16 September 2011

Sometimes the Truth Hurts

Now this is interesting. Yesterday on Twitter I saw that somebody had retweeted this:
'Huzzah, the Catholic church sticks it to Irish mammies! Kids with two dads must be thrilled to have dodged that one.'
I wondered what that meant, but then a while later someone else posted a link sayin, 'This priest seems to have set out to rile people.'

It seems that a Wexford priest in the diocese of Ferns, Father Paddy Banville, has written an article in which he's said:
'In exposing abuse within the Catholic Church, we have opened the door to hell and stepped inside the front porch, and standing there in horror some have dared to peer further, into the hallway and reception areas of a very dark and unexplored house.

In time, I believe Ireland will discover that there is nothing particularly unique in the Catholic bishop’s bungling attempts to deal with clerical abuse...In fact, I believe that covering up is a typical response to child abuse right across the board, at least until very recently.

Few can accept my next point and, of course, it’s so politically incorrect to make the point, but there is another category of people that will match the failure of the bishops, and probably surpass it; the wives and mothers of Ireland, not exclusively wives and mothers but far too many who failed miserably to deal with the abuse of their children by other family members.

A multitude of people are implicated in this cover-up.  I believe it is a significant percentage of the population.  Nobody in this once sovereign democratic republic wants to hear this.

Let me conclude by adapting the words of the Taoiseach: there is no shortage of dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism in the Republic of Ireland 2011, where the rape and torture of children are downplayed or managed, to uphold instead the primacy of the family, the family name, its power, standing and reputation, and where multitudes living in our midst, have turned a blind eye: not my business!

We don’t know it yet, or perhaps we don’t want to know it, but in terms of child abuse the Catholic Church is holding up a mirror to Irish society.

This time Enda Kenny has got to go all the way and all the way is much further than the Vatican!'
I don't think I'd have worded it in as inflammatory a way as this; I'd have been uneasy with the use of the term 'cover-up', and I don't think I'd have singled out wives and mothers, although given the matriarchal nature of the Irish household until quite recently I can see Banville's point. Such niceties aside, though, he's basically right. What's he's trying to show, in forceful language that is, nonetheless, in line with the facts as we have them, is that the problem of abuse in Ireland is far deeper and far more extensive than the most vociferous antagonists of the Church would have us believe.

The Numbers Don't Lie
Anybody who's been reading this blog will be familiar with such blunt facts of abuse in Ireland as revealed in the 2002 SAVI study as that 27 per cent of Irish adults had been sexually abused in their childhood, that barely one abuse survivor in 200 saw their abuser convicted in court, and that for every adult survivor of sexual abuse by a priest there were 59 other victims of childhood sexual abuse. The most prominent abuse survivors in Ireland -- the ones who appear in the media with depressing regularity -- are profoundly atypical.

The SAVI Study showed that 58.3 per cent of abuse survivors had been abused by people within what might be deemed the family circle: immediate and extended family, neighbours, friends, and babysitters. Nowadays, it seems the figure is far higher. The Irish Times ran an article in February 2009 which reported one Mick Moran, a Garda Detective Sergeant working with Interpol to fight internet paedophiles, as saying that 85 per cent of child sexual abuse takes place in the family home or in the family circle, and a few months later reported the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland as revealing 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 by somebody within the family circle.

These are abominable figures and the incessant media focus on the Church has the effect of obscuring them, distracting people from the dangers on our own doorsteps.  Just that let sink in for a minute. Historically, 58 per cent of abuse in Ireland was committed within the family circle; nowadays it's at least 85 per cent, and perhaps as high as 97 per cent, and it seems that between a quarter and a third of that is committed by adolescents.

Right now, if you're attacking the Church, you're not attacking abuse. Worse, you're distracting people's attention from where it's really happening, and by doing so, you're faciliating it and are endangering children.

(And, for what it's worth, you're not even giving a moment's thought to the problem of neglect, which is apparently an even bigger problem than abuse nowadays.)

