomination.

In commenting on David Norris, Vincent Browne notes that Norris's representations to the Israel High Court showed no concern for the psychological consequences to the boy who had sex with Ezra Nawi. This matters: in saying this  Browne is effectively recognising that a young teenager cannot be said to agree in a mature and informed way to have sex with an adult, and that such sex, even if 'consensual' can prove profoundly harmful. It won't do to say it was consensual. What Brendan Wrixon, the 'Father Caden' of the Cloyne Report, got up to with the then sixteen-year-old 'Patrick' seems to have been consensual, such that the DPP couldn't have him prosecuted for sexual assault, but it's telling that he's the only cleric in the Cloyne Report to have been convicted for any offenses detailed in that report: he pleaded guilty to gross indecency.

People shouldn't be used as things, and adults shouldn't convince themselves that just because children go along with them, that they really know what they're doing. The teenagers' actions might not have been quite 'involuntary', to use Aristotle's terms again, but given their immaturity, their actions were surely, at best 'non-voluntary'. There was no true consent.

The problem is that with there being more than 780,000 adult survivors of child sexual abuse, and with about 120,000 of these having been raped in childhood, we have to face the fact that there are huge numbers of people in the country who have clearly committed some form of child sex abuse at some point.  As Fintan O'Toole said last August:
'Rapists and child abusers walk among us all the time. We sit beside them on the bus, say hello to them in the shops, share jokes with them at work. '
They're our workmates, our friends, our brothers, our neighbours, our children... and there are lots of them. Even if Vincent Browne overstated the case in April 2008 when he said that there are 'literally hundreds of thousands of paedophiles at loose' in Ireland, the fact remains that there are far too many people out there who have abused children for our criminal justice system ever to cope with.

So what do we do?
I don't know what the answer is, because I don't believe that Denis O'Callaghan's 'pastoral approach' is the way forward either. Kindness, frankly, is not enough, and certainly won't do anything to stop the most determined and devious of abusers. However, I do think that any serious attempt to try to deal with this must aim to achieve three things, which, while not mutually exclusive, nonetheless have a certain priority to them, these being prevention, healing, and justice.

Prevention obviously is the main priority. The abuse that's been done cannot be undone, and there's little point expending most of our efforts in punishing the crimes of yesterday if we're not taking serious action to protect the children of today. Proper background checks for all those who work with children are crucial, of course, but given that most abuse happens in the family circle, that'd just be scratching the surface of the problem. We need something rather better than that. I think the key is probably the education of children, such that, for instance, children have it drummed into them time and time again that there are certain things they need to tell parents or other responsible adults.

In a heavy-handed way I'm talking about a type of sex education, but in the main I'm thinking of something more subtle -- even something more natural. Take, for example, how parents might read books to their children, and how the most popular of which in recent years would surely be the Harry Potter series. The basic plot of each book involves something bad happening and then the children deciding not to tell the adults responsible for them, convinced as they are that they'd not be believed. Plotwise, this is absolutely necessary, and it works from the viewpoint of the characters' development too, but it's not good practice for children. So whenever parents watch films or read books with their children, they should watch out for stuff like this, and talk to their children, and get them to understand that Harry and Hermione and Ron were wrong, and that there was no guarantee that things would have worked out as they did...

Healing, then, is the next stage. Again, leaving aside the fact that most reported cases of abuse don't lead to a conviction, I don't see the point in putting most of our energy into punishing people while hundreds of thousands of abuse victims are to suffer in silence. We need to find a way to help abuse survivors heal, as best they can. I reckon that'd take a huge amount of work, using counselling groups, state-funded therapy, reconciliation tribunals to allow survivors to confront their abusers, forums where people can just talk about this, religious organisations and ministries and services, and just encouraging people to open up and to listen... whatever it takes. In his homily on Reek Sunday, Archbishop Neary said:
'A woman asked me last week when it would all end. The honest answer is that it will not end until every survivor has told their story and until every victim is facilitated in embarking on their journey to real healing, where true dignity is accorded.'
He's right. There are probably few things Irish people are better at than telling stories, and yet for many of us we can't tell stories that almost define who we are. We keep those stories in the dark, trapped within us. We talk a lot, and say very little. We need to find a way to change that.

Finally, there's Justice. For some people justice will be necessary to the healing process; in other cases, it'll be necessary for the protection of other children. But given that there are only about 4,500 prison places in all of Ireland, and that there may well be more than twenty times that number of people in the country who have abused children at some point, I think we have to accept that much though many of us might wish it, we can't hurl them all into prison. Clearly there are a small number of monsters out there, multiple abusers who've ruined countless lives; whatever may have caused them to become what they are, I don't think there are many who'd argue against them facing the harshest of prison sentences.

But what of the rest, and keeping in mind how difficult it can be to prove abuse has happened, especially if it happened a long time ago?

If it's true, as I've read, that a third of all abusers are adolescents, and that adolescents are more susceptible to therapy than established abusers -- their sexuality, such as it is, still not being fully formed in many cases -- then I think there's hope that they can themselves be healed. Indeed, given the statistics, I think it's very likely that many adolescent abusers were themselves child victims only a few years before they committed their own crimes. That's not to say that abuse is contagious, such that abuse victims regularly become abusers -- that's a gross and calumnious oversimplification -- just that given the huge prevalence of abuse in Ireland, a significant overlap between the two categories must be inevitable.

