Catholic Church is living with one foot in Hell

By Libby Purbes (THE TIMES, 25/05/09):

Understandably distracted by our own little crisis of trust, we have perhaps not taken in the apocalyptic import of a bigger one across the Irish Sea.

Perhaps it is a vague sense that we knew it all; perhaps reluctance to engage with the horrid details of the Ryan report into child abuse by Irish clerics. Perhaps some think it is old history, a 1950s horror. Maybe there is even a decorous sense that — as a new Archbishop of Westminster is enthroned here — it is tasteless to dwell on the wickedness deliberately concealed by his Church right into the 1990s. Or maybe our own child protection system now looks so shaky that we cannot bear to contemplate the toothless, deferential Irish respect for the priesthood that enabled thousands of children to be starved, raped, enslaved and beaten even as Ireland moved into its tiger economy in the new Europe.

But don’t look away. There are wider lessons. Ireland is at least looking squarely at it now, and trying to understand how history twisted its public values into obeisance to unanswerable clergy, so that cruelty and child rape became endemic. It was not only in orphanages and schools but in parishes where families dared not protest. For it was the courageous Colm O’Gorman who helped to prise this all open, when he spoke of his repeated rape, at 14, by Father Sean Fortune in his home village. He successfully sued the Church and challenged the Pope (whose nuncio hid behind “diplomatic immunity”).

The victim was accused by the Vatican of being part of a conspiracy; “Canon Law” defences were invoked and the first report — the Ferns report — ignored. “How can it be,” asks Mr O’Gorman, “that a church hierarchy who comment on a children’s film [Harry Potter] can fail to comment on a report, commissioned by this State, that found Rome culpable in the rape and abuse of Irish children?”

Now the wider, more terrifying Ryan report has met with almost equal evasion and the Church — which raked in millions from government subsidy over decades — has even managed to slough off most of its financial responsibility.

I am not exaggerating; rather the contrary. The Ryan report, merciless and forensic, finds the crimes “systemic, pervasive, chronic, excessive, arbitrary”. It speaks of the deliberate protection of priests and religious by their hierarchy; of inspectors and police backing off respectfully and senior clergy refusing to help the inquiry. It says that the order that housed the worst sadists, the Christian Brothers, made only a “guarded, conditional and unclear” apology, and cut a deal that no individuals should be named.

The children’s own testimonies are too harrowing to repeat: beaten, stripped, humiliated, hung from windows. Some got pregnant, some killed themselves. Sexual attack came not only from their keepers but visiting functionaries; one little boy who spoke of being assaulted by an ambulance driver was beaten by the nuns “to get the evil out of him”.

Enough. There is no defence, the evidence is overwhelming. It was a sickness of cruelty, exploitation, official cowardice and inward-looking hypocrisy traceable all the way to the Vatican. Catholicism has not been cleaned up, only lightly dusted. Some Irish dioceses have become properly robust, and Cardinal Seán Brady, the Primate of All Ireland, speaks of being “deeply ashamed”; but I do not notice him pointing his condemnation upwards or rejecting the culture of hierarchy and obedience, anonymity and deniability.

Our own new Archbishop, Vincent Nichols, expressed due horror, but then enraged survivors by praising the “courage” of clergy “who have to face these facts from their past”. Incredibly, in an interview on Five Live, he also observed: “it is a tough road to take, to face up to our own weaknesses. That is certainly true of anyone who’s deceived themselves that all they’ve been doing is taking a bit of comfort from children.”

Weakness? Comfort? God save us! It gives an insight into why the Church, quick to absolve, blithely moved known abusers on to fresh fields and fresh victims.

“They had their own laws that were written to ensure they were never in the wrong” says Mr O’Gorman, simply. And they covered their backs: when the former Archbishop of Dublin was told that he could be liable if abusers were returned to parishes, he did not prevent this happening. He just took out an insurance policy against financial losses from such claims.

It has been an Irish disaster, but has lessons for us all about the perils of respectful naivety. Archbishop Nichols, after his predecessor moved a paedophile priest to Gatwick, where he offended again, said that little was known about paedophilia then; well, he still knows little if he can talk about men “taking a bit of comfort from children”.

This is pure celibate silliness: we are not talking about cuddles here, but rape. I grew up with the Catholic doctrine of forgiveness of sins, I know the territory: but to forgive your own team and ignore their victims is not holy. It is corrupt.

When good people are smug and bad ones are slippery, great evils grow. When any institution slaps on a self-approving label — whether it is “Holy Catholic Apostolic” or like our MP’s, “Honourable” — and uses it to defy cynical inspection, the weak will suffer. What seems not to be fully understood by the hierarchy is how much damage this has done.

It gives me no pleasure to say so: I was raised a Catholic, and know what high ideals of gentleness it expresses, and how beautifully.

I learnt at 12 years old not to believe in the automatic holiness of the religious, in a South African convent where nuns hit us and spoke contemptuously of “kaffirs”. I then learnt not to condemn the lot, when I moved back to a kindly, intellectual English convent where they honestly tried to live the holy dream. I have always been able to believe the tales of evil without rejecting the whole shebang.

Many Catholic clergy do great good. The remarkable Colm O’Gorman, after decades of struggle, does not reject the ideal either: he says he wept for Father Fortune’s suicide and hopes that in afterlife he finds forgiveness.

Now that’s holiness for you, and without a smug label round its neck. And until the institutional Catholic Church recognises that, abases itself, pays up, allows whistleblowing and faces the unthinkable, it remains a disgrace. Until it learns humility, it has no hope at all. It is a Church living with one foot in Hell.