In what Circumstances would Somebody not want to Report?
Still, let's stay with this. Historically most abuse took place within the family circle, and nowadays almost all abuse takes place there.  We rarely read about it in the papers, but we know from the SAVI report that almost half of all abuse victims at some point disclose their abuse to somebody, with barely one abuse case in twenty ever being taken to the Gardaí.

That's the first thing. Almost half of Ireland's abuse survivors have confided in people about the abuse they've experienced, without passing it on to the guards, possibly because they knew that only about one in ten reported abuse cases leads to a conviction. In huge numbers of cases they must have told people of abuse they suffered from people who were still alive and still had access to children.  Husbands will have told their wives, for instance, of childhood experiences, just as wives will have told their husbands. They'll have had good reasons for not reporting it; it'll have been a long time ago, they'll want to move on with their lives rather than revisiting old pain, and besides, they'll hope their abusers will have changed.

These are understandable reasons. Frances Fitzgerald was talking the other day on the Frontline and rhetorically asking in what circumstances people might not want to report abuse. Well, those are circumstances that I think you'll find all over the country.

Hell, you'll see similar instances in the Cloyne Report, instances of people having come to the Diocese to report decades-old instances of abuse, but insisting that they didn't want the matter to go to the Gardaí. People hope that others can change, and don't want to trawl through their own childhood hells afresh.

But the fact is that there are people who'd argue that that constitutes the covering up of abuse. It's not a phrase I'd use to describe it, but I could understand that argument. If you're told of abuse, and you listen, and try to help the survivor, but don't try to punish the abuser -- is that covering things up?

(I don't mean legally, as unless the situation I've described counts as a 'reasonable excuse', anyone who acted that way would soon be deemed guilty of just that, and vulnerable to a five year prison sentence. I mean realistically.)

Remember Senator Norris' Letter

One of the things I talked about when the Norris affair broke a couple of months back was that I didn't believe Norris had reacted to Ezra Nawi's crime in a way that was at odds with how the typical Irish person -- or perhaps the typical person anywhere -- would react to such a crime. I said:
'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.'
It's been observed by psychologists that when there's abuse in families, the family will often be more protective of the abuser than the abused. Sure, sometimes this is just a case of families wanting to protect their reputation, but more often there's something far more natural and wholesome -- but no less destructive -- at work.

While there'll be anger there, and horror, and a deep sense of betrayal, there'll also be a huge amount of confusion and fear. The tendency is to think that there's something wrong with the abusive child or brother or husband or whoever, and perhaps even that the parents or older siblings or wife are in some way to blame; they want to help the abuser. What's more, they fear for how he'd be punished in the hands of the authorities, and don't see how the shame of him being punished could help anybody; there's a lady I know who says that pride is the sin of the Irish, and she may well be right. Linked with this, there's a deep need to minimise in their minds the amount of harm that's been done to the victim; the less damage that's been done, the less culpable the abuser is.

All of this is natural. And in the main, it's driven by love, by loyalty, by forgiveness -- by the very best qualities we have. And it's terribly dangerous.

Because, of course, in so many cases, this doesn't seriously engage with the problems, and instead seeks to sweep them under the carpet and hope they go away. Would such behaviour count as a cover-up? Yes, I think it would, and potentially a very destructive one too. But not one driven in any way by malice, rather one driven by a confused and disoriented sense of compassion and hope.

Could the Church possibly be to blame for this too?
A few times over the years I've seen people take the view that even if it is true that most Irish abuse happens within families rather than within the institutional Church, it's still the fault of the Church, and I saw this line being wheeled out today in connection with Banville's article. The Twitter feed of Colm O'Gorman kicked off in spectacular fashion in connection with this, and Colm wasn't slow to pass comment on the article, saying, in a series of tweets:
'So now we know. Its the women of Ireland who are to blame for the covering up abuse across Irish society. So women are to blame as is the desire to uphold the primacy of the family. So a Catholic is attacking the primacy of the family? Bizarre. "In terms of child abuse the Catholic Church is holding up a mirror to Irish society" Of course it is. Obviously. Transparency is its mantra.
There is no doubt about the fact that society did deny the reality of abuse. We knew, and we chose not to name it or act. But to suggest that wives and mothers were THE problem? That the RCC is holding up a mirror to society? Such comment ignores the simple reality of the overarching power of the RCC in Irish society. It dictated public attitudes. IT defined them. It is vital that we honestly assess the 'Why' of our gross collective failures re child protection. But not by attacking an entire gender! [...] The RCC dictated societal attitudes and values. The culture of silence & deference was of their creation.'
This needs unpacking.

