The interesting thing about the Ryan Commission’s disclosures on child abuse is not the outrage - well merited – but the shock proclaimed by so many people from President McAleese to the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr. Martin.
Were they truly living in the same country that I grew up in? My surprise is that only 1700 people testified about their mistreatment in the various institutions. I can only surmise that many chose not to reopen old wounds.
How can anyone who attended Irish primary schools up to the mid 1970’s ever forget the rampant debilitating corporal punishment? To believe that such abuse was not taken to a higher level behind the cloistered walls of industrial schools, reformatories and orphanages is surely disingenuous.
Perhaps one should exempt President McAleese, raised in the North of Ireland where Stormont, for all its faults, apparently did not tolerate this level of physical and sexual abuse. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for the Republic where successive governments ceded control of most schools to the Catholic Church.
That being said the current brush of retribution is too heavily tarred, what with everyone and their mother now scurrying for the higher ground of inflated shock and moral indignation. I was educated by the Christian Brothers for ten years and though I did encounter the occasional termagant, for the most part they were decent, humane men who did their best to impart a sound education under difficult circumstances.
Most of the sadistic beatings that I personally witnessed were meted out by young lay primary teachers, trained and certified by the Department of Education whose roving inspectors, at the least, tolerated extreme corporal punishment. Almost every teacher possessed a “leather” – a thick supple strap designed to raise blisters on juvenile hands; yet even that instrument of torture was preferable to the ubiquitous 36” wooden ruler, with which I once saw a boy’s head “split.”
Of course, there were many fine lay teachers too, compassionate men who gave their all to the students. The brutalization I speak of, incidentally, was not in general doled out for disciplinary problems but for failure to memorize facts and figures. Children with dyslexia, or what we now call attention deficit disorder, were particular targets.
The fact is we are all responsible for what went on in the few perverted reformatories and industrial schools, for as a society we chose to tolerate extreme and unwarranted corporate punishment while ignoring the rumors of abuse that periodically circulated regarding certain institutions.
But could you blame us? These industrial schools and orphanages were under the domain of the all powerful Church and we had been brought up to unequivocally obey its dictates, as had politicians, teachers, officials of the Department of Education and the clergy themselves.
The bishops issued edicts from their “palaces,” and for the most part individual priests like my uncle, a Columban Father, were foot soldiers who danced to their tune.
The bishop set the tone for his dioceses. Some were good and wise men, but their cardinal dictate was that Holy Mother Church be proved infallible and spared any scandal. Predators were discreetly transferred, rarely disciplined and never exposed.
In the end modernity caught up with Ireland, courageous people finally spoke out, and the clerical sex abuse scandals of the last twenty years were uncovered. People may have been shocked at the sheer extent of cover-up and criminal Episcopal negligence, but the truth is that this conduct was an open sore that could have been viewed at any time, if the blinkers had been lifted.
The damage is horrendous, beyond all rationale, and unfortunately it can never be undone. Yet, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. I’ve known many priests, nuns and brothers, who have sacrificed much and done wonders for the world. In this rush to “shocked” judgment, it would be the cruelest blow if these outstanding people were to be tarred by the same brush as the small minority of termagants and perverts.
I, for one, received a sound education from the Christian Brothers, and good counsel in tough times from many the priest, brother and sister. In their time of trouble we should take care to look out for them, for they were there for us when we had sore need of them.