Alex Massie

Where the Sisters Have No Mercy and the Brothers No Christianity

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Carol Sarler may be correct to argue, as she does in this week's edition of the magazine, that we have an unhealthy fascination with sex crimes that is both prurient and puritanical. But I'd suggest that, whatever the merits of her wider argument, she doesn't know very much about Ireland:

In Ireland, some 2,000 adults who gave evidence of assault at the hands of Roman Catholic priests and nuns are, probably correctly, spitting tacks. The inquiry into their treatment when in children’s institutions has ruled that, although they did indeed suffer, no charges may be brought, no names shamed and, for what it’s worth, no bank balances swollen by damages sucked from the Vatican’s already depleted coffers. The decision might not seem just; on the other hand, it was all a very long time ago — so why, do we think, in recent weeks has this been one of the few stories to knock duck islands off their moats at the top of the news?

The clue, I suggest, is not that we all suddenly feel a burning need to sympathise with the suffering victims, but that sex was involved. So all anyone had to do was pick on that, splash it big, and they were on to a winner: even the BBC’s report put ‘sexual abuse’ into its opening sentence, leaving systematic, ritual beatings down at the dull end of its tale...

Further, when you listen to the grievances pouring from the Irish victims (which, no matter how justified it might be, often ends with a catalogue of lifelong disasters, attributable to kiddie-fiddling)... it is as if personal responsibility did not exist.

Not for a moment do I suggest that we lighten up on the criminals. Catch the buggers; throw away the key. But we could lighten up on the victims. To make less of what happened to them might well involve sacrificing our own prurient interest in any crime that involves genitalia. It might, nevertheless, be better for all of us if we did.


they should just get over it

Firstly, not all of the abuse catalogued in the Ryan Commission's exhaustive and exhausting 2,500 page report took place "a very long time ago". At least some of it (such as at Goldenbridge) continued into the 1980s. Secondly, the justified anger felt in Ireland is not merely a response to the abuse itself, nor even to the fact that no criminal charges are to be brought. It is, rather, an attempt to, first, comprehend and, second, account for the actions of the Irish State itself. In other words, the reckoning is not merely with the Catholic Church and the religious orders but with Ireland and Irishness itself. How could this have happened? How could it have been permitted to happen? What sort of people are we?

And while Sarler may be correct to suppose that individual crimes are fodder for sensationalist press coverage, the scale of the horrors perpetrated upon more than 170,000 Irish children is criminality of a different, institutionalised, state-sponsored magnitude. The wickedness - known of for years but only now exposed in its full, chilling horror - is an indictment of the state such as to invite comparisons with any number of grim dictatorial regimes across the planet. The abuses - physical, sexual, mental - detailed in the Ryan report were not aberrations, they were routine. In that sense, then, there's some justice in the fact that the state, not the church, will pick up the bill even if it also remains scandalous that the religious orders have been able to negotiate what amounts to an amnesty.

This too is a reminder that those tempted to romanticise de Valera's Ireland are peddling terrible nonsense. That Ireland was a grim place, dependent upon emigration for its survival and, as now see, actively comlict in the torture and, yes, enslavement of thousands of its weakest, most vulnerable children.

Good riddance to it. The tragedy is that it lasted so long.

For more, see Fintan O'Toole here and here plus this post by Sean Coleman at Norm's place. Also this transcript of this clip from Questions & Answers (the Irish version of Question Time) and then see if you agree with Sarler that the victims should "move on":

UPDATE: Via Suffering World, I see that Damian Thompson has an interesting, perhaps even provocative, post arguing that "The latest abuse scandal is as Irish as it is Catholic". There's certainly something to that, even if I would suggest that it was simply "Irish-Catholic". Nevertheless, I can quite appreciate why, from a Catholic perspective, this is an important distinction. But in Ireland no such distinction applied: Ireland was Catholic and, in many ways, Catholicism was Ireland. That was rather the point. I also understand why Catholics would be exercised by this question; I'm more interested in the Irishness of it than the catholicism. 

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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