Climate of fear stymies open debate on sex abuse

Are we in a situation now where speakers are being vilified for simply stating facts, asks Eilis O’Hanlon

Sunday June 21 2009

PAYOUTS to victims of the recent earthquake in Italy had to be delayed last month after the number of people claiming for money turned out to be greater than the official population of the affected area.

The mayor of the worst hit town insisted indignantly that “the people of L’Aquila are not cheats”, but he needn’t have been so touchy. The prospect of money for nothing is bound to attract a few chancers. It’s human nature.

It’s become impossible, however, to suggest that any of those who claimed to have been the victims of abuse in Church-run institutions in Ireland might have been economical with the truth in the hope of financial gain, without being accused of siding with paedophiles. Even deviating by the slightest degree from the set of approved responses has become a risky undertaking. Fr Tom Coonan found that out last week when, during mass at St Joseph’s church in Ballingar, Co Offaly, he observed that the boys sent to the nearby St Conleth’s reformatory school in Daingean were… well, the next part is disputed.

One parishioner who hurried to the media to express her disgust was adamant that Fr Coonan called them “ruffians”. He denies using the word, insisting that he merely said “not all the boys in Daingean were angels” and that they were “dumped” there by society. The anonymous complainer stands by her original claim. Stalemate. Suffice to say that some mass-goers were offended, and the national media reported on the obligatory “outrage”.

Fr Tom subsequently apologised, though why he felt the need to say anything about the nature of the boys in Daingean is a conundrum. Their characters were and are irrelevant. Perhaps he was simply irritated, as many Catholics are, by the perception that the reputation of the Church as an entity is being indiscriminately tarred by the Ryan report into physical and sexual abuse by certain clerical orders. If so, he could probably have found a better way of expressing it.

But here’s the thing. However inappropriate his remarks might have been, Fr Tom was substantially right. Many of the boys in Daingean were “dumped there” by a society which didn’t want to take responsibility for them. And, yes, many of them were far from being angels. Plenty were, to use that disputed phrase, ruffians. The Ryan report says explicitly that Daingean was different from the other institutions it investigated in that the boys there had been convicted of criminal offences which, as adults, could have seen them sent to prison.

Of course, the fact that some of the victims were little ruffians doesn’t mean that they deserved to be subjected to what Ryan calls a culture of “cruel, sadistic and excessive” violence behind those walls, or to be sexually abused by priests, lay staff and other boys.

But are we really in a situation now where speakers are being vilified for stating facts, simply because some people who hear them feel that an attempt is being made to justify the mistreatment of vulnerable children? Fr Tom wasn’t justifying anything. He has condemned the abuse of children utterly and without reservation. It seems to be enough, though, that some of those who hear your words think you’re excusing the inexcusable for a guilty sentence to be handed down in the court of public opinion.

You’re not simply responsible for the words you use anymore, but also the way in which they might be heard and misheard, interpreted and misinterpreted.

The situation down in Offaly was exacerbated because some mass-goers were already annoyed with their priest following remarks he (allegedly) made two weeks ago in which he (allegedly) quoted a woman who (allegedly) questioned whether all those who said they were abused in Church-run institutions were telling the truth.

That’s a harder one to answer. Where there’s money, there are liars. L’Aquila demonstrates that.

Have people been financially compensated by the Redress Board after claiming for abuse which, in reality, didn’t happen? Almost certainly. How many is impossible to say. Only two people out of over 14,000 applicants have been referred to the gardai for making false accusations. One investigation has been concluded, with no charges being laid. The other one is pending. Among the 12,000 applicants who have received payouts from the Redress Board so far (1,300 cases are pending), there’s bound to be a fair number for whom a spending spree rather than justice was the main motivation; and while it’s an exaggeration to call the Redress Board, as one writer did, a “state-sponsored ATM machine”, the fact that the definition of abuse was drawn so widely to cover all manner of sexual, physical and even emotional mistreatment undoubtedly encouraged opportunism. Claimants have received money for “emotional abuse”, which could include members of staff making hurtful remarks about a child’s parents, or a “general climate of fear and apprehension”. It’s a vague definition.