In between these extremes, I really don't know, save that each case must be dealt with on its own merits. I think there are distinctions between different types of abuse, but I'm also fully aware that what, say might be embarrassing but basically harmless for one child could be utterly devastating for another. I also think that there are distinctions between an adult stupidly becoming infatuated and getting involved in a relationship with a single adolescent and one who deliberately seeks out and grooms children of whatever age so that he can prey on them. Again, even recognising that all of this is wrong, I think we have to draw distinctions. Flattening it out so that everything is equally monstrous, equally unforgiveable -- that'll get us nowhere. We can't throw half the country into prison.

I'd also add that I don't believe it helps things to scream at people for not doing enough to prevent abuse. Sure, there are some people in positions of authority who do nothing whatsoever or even effectively facilitate abuse, but there are times when I'm not sure it's possible to do enough. The more I've learned and thought about it, the more I've become convinced that abuse is a miasma, a pollution that contaminates all those who come in contact with it. What do you do if you learn that a fifty-year-old man, married and with children of his own, had abused his cousin thirty-five years earlier? What he did back then may have been monstrous, and may have done horrendous damage to that cousin, but in the years since then he may have had help and he may have changed...

Because there's the dilemma. What if that man is abusing his children even now, and you have the power to stop it? Are you in some sense responsible if you don't act? But what if he did terrible things decades ago, but stopped, and grew into a decent adult, and is a good husband and a good father? Because then the prosecution of him wouldn't just punish him for his crimes -- it'd punish his wife and his children too. Situations like that must exist all over the land. There must be thousands of cases like that. I think we need some kind of mechanism to enable people to bring forward serious concerns based on real experience -- not just 'soft information' -- without necessarily setting in motion courses of action that could shatter more lives.

Anyway, that's all I've got. Ten posts I've done on this now, some huge and all labelled 'Abuse and Cloyne'. Time, I think, to focus on cheerier topics for a while.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have some work to do.


Anonymous said...

I think the glowing references the Irish Christian Brothers wrote about Donal Dunne are the most hypocritical letters ever written concerning the rape and torture of children. How could an organisation, ostensibly Christian, actually approve of Donal Dunne's rape and torture of children?

Records show that his superiors in the Irish Christian Brothers were made aware on three occasions of his abuse of boys, but he was allowed to leave the order, with his record unblemished, on a Friday, and to take up a post as principal at Lanesboro NS, Co Longford, the following Monday. He taught there from 1957-60, followed by four years in Ballyfermot, and from 1964-66 seved in Rath Mixed NS, Ballybrittas, Portlaoise.

His period in Walsh island, from 1966-69, led to complaints of sexual abuse/ In addition, eleven female pupils reported violent punishments and of how Dunne would open letters of complaint in class, laugh and put them on a spike. Dunne left Walsh Island in 1969 following allegations of sexual abuse of boys, and obtained a post in a secondary school in Castlecomer, with a glowing reference from the then Parish Priest of Walsh Island.

Following complaints in Castlecomer (a co-educational school), he was moved to the all-girls' Sacred Heart School in Tullamore, in 1975, and he spent the last decade of his teaching career there. Correspondence from the Department of Education reveals their thinking that as his sexual attraction was to young boys, he would not pose a danger to the girls.

The Ryan Report also outlines the efforts of a past pupil to alert civil and religious authorities to Dunne's presence at the Sacred Heart School. The man, himself a teacher, wrote to the late Cardinal Tomas O Fiaich, to the then Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, and he approached a curate in Tullamore in the 1980s, who told him he "would not be a part of a witch hunt" against Dunne.

I think if all the above correspondence was put beside David Norris' letter we'd have a clearer idea as to what 'hypocrisy' really is!

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Thanks for that; if anything, I think you prove my point, which is that the Irish people in general seem to have been inclined to deny the reality or to minimise the effects of abuse, and to hope that the problem would sort itself out. A lot of people bear guilt for how Dunne was allowed to carry on as he did (

The priests you refer to are clearly guilty of denying the reality of abuse and all it entails, while the Department of Education stands guilty of hoping the problem would sort itself out, and given that Dunne was a lay teacher between 1957 and 1985, during which period all the crimes were committed for which he's been convicted took place, this can't be ignored (1.14.129 ff).

As for the Brothers? Well, they certainly allowed Dunne to leave in 1957 with his record unblemished, having done nothing to alert the relevant authorities as to Dunne's activities (1.14.11), but did they really write glowing references for him? The Ryan Report says suspicious though this may be, there's no evidence either way to explain how Dunne got his Longford position in 1957 (1.14.10,

It's striking from the Ryan Report that on no occasion when any complaints were made about Dunne in his period after leaving the Brothers, did anyone ever think to contact the Brothers to establish whether Dunne had a history of such behaviour. The fact is that the Irish Church isn't a single coherent body, so much a cluster of 184 linked parts, each with its own head, with woefully inadequate formal and informal channels of internal communication.

It's striking, on reading about Dunne in the Ryan Report, where he appears as a 'Brother Brander' that one boy he taught described in a statement to the Gardaí what Dunne seems to have got up to when was a brother (1.14.06-7),
'I personally was never touched by Brother [Brander]. Back then ... it was a common thing for Brother [Brander] to keep one of the boys back after class. [...] I remember the talk about Brother [Brander] at that time was that he would come up behind the boy he’d keep back after school and touch him and ask the boy if he had any marbles.'
I happen to think this is a very serious thing indeed, but it does make me suspect it was -- at that early stage in Dunne's career -- more or less identical to the type of behaviour that David Norris, back in 2002, said was hardly serious at all:
'In my opinion, the teacher or Christian Brother who puts his hand into a boy’s pocket during a history lesson, that is one end of the spectrum.'

Have copies of correspondence between the Brothers and the relevant people in Longford emerged since the Ryan Report?