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.

Friday, May 27, 2005

NOT THAT LONG AGO (1)

.... in Aberdeen and India:>

It is not a good time to be a nun. Does anyone remember when Sister Alphonso's demure features were in virtually every newspaper following her conviction in Aberdeen for abusing and humiliating children a few years ago? And in India, the distinctive, white-veiled nuns of Mother Teresa's order were under a similar spotlight. A criminal case has been filed against a Sister Francesco for forcing a girl's hand onto a hot plate used for cooking chapatis. Nor are these two isolated events. In Australia and Ireland, many cases have come to light of nuns abusing children.

The impression builds up that the Catholic church is riddled with abusing nuns and paedophile priests. The sense of outrage which lingers around cases such as those in Aberdeen and Calcutta is increases. There is a double shock in the idea that a nun could be capable of the kind of cruelty Sister Alphonso meted out to her charges. First, we have been very slow to accept that women are capable of abusing children. It flies in the face of some of our most powerfully held emotional beliefs of women as caring mothers.

Female physical aggression has been erased from our image of the "gentler sex", because it is on that caring mother image that all of our emotional security is built. If we accept that women can be violent, especially towards children, we have to accept the world as an unsteadier, more dangerous place. Second, Sister Alphonso is a a nun and until a couple of decades ago, we presumed that the lives of religious women and men reflected something, if not all, of their intense idealism.

We believed some of what priests and nuns purported to be: altruistically devoted to the wellbeing of others. It is precisely this intense idealism which is often at the root of the problem. If someone makes enormous psychological investment in the idealistic aspirations of selflessness, the tensions between the ideal and the reality can sometimes cause a brittleness which can lead to a nun or priest snapping and losing all control, with terrifying consequences.

Every professional vocation has its "shadow side". A well-integrated individual is able to understand and manage the destructive shadow side, someone who is emotionally repressed cannot. The shadow side of teaching is the desire to control. Control and loss of it is clearly the theme of Sister Alphonso's sad story. In her trial, she complained of too many children to care for, and too few staff. Faced with this pressure, she lost control as her accusers described, with appalling consequences.

Her fury and exasperation were expressed as a desire to humiliate - children who wet their beds had their soiled underwear tied around their heads - and to hurt. She has clearly damaged the lives of many people. But her stoical account of her own background is also tragic. As the youngest of 12 children (seven of whom died in infancy), she pulled down her knickers when she had done wrong and asked her father to beat her.

During the trial, she used that tell-tale phrase "I wanted for nothing" with its connotations of being materially but not emotionally provided for. Brought up on humiliation and deprivation, it is no wonder that she knew how to dispense it. This pattern crops up frequently in the current abuse charges against the church, and perhaps it will in India as more details emerge. For poor children (be they Irish or Indian Untouchables) the Catholic church offered the chance of a decent education and a secure material future. The church's culture of suffering, asceticism and emotional deprivation was already deeply familiar to deprived children and they, in their turn, reinforced it. What ensured that this was never challenged was the church's bid to empire-build.

Quantity not quality: the church wanted more and more children and they wanted them to get a Catholic education and be in Catholic orphanages.

.... well their empire is crumbling now and only the deluded have any belief that it will rise again.

.... from various web sources.

The Knitter