by Frank Schnittger
Sat May 23rd, 2009 at 11:16:53 AM EST
Letter published in Irish Independent - Ireland's largest circulation daily.
Unfortunately the qualifier "who came in contact with the system" highlighted below was omitted from the published text.
There have been many expressions of shock at the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse which found that physical and sexual abuse of children was widespread, systematic and endemic. But are we really surprised? Can anyone from the Department of Education down to the Catholic Bishops, religious superiors, inspectors, teachers, care workers, doctors and nurses who came in contact with the system claim ignorance of what was actually going on?
Many a child of my era was threatened with the reform school if we did not behave. We had our own Gulag Archipelago on our own doorstep and did nothing about it because of a slavish adherence to a religious dictatorship.
But the Government priority now, as articulated by our Minister for Justice, Dermot Ahern, is to prevent anyone speaking ill of the religious by bringing in a new criminal offence of blasphemous libel. We need not only to dismiss this ridiculous suggestion and those who propose it, but the Constitutional provision which they claim requires it.
If we put half as much effort into debating a Constitutional amendment to protect the rights of children as we have with the Lisbon Treaty, there is no reason why both referenda can't be held this October.
Indeed the Lisbon Treaty, if ratified, would give legal effect to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union which includes specific provisions for the the rights of children to be protected and cared for; to express their views freely; for their views to be taken into account; to maintain contact with their parents; and to have their best interests be the primary consideration in all actions taken in relation to them.
It would be appropriate that a Referendum on a Treaty which gives legal effect to the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union should also be accompanied by a constitutional amendment protecting the human rights of our children and getting rid of the archaic constitutional protection of religious rights not to be offended by others.
We have had enough of the apologies of the perpetrators of child abuse and those who protected them, and moral outrage only gets you so far. It is time we had some real action, and we cannot trust those who have ruled this country for so long to provide it. The message to all parties at the forthcoming elections must be - we want constitutional action on this now, or you will not be given a second chance.
Hopefully the omitted qualifier won't lead to a lot of irate teachers, nurses and doctors writing in letters expressing annoyance at being implicated in a scandal they knew nothing about - and resulting in the debate being derailed from the central point of the letter - which is not about looking for scapegoats now, but actually doing something concrete to prevent similar situations arising in the future.
[Update] Correction published today (25/5/09):
Clarifying some important issues - Letters, Opinion - Independent.ie
Many thanks for publishing my letter on Saturday. Unfortunately, in the editing process you left out an important qualifier which changes the sense of the letter and could lead to much annoyed over-reaction in response.
Your published version "Can anyone from the Department of Education, from Catholic bishops, religious superiors, inspectors, teachers, care workers, doctors to nurses, claim ignorance of what was actually going on?" excludes the phrase "who came in contact with the system" from my original draft, and makes it appear as if I am indicting all teachers, doctors, nurses, etc, when many, I am sure, had no idea what was going on.
To provide some context for the letter, I include a quote from an Irish Times report today...
Systematic, endemic abuse in State institutions laid bare - The Irish Times - Thu, May 21, 2009
THOUSANDS OF children suffered physical and sexual abuse over several decades in residential institutions run by religious congregations, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse has found.
The report published yesterday describes how children lived in "a climate of fear" in the institutions and finds that "sexual abuse was endemic in boys' institutions". Cases of sexual abuse were hidden by the congregations that ran the institutions and offenders were transferred to other locations where they were free to abuse again, the report says.
The commission, which was chaired by Mr Justice Seán Ryan, heard from more than 500 witnesses who said they had been sexually abused.There were also many reports of injuries, including broken bones, lacerations and bruising.
Eight chapters in the report are devoted to the Christian Brothers, the largest provider of residential care for boys in the State. More allegations were made against the Christian Brothers than all other male orders combined.
The report sharply criticises the Department of Education for failing to carry out proper inspections. "The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection," the report says. The commission, which was set up in 1999, investigated industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages, institutions for children with disabilities and ordinary day schools. It heard evidence covering the period from 1914 to the present but the bulk of its work addressed the period from the early 1930s to the early 1970s.
More than 1,700 men and women gave evidence of the abuse they suffered as children in institutions, with over half reporting sexual abuse. Accounts of abuse given in relation to 216 institutions are detailed in the report, which runs to nearly 3,000 pages.
More than 800 priests, brothers, nuns and lay people were implicated. The final cost of the commission may be over 100 million.
The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is separate from the Residential Institutions Redress Board, which has received some 15,000 applications. It is expected the total cost of awards by the board will exceed 1 billion, of which 128 million has been contributed by 18 religious congregations.
Of course the usual apologies have been issued by the perpetrators, who also blocked and frustrated the work of the Commission for as long as they could. Many of the allegedly non-existent files which form the basis of much of the report were eventually found in the Vatican. We have had enough of such apologies. It is time for real concerted action.
One of the key issues which needs to be addressed is that the authoritarian structures of the Church intrinsically predisposed it to the abusive relationships which were so widespread, systematic and endemic in its ranks. This wasn't a case of "a few bad apples". A religious sensibility which claims power over what others may say or do is itself intrinsically rotten to the core. The Church has been the bad apple in our society, and no amount of good it may have done in other spheres can disguise that fact.
The democratic guarantee of religious freedom must also include the right to be free of religion. And that means we must be free to speak freely about religion. Getting rid of the Blasphemy provision in our Constitution is therefore a key part of getting rid of that authoritarian mindset.