Breaking it down...
The line about the Irish Church holding up a mirror to Irish society has nothing to do with transparency, because mirrors are rarely transparent; rather, Banville's point is that the behaviour of the Irish Church reflects Irish society. If Irish priests abused, was this because Irish people abuse? If Irish bishops covered up that abuse, was this because Irish people cover up abuse? Given how many Irish familes until very recently had priests, brothers, and nuns in their ranks, it's clearly nonsense to distinguish between the twentieth-century Irish Church and twentieth-century Irish society. They were, in effect, the same thing. That the behaviour of clergy should have reflected the behaviour of the society that produced them isn't really that surprising at all.

The Banville article doesn't suggest that when it came to covering up abuse in Ireland, Irish wives and mothers were the problem; it does, however, say that their actions will have been a huge part in the problem, and I think that's true, especially given the structure until recently of the typical twentieth-century Irish household. Is this an attack on a whole gender? No, not at all; the Banville article simplifies matters on gender lines, such that while it explicitly holds that a huge amount of abuse was concealed by females, it implicitly takes the view that basically all abuse was committed by males.

Does it make any sense to blame the culture of concealment on the Catholic Church? I don't think it does, any more than to blame the culture of abuse in Ireland on the Catholic Church, attempts which Fintan O'Toole the other day rightly dismissed as cynical rubbish.

For such claims to be meaningful, they'd need to be compared with abuse and concealment data compiled using identical methods across a range of countries, both culturally Catholic ones and otherwise, and you'd need to work hard to explain, for example, why secular atheist post-Protestant Sweden seems to have remarkably high abuse rates. Indeed, that our own isn't quite so unusual is surely attested by O'Gorman's former organisation, One in Four, having been founded in the UK in 1999, three years before the SAVI study discovered that the rate of abuse in Ireland was slightly higher than one-in-four. One in Four must surely have taken its name from data relevant to somewhere other than Ireland.

The simple fact is that abuse is concealed pretty much everywhere it happens. It is a staggeringly under-reported crime in every country. O'Gorman says that Amnesty International Ireland is soon to publish research on the underlying dynamics that tolerated and permitted abuse in Ireland, but unless it relies heavily on data using the same methods from other countries, it'll tell us very little: it'll be highly misleading raw data, devoid of context or meaning, prone to mistaking correlation for causation.

I realise I'm prejudging it, but a tweet such as the following --  'It will address societal attitudes, the nature of power in Ireland of the time and lessons for today. Very in depth.' -- is hardly the sort of thing to inspire confidence. It suggests that this soon-to-be-published Amnesty study is hardly the massive pan-European study that's needed, but is instead merely another national study, and one -- unlike the SAVI study -- conducted by an organisation run by someone who has a very serious axe to grind.

Not without reason, of course, but an axe for all that.

Inflammatory Comments?
Was Father Banville over the top in what he said? Maybe, but unlike Enda Kenny with his claims in the Dáil, he wasn't actually wrong; he just painted in broad strokes. Was this inflammatory? Yes, it was, but at this stage I'm starting to think inflammatory language is needed.

Banville's saying nothing that wasn't already implied in the SAVI study, but how many people have ever heard of that? The Cloyne Report, which revealed little other than that two clergymen hadn't followed their own professed guidelines but in doing so had broken no laws, was mentioned in 163 Irish Times pieces in just one month, whereas over the previous nine years the SAVI study -- the most in-depth and far-reaching study ever conducted in Ireland into the phenomenon of abuse in Ireland -- had been mentioned in just 63 Irish Times articles and letters. The most important and revealing body of data on sexual abuse in Ireland had basically been ignored, save by Vincent Brown and Breda O'Brien, each of whom would occasionally try to alert people to its importance.