Even if all the applicants were genuine victims, there’s still scope for interpreting the figures. Compensation is weighted according to the severity of the treatment received. Only 27 people have received the highest payouts for the most severe category of abuse. That’s 0.22 per cent of the total number of applicants. Approximately 4,000 people, a little over a third, got payouts of up to €50,000 for what was lower grade abuse.

In a way, it doesn’t matter. The money is a separate issue. The important thing to concentrate on is the many children who were demonstrably brutalised and raped. The other details only start to matter when raising them puts a person in danger of being treated like some kind of Irish version of a Holocaust denier, all the more so since the facile analogy with the Final Solution has been enthusiastically appropriated by the media.

In some countries, denying the Holocaust is a crime punishable by imprisonment. Maybe we’re heading that way in relation to clerical abuse. If so, open debate will be the first casualty, replaced by a climate of intellectual fear in which every stray comment is pounced upon like a cat on a mouse, and phoney outrage is engendered by what somebody thought somebody else said rather than what actually was said.

Is it guilt which makes people overcompensate in this way? For decades, they turned a blind eye to what was happening to some children in institutions, and now they’re going completely over the top by attacking anyone who hasn’t bought in 100 per cent to the new narrative of a malign Church holding innocent Ireland in its wicked clutches.

Maybe the Holocaust analogy isn’t so far off the mark after all. Not because the Catholic Church, even at its worst, was ever comparable to the Nazis, but because the Irish as a people know they behaved when it mattered the same way that the Germans did. They were submissive to authority. They didn’t ask questions. They pretended not to notice.

So poor chumps like Fr Tom Coonan who open their mouths and immediately jam their foot between their own teeth become, symbolically, the representative of the country’s collective failings and must be slapped down to prove to ourselves how caring and compassionate we really are.

  1. Dear Paddy,
    wondering how people deal with the truth, if they think this article is offensive.

    As a victim of institutionalized in the post war Germany, I now face nearly every day the liars, hypocrites who would like to white wash the past and blame the victims, while holding on to their self-righteous phony self.
    The war was over but the Nazi imprint was still alive, and we felt it every day. We were not good worthy at the same time we were called useless eaters, no good for nothing and had to work 6 days a week for 10 hours without pay, – like in slave camps. The only difference – they prayed and we have to pray.

    Sure there will be always the ones who take advantage of a situation. But, let me ask: how can they respect anything when nobody respected them?
    Let’s put it one more time in a few clear sentences:
    it is the adult who abuses the child;
    it is the coward who blames victims and
    it is society who is blind to humanity.

    As long as denial and ignorance triumphs,
    a lay can lead and tear down a whole country and destroy a whole generation.
    Sieglinde

  2. Like all the apologists she ‘forgets’ that the incarceration of children in the Industrial Schools was unconstitutional – illegal and an abuse of the law and the constitution.

  3. As a result of 800 years of British colonisation, we Irish have INEVITABLY become a cowered people.

    Its like the way a child who has been SYSTEMICALLY abused and violated – whether psychologically and/or physcially = naturally adapts to his or her normalised way of being in the world. One just adapts to his/her given childhood environment, because one has no choice in the matter.

    The reality is, MOST Irish people (in 2009) have yet to recover from their own personal experience of Holy Catholic Ireland, i.e., their own personal legacy of the effects of what ROME did to us – as individuals!

    Not too many Irish adults are capable of doing that, i.e., separating themselves from their mad “catholicised” parents, primary guardians – which is understandable – but, thatis what they will have to do, if they are ever going to move on with their lives (i.e., evolve as humans) and leave the Catholic Church behind them!

  4. Basil Miller

    The fact is, Eilis O’Hanlon is offensive. Just read any random selection of her Sindo junk. She has always been offensive. She is the Sindo’s replacement for the Eamon Dunphy of old, before he got a little sense or reduced his drinking a bit. Feel compassion for her self-inflicted suffering, I say, and stop buying the rag she writes for (= hitting the off switch). Spend the time building a campaign to expel all religions from the political, social and educational spheres of life in this country.

  5. People have contacted me to say that they find this article offensive.

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