29 Oct 2010

Missing the point on paedophile priests

The Guardian - UK May 21, 2009

"Blame the individuals, not the religion" and "there are paedophiles in all walks of life" are two common apologist statements on sexual abuse within the Catholic church, both of which miss the point.

by Laura Canning | Commentary

"Strange is the crooked timber of humanity", wrote Mary Kenny on Cif belief yesterday, summing up her observations that the priests she has personally known were nice chaps and certainly not paedophiles. "I honestly have no experience of it [and therefore can't write about it]", was her given reason for this response to yesterday's Ryan report, which detailed the systematic rape and abuse of thousands of children by Christian Brothers and "Sisters of Mercy" in industrial schools in Ireland.

Strange indeed. I grew up Catholic in Ireland, and like Kenny I thankfully have no direct experience of abuse by a member of the church. But that is where the similarity ends. Like everyone in Ireland, and millions elsewhere, I know that there were thousands of children beaten, raped and abused for decades by members of the Catholic church. To claim to have no knowledge of this, or to say that it's all fine because "I don't know any paedophile priests" is patently false, and gives rise to the question of why anyone would say otherwise. The answer of course is that protecting the church is more important than protecting raped children.

To be scrupulously fair to Kenny, she did say in one brief paragraph that "the evidence that many priests did commit paedophile acts is overwhelming, shaming and disgraceful", and that priests proved to have done this "should not only face due process and penalty: but should be ceremonially unfrocked." It is also fair to say that there must have been many good priests who helped children in their care rather than abused them.

But the problem with her piece is that, despite condemning individual abusers, she does not see this issue as an endemic problem in the Catholic church or see that it is an absolute and heartbreaking travesty which needs the utmost amount of money and time to investigate and compensate the victims (the cost of which must be borne by the church, and not by Irish taxpayers, who are likely to foot up to 90% of the estimated £1.3bn compensation bill). Also essential are an unequivocal apology, and a guarantee that a cover-up like this will never happen again.

As most commentators on the piece correctly pointed out, responding to this horrific report with a list of "Good Priests I Have Known" is insulting and offensive to the victims, minimises the horror of the abuse, and gives the impression of the writer being yet another apologist for the Catholic church. Mary Kenny is of course not to blame for the abuse Irish children suffered, but it is attitudes like hers – that the church can do no wrong – that helped this abuse to continue for so long.

Her comments on Bishop Eamon Casey, who as a parish priest fathered a child with local woman Annie Murphy, were also staggering, saying that Murphy, who was "sexually experienced" (as if that were a crime) targeted him with the intention of having a child and that Casey "was the powerless one once the bedroom door was shut". This is nonsense, and once again makes excuses for members of the church who seemed to think they could act with impunity.

By focusing only on paedophile priests, Kenny also completely ignores the physical and emotional abuse suffered by children in industrial schools. Not all children, particularly girls in schools run by nuns, were sexually abused or raped, but thousands of boys and girls were subjected to beatings and severe emotional abuse and humiliation. Former "pupils" of the schools have told of three-year-olds being beaten for wetting the bed, girls having their heads shaved, children beaten with implements or told their parents were dead. To ignore their plight is just as bad as claiming ignorance of paedophile priests.

"Blame the individuals, not the religion" and "there are paedophiles in all walks of life" are two common apologist statements on sexual abuse within the Catholic church, both of which miss the point as spectacularly as Mary Kenny. It was not just the abuse, but the denials, cover-ups, removal of known paedophiles to other parishes where they could rape more children that is a major part of the problem. The Christian Brothers delayed the investigation that became the Ryan report for over a year, arguing successfully that all members referred to in the report had a right to anonymity, even when these members had been convicted in court of abuse.

The other main apologist statement is the assertion that "things are not like that any more", that allegations of sexual abuse or paedophile priests are taken seriously by the church and that all those working with children are now vetted. Like the previous two, this statement does not hold water. It was "like that" for decades, with thousands of children damaged for life.

What is so difficult for the church and its apologists to admit that this was a terrible scandal and to try and put things right? Surely anyone within the church today would be horrified at these cases and take every step they could to ensure that the institution's reputation is not damaged further, even if only for reasons of pragmatism? But no. The pope is always right, priests can do no wrong, and raped and abused children do not matter.


Laura Canning is a freelance journalist based in Belfast. Her debut novel for teenagers, Taste The Bright Lights, is available from Amazon.

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