Few can have missed the dramatic contrast between the Taoiseach’s weak response to the McAleese report in the Dáil last Tuesday and his momentous attack on the Vatican in July 2011.
On that previous
occasion, he colourfully accused the Vatican of “elitism, dysfunction,
disconnection and narcissism” and alleged that the rape and torture of
children had been “downplayed or managed” by the Catholic Church, to
uphold “the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and
He also, interestingly, said that the historic
relationship between church and State in Ireland could never be the same
again, the revelations in the Cloyne report having brought the
government, Irish Catholics and the Vatican to “an unprecedented
It is tempting to reprise that speech in its entirety
today, with ironies highlighted to draw attention to certain evasions
and anomalies in the Taoiseach’s rather less confident performance last
Tuesday. But there is a more glaring aspect.
“After the Ryan and
Murphy reports”, said the Taoiseach in one passage of his 2011 speech,
“Ireland is, perhaps, unshockable when it comes to the abuse of
children. But Cloyne has proved to be of a different order. Because for
the first time in Ireland, a report into child sexual abuse exposes an
attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign,
democratic republic …”
Did you see what he did there?
Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne together, the Taoiseach insinuated that the
matters described in those reports reflected poorly on the church alone.
But whereas the other two reports looked at the horrific legacy of
clerical sex abuse in, respectively, Cloyne and Dublin, the Ryan report
of 2009 falls into a different category, being concerned with abuse
within church institutions which the State availed of as part of its
system for dealing with troublesome children.
Delayed and frustrated
first chairwoman of the investigating committee into the running of
orphanages and reformatories, Judge Mary Laffoy, appeared to set about
her work with considerable zeal.
But, from the moment that
investigation began in 2001, the Department of Education did everything
in its power to delay and frustrate matters, leading eventually to Judge
Laffoy withdrawing from her own investigation.
Judge Seán Ryan, appeared to interpret his brief rather more narrowly.
Bruce Arnold, author of The Irish Gulag, wrote in an online commentary
on the published Ryan report that it had let the State off the hook:
“The real culprit was and is the State, which is still floundering over
child protection. The State approved, backed and used, intemperately and
without consideration of the lives of victims, our legal system to
incarcerate vast numbers of children. It was done for largely
trivial, superficial and unresearched reasons and on the entirely
meretricious excuse that it was for the good of the children.”
the public discussion that followed focused almost exclusively on the
church. The issue of how children came to be committed to the
institutions under examination had been excluded from the remit of the
Ryan investigation, on rather dubious “constitutional” grounds.
although we heard much about the deeds of priests and nuns, we heard
almost nothing about the roles of civil servants, judges, social
workers, probation officers and gardaí who were responsible for
delivering children to their fates.
Failures of politicians
was minimal scrutiny of the failures of politicians, even though, over
the previous 75 years, several key opportunities to bring the nature of
these institutions into the light had been elided by those with
political responsibility at those times.
The Ryan report amounted,
in effect, to a controlled explosion of the truth, drawing scrutiny
towards the church and its personnel while carefully directing the
public’s eyeline away from the State’s role in the same evils.
brief of the McAleese group specifically related to State involvement
in the Magdalene laundries, and its report provides a subtle and clear
indictment of the State’s culpability, demonstrating that church and
State were, in effect, the same.
But the overall tenor is such as to
suggest a rather less stark picture than we had been conditioned to
So, once again perhaps, the public’s attention has been briefly
directed towards our historically dysfunctional state, and then,
persuaded that things in the Magdalenes were not as bad as they might
have been, directed away.
Power becomes accountable only when it’s
Did the ventilation of the abuses in various institutions
dealing with children and women became a possibility only when public
hostility towards Catholicism rendered the church a legitimate target
for politicians, including “conservative” ones like Enda Kenny?
growing public disfavour towards the Catholic Church been used to
provide a shield for the