« Thou shalt not steal | Main | Which lie did I tell? »

Women and children first

The Irish author Tim Pat Coogan has commented that Ireland was colonized twice: once by the British, and once by the Catholic church. I was reminded of that yesterday when reading that the leader of the Irish Catholic church, Cardinal Sean Brady, the Irish government, and the commissioner of the Irish police have all apologized for decades of systematically covering up child abuse by Catholic priests, uncovered in the damning report of a three-year inquiry into the Archdiocese of Dublin from 1975 to 2004. It seems that the cover-up went, like Watergate, all the way to the top.

When I was living in Ireland in the late 1980s few people talked about abuse by priests. One who did was Frank Crummey, whom I interviewed for one of my first-ever published pieces, for the Guardian's women's page about the prosecution of the Irish Family Planning Association for giving away condoms at Virgin's Dublin Megastore. (Richard Branson funded the IFPA's defense, and flew in for the court hearing.) The chain of contacts led to Margaret Gaj, a veteran of contraceptive campaigns, and she sent me to Crummey.

He told me that his interest in contraception began as a campaign to redress the imbalance in subsidies between the Gaeltacht - Irish-language - and English-speaking agricultural areas. Working on that got him into the schools, where he saw that children were being abused - he mentioned in particular the Christian Brothers. But trying to engage their mothers on the issue failed: they were too poor and too dependent on their priests for help and charity to risk confrontation. Often, he told me, the priests would divulge even to abusive husbands what their wives said in the supposedly safe confessional. As the Irish writer Seán Mac Mathúna asked in one of his short stories, "Who'd be a woman in Ireland?" The situation with respect to child abuse seems not to have been much different: clergy and police cooperated to protect the guilty.

Unable to interest the authorities in the problems he was finding in the schools - a problem he encountered again, reportedly, in Ireland's industrial schools - Crummey concluded that the underlying problem was that too many children consigned them to poverty and powerlessness. That's when he began smuggling contraceptives into Ireland and, with his family's help, distributing them by post. The letters he got from desperate women telling their stories to beg for help, he said, were heart-rending.

It is hard to convey to anyone who didn't live in Ireland in or before the 1980s how deeply embedded the Church was. It owned 90 percent of the primary schools and most of the hospitals. The Irish Constitution, although it includes a US-like clause guaranteeing the separation of church and state clearly intended "freedom of religion" to mean "freedom to be Catholic". The late Leslie Shepard, editor of The Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology and an early supporter of The Skeptic frequently talked about the unique position of priests in rural villages in earlier times. Often, he noted, they were the only people who could read and write.

In fact, the village priest figured heavily in one of the topics covered in the early issues of The Skeptic (and revisited in the soon-to-be forthcoming Why Statues Weep: the Best of The Skeptic from Philosophy Press). The Trinity College Dublin professor David Berman had discovered new documents showing that the local priest was behind the Knock Apparitions. (Shepard always vehemently disputed that any village priest could be so deceptive.) I'm not sure a similar strategy will work now.

Noticeable change had begun while I was living there, often attributed to economic improvement that meant that many of Ireland's emigrants could afford to return, bringing with them experiences of life in other countries. A few of these founded the Campaign to Separate Church and State; others banded together to build non-denominational charter schools for their kids. In the 1990s, of course, then along came the technology boom which, at least for a time, charged the economy.

The Church was already in trouble before the scandals broke. Writing in Disillusioned Decades: Ireland 1966-1987 (Gill and Macmillan, 1987), Coogan noted that, "...though the presence of the church is all-pervasive there has been a diminution of the grip which it is able to maintain on an increasingly well-educated society. Increasing affluence (of a sort) and mobility mean that people can move in and out of the purview of the church without permitting it to have any great influence on their conduct (unless, of course, they want an abortion or a divorce)." From 1970 to 1985, the numbers entering the priesthood dropped by a quarter.

Now, according to the Independent, the abuse scandals have not only dramatically accelerated the already notable decline in numbers applying to enter the priesthood but is emptying the churches. For a country that only a little over 20 years ago could be persuaded through the power of the pulpit to vote down a constitutional amendment allowing divorce, it's staggering. The change may be less of a hard road for Ireland than it appears: one of the key messages the CSCS tried to impart in the late 1980s and early 1990s was that the church paid for less than people thought, since the religious-owned schools and hospitals had and have considerable State funding.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter, or send email to netwars@skeptic.demon.co.uk.


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)