Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Disgraced orders should disband

Sunday Independent May 16th 1999

There is one act of decency left to the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Charity, writes Brendan O'Connor

THROUGHOUT the recent renewed outcry over child sex abuse there has been one curious assumption that has never been challenged. This is the assumption that the Catholic Church, and specifically the various orders of that church who facilitated institutional abuse of children, should continue to exist in their present form. It is assumed that these orders have some God-given right to continue to exist.

Any other institution found to have been responsible, through negligence or otherwise, for the kind of mass scale torture perpetrated by these orders, would immediately cease operations. There does not seem to have been any question of this in the case of, say, the Christian Brothers.

As we embark on mass scale investigation, compensation and healing, it would seem obvious that the only noble, humane and indeed Christian thing for orders like the Christian Brothers to do is to disband immediately. Instead, the Christian Brothers continue to oversee the education of a new generation of children.

Following the revelations in the final States Of Fear programme on Tuesday night, the Sisters of Charity should also instantly disband. It is not only the honourable reaction, it is the only one that can do justice to those who had their lives ruined by the entity known as Sisters of Charity.

Tuesday's programme detailed systematic abuse in two homes run by the Sisters of Charity the infamous Madonna House and St Joseph's in Kilkenny. The Kilkenny story, as told on States Of Fear tainted yet another Irish institution in that it suggested that Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, who ran a childcare course in Kilkenny at the time, had been aware of sexual abuse at St Joseph's in the Seventies.

Sr Stan's version of the story, as told on Wednesday, was that she was aware only of physical abuse at St Joseph's. And that at the time, ``physical abuse was all over the place. We all knew that.'' A worker in St Joseph's approached Sr Stan with concerns about a co-worker, Miles Brady (who was, as it happens, a child sex abuser). Sr Stan advised the worker to go to the management of St Joseph's with his concerns. The man took his complaint to the management and the abuser was apparently dismissed. However, the person who made the complaint subsequently left St Joseph's, apparently unhappy that insufficient action had been taken. Sr Stan did not pursue the matter further as the system in place at the time dictated that people not interfere in other people's areas because ``things became confused if several people were messing in things.'' Sr Stan was not connected to St Joseph's in any professional capacity.

In a statement to Gardai 20 years later Sr Stan apparently spoke of suspicions of sexual abuse. She clarified this on Wednesday by explaining that she was merely wondering aloud in retrospect, while chatting with the Gardai, ``Gosh, I wonder was there sexual abuse?''

Sr Stan also pointed out that there was no system in place for dealing with sexual abuse at the time. It was never mentioned in the childcare training course she co-directed at the time, she said, and there would certainly have been nowhere to go with a complaint of child sex abuse. She characterised childcare at the time as an area in which there were, ``no regulations, no systems, no guidelines. They ran them (the institutions) to the best of their ability with inadequate resources.'' She pointed out repeatedly that the Government took no responsibility in the matter. Nobody, it seems, was responsible, least of all the Sisters of Charity.

We have heard many of these excuses before. It was sad to hear even Sr Stan trot out what has become the Church's standard line that of abdication of responsibility and blaming anyone but the Church. The Church's reaction up to now has been to apologise profusely, blame the times that were in it and set up Faoiseamh, a church-sponsored counselling service for those who suffered at the hands of sadistic priests, nuns and Brothers. As one of the Goldenbridge victims pointed out on RTE's Questions and Answers last week, it is unacceptable that people should be required to go back to the source of their problems in order to seek healing.

One of the Catholic Church's major stumbling blocks in this country has been an incredible arrogance. The Church that now dismisses these scandals by throwing up its hands and admitting its own humanity was arrogant enough to think, in the recent past, that only it was fit to care for all these children. The unquestioning awe and fear that supported this arrogance grew partly from the fact that the Church effectively controlled everyone's mind through its stranglehold on education.

This awe disappeared fairly quickly when we learned that the Church as an institution was all too fallible. Somehow the arrogance has survived despite everything. A senior person in any other organisation simply wouldn't dare take as long to answer serious questions, as some bishops have over the treatment of sex abusers in their dioceses. It is a similar arrogance that allows organisations like the Christian Brothers to survey the horror of what they've done, issue a heartfelt apology and then to carry on teaching as if nothing happened.

This issue is a complex one. Much of the evil done by these institutions came from individuals within them. But the investigations are showing up organisations that were deeply dysfunctional and deeply negligent. By all means let us have the feel-good solution of the truth commission. But the only way we can truly close this thing is first, to make sure that those who are guilty are punished or treated, as the case may be.

Secondly the organisations responsible must be dismantled. It is a continuing insult to all those who suffered that these entities still exist.

If we are to believe the hype, it is to be a time of fresh starts for this country. For the Church, let the first symbol of this be the dismantling of the shamed organisations within it. Let no religious continue to disgrace the faith and mock the innocents who suffered, by carrying, in the name of Our Lord, the name Christian Brother, or Sister of Mercy, or Sister of Charity or Brother of Charity ... the list goes on.

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