We're endangering children by keeping the media focus on the Church. We need to look at ourselves. If jolts such as Banville's are what it takes to jar us out of our complacency, well, so be it.


Rob Fuller said...

Whoah! This is a hot one!

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

It's a serious topic. Curiously, the head of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre is now claiming that the SAVI data's out of date and that were it conducted nowadays it'd reveal a far higher incidence of clerical abuse.

This is because, she thinks, seven years after Brendan Smyth's savagery had led to the fall of a government, people were still afraid to say they'd been abused by priests.

She also seems to think that the SAVI report said that 3 per cent of abuse was clerical, whereas the sole relevant figure in the report is that which gives 12 instances of about out of 722 as being clerical, this being below 1.7 per cent. And she also appears to think that the Ryan Report was about clerical abuse, whereas it was about institutional abuse, whether sexual or otherwise, almost all by brothers and nuns, all under the supervision of the Irish state.

Donum Vitae said...

Another brilliant post. You deserve an award.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Thank you. I just wish people would listen. The problem's bloody massive, and the constant concentration on the Church is making things worse.

I commented on this Independent article earlier.

I was trying to stress how amazing it was to see the head of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre getting her figures wrong.

The 2002 SAVI Study's figures on abusers indicate that less than 1.7% of abuse was by clerics rather than the 3.2% O'Malley-Dunlop claims, and that 78.7% of abuse was by people who weren't complete strangers which is less than the 'more than 80%' cited in the article.

Given her lack of familiarity with the numbers, I'm inclined to view with suspicion any claims she'd make about the SAVI figures being out of date -- especially given how it's clear that abuse outside the family circle seems almost to be a thing of the past at this stage.

Her speculations are simply speculations, and they seem rooted in nothing more than highly questionable assumptions. A decade ago there was no social stigma whatsoever about reporting clerical abuse: seven years earlier the Brendan Smyth case had brought down a government, and the relentless coverage of clerical abuse in the media over the previous eight years was such that there were already academic studies being done on the misleading and dangerous nature of the media focus.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Thirsty for your sanity and for speaking the truth to us and for us.

Caroline McCamley said...

No one wants to listen, as we might have to stop and look at our own families, and find something that we do not like.

I did a post on this last week.

I commend Fr Banville for daring to address the dirty truth about the sexual abuse of Irish children.

Humphrey said...

Are the academic studies into media presentation of the abuse crisis anywhere online?

I have noticed in the past that the likes of VIncent Browne and Pat Kenny when dealing with clerical sex abuse assume that people like them would never cover up abuse. Because they are normal people with "healthy" attitudes to sex. Priests on the other hand are inhuman freaks with "unhealthy" attitudes to sex. Hence they cover up abuse. Fr Banville is directly attacking this notion hence the reaction.
Throughout the media Catholicism is presented as a alien, malign, authoritarian, influence. This image of Catholicism is juxtaposed with image of Ireland's true nature as being earthy, humane and undogmatic.
The saga surrounding the banning of the book "The Tailor and Ansty" sums up this theme IMO. The tailor with his earthy even smutty stories represents Ireland true nature. The priests who forced him to burn his biography are represent the alien element which we have only recently thrown off from the broad sunlit upland of sexual and intellectual liberation.

The Thirsty Gargoyle said...

Certainly, three pieces by the former priest and professor of media studies in Limerick, Michael Breen, are easily accessible. I've not got a lot else on that precise topic bookmarked.

2000: The good, the bad and the ugly: Media coverage of scandals in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

2004: Depraved Paedos and Other Beasts: The Media Portrayal of Child Sexual Abusers in Ireland and the UK

2007: Through the Looking Glass: How the Mass Media Represent, Reflect, and Refract Sexual Crime in Ireland