31 Oct 2010

Haunted by Irish rosary beads - children were beaten with the rosaries they made

The Boston Globe - June 8, 2009

by James Carroll | Op-ED

FROM A HOOK on the wall behind my writing desk hangs a rosary that I inherited from my mother. Its glass gray-blue beads are cut with tiny edges, and it glistens. Mom collected sets of rosary beads. Especially favored were rosaries she brought back from Ireland, font of the faith. Irish beads sent prayers straight to heaven. The rosary beside me may not actually be one from Ireland, but lately it has been haunting me. I wonder if it was made in a Dublin institution known as Goldenbridge?

It has taken a couple of weeks to get the mind around the revelations of the Irish report on child abuse, a government investigation into the treatment of children at state schools and orphanages that were run by Catholic orders like the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers. Twenty-six-hundred pages documented the nightmarish experience of something like 30,000 children across 60 years. "Scourge of Abuse" was the New York Times headline. "A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment permeated most of the institutions." Sexual abuse of boys was "endemic." The children were treated like prisoners and slaves. One observer commented that the system wasn't abused; abuse was the system.

At first, reactions were unsurprising. An Irish cardinal said he was "profoundly sorry." Many saw the moral standing of the Catholic Church obliterated. Legions of people, including many Irish, have taken this news of yet more clergy abuse as reason to denigrate Catholicism, as if the archest old stereotypes of the church-haters have been vindicated. Meanwhile, others quietly join the throng of ordinary Irish who've left the faith behind. That the report names no perpetrators and generates no adjudication constitutes a further offense.

My own reactions have been more complicated, taking me back to why the Catholic Church had such a grip on the Irish psyche, if not soul, in the first place. This level of institutionalized cruelty pushes to a question, not about the church but about ourselves: Who are we? Ironically, revelations of maliciousness by the very nuns, brothers, and priests trusted to be protectors underscores a central Catholic idea - that of Original Sin. We are all poor banished children of Eve, and we are all capable of such wickedness. Here is the proof.

Yet we had fled into Catholic devotion in the first place, seeking refuge from such horror. And the horror was literal - the world-historic cruelty of the Irish Famine, which sparked our fierce Catholicism. One fact suggests the scale of that tragedy: In 1846 the Irish population was 8.2 million, but by 1911, a post-famine watershed year, it was 4.4 million. A "devotional revolution," in a phrase of the historian R.F. Foster, turned the survivors into compulsive church-goers, sparked explosive growth in the numbers of brothers, priests and nuns, and fixed the Irish in a pair of hatreds - one openly expressed, one hidden. We openly hated the English, whose policies made the famine worse, and we secretly hated ourselves; survivors' guilt, but also - could such misery be undeserved? The Catholic Church was, for many, a sole source of consolation. My mother was born in that watershed year, 1911.

But if so many priests, brothers, and nuns were defined by a knot of viciousness, as the report suggests, is it enough to simply blame the church, as a now "secular" Ireland would do? Is it perhaps that, as a people, we fled into religion from cruelty - but the cruelty came with us? History had hardened the Irish soul. Yes, the perpetrators should be identified and prosecuted. And yes, the structures of the church that allowed for such clerical betrayal should be changed. But the abuse report requires a broader examination of conscience than that.

My mother's rosary is my own personal emblem of connection here. Goldenbridge was a workhouse, where girls as young as 7 spent their days stringing beads onto rosaries. Children who failed to meet a savage daily quota of up to 900 beads were beaten with the rosaries they had made, required to recite the Hail Mary while taking blows. There is a perverse comfort now in blaming such a horror on the Sisters of Mercy, but for us Irish this scale of evil demands a deeper reckoning.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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