How the church aided abuse

April 1, 2010

As the scandals surrounding the cover-up of physical and sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and nuns continue to grow, Irish socialist Eamonn McCann looks at the root cause of the church's behavior.

"ONE THING which has never left my mind was the terrible beating Brother E. gave to a retarded boy called John B. He wasn't able to articulate in any way--he just made sounds and gestures. There is no possible way John B. could have recovered fully from what, to me, was the most violent assault I have ever witnessed in my life."

The speaker had spent much of his childhood in Termonbacca in Derry, run by the Nazareth nuns. He was describing an incident at a Christian Brothers' industrial school in Galway to which he'd been transferred:

He would have been about 10. I don't know what he'd done. Maybe he'd done nothing. It happened in the playground as we all stood around watching. A number of orphans had bowel spasms, dirtied themselves, from the terror. Brother E. totally and absolutely destroyed that child. He beat him with his fists and kicked him on the ground in his body and head. The blood was gushing from him and he was whimpering and screaming for pity.

Everything came to a halt. Everybody stood rigid watching in terror. Nobody made a sound. There was only the Brother panting and the screaming of the child. There was nothing anybody could do. I never saw John B. after it.

Pope Benedict XVI
Pope Benedict XVI

Did he know what became of John B.? Silence. "It was talked about. But we didn't know."

Did he think the child had survived? "He might have."

Any new inquiry into clerical abuse will have to be cross-border--and it will have to look into the possibility that some clerics took abuse to the ultimate.

Catholics reeling from the litany of horror which has recently made headlines should brace themselves for more. We haven't heard the half of it. Irish Cardinal Sean Brady has taken a hammering because he knew about the abuse of at least two children and instead of passing the information to the secular authorities had extracted a pledge from the victims to keep their suffering secret.

There was nothing about this behavior out of line with long-established custom and practice. Brady's predecessor, Cahal Daly, received a letter in the 1990s detailing the abuse, including rape, of an eight-year-old girl by a priest. The letter told of a home "oozing with love" which had had the heart ripped out of it by the horror of the child's suffering and the betrayal of trust.

For a time before the girl found the steadiness to talk about her ordeal, it seemed to her family that she had lost her reason entirely:

It got to the stage I couldn't look at her. I began to think she must be possessed. I phoned my sister one night at three in the morning and held the phone out and said, "Listen to this." And she gasped and said, "What is that?" I said, "It's X."

She was howling. It wasn't a scream. She was crouched down behind the sofa with my mother and me and X standing around with our hands on our heads. She was howling like an animal. My sister came over and we walked her around the roads all the rest of that night...

ALL THIS, and more, was related to Cardinal Daly. He certainly received and read the letter, because he replied to it, promising to pray for the family. And that was all.

On the night before the arrival of the rapist in the parish, a senior official of the diocese had visited the parochial house where he was to stay and warned the priests there to "keep an eye on him," and specifically to try to ensure that he didn't, on his own, visit houses where there were children. So it was known in advance that he was a danger to children. Among those in the know were two bishops.

Neither Dr. Daly nor either of the bishops will have believed that they were sinning, even by omission, or doing anything in any way wrong. Like many, maybe all, of the bishops who have recently fallen from grace, they didn't consciously decide to ignore the suffering of children to protect the reputation of the Church.

That's the point. There was no decision involved. They will have acted naturally, instinctively. It is not that they rejected the idea of reporting the abuse to the secular authorities. The thought will not have occurred to them.

They will have believed with all their being that the Pope is the Vicar of Christ and the Catholic Church the embodiment of God on earth: how, then, could it be answerable to secular law?

To say that the law of the state should take precedence over the law of the Church would be to elevate the law of man above the law of God. This would amount to outright repudiation of the Church--even of religion.

Celibacy may be a factor in the incidence of child sex-abuse in the Church. But it is not a factor in the way abuse is handled. Nor are authoritarian structures, or twisted tradition or ignorance or flaws in the character of bishops or cardinals or popes.

It's Catholicism itself, religion itself, which the cruelty inflicted on children should cause us to question.

First published in the Belfast Telegraph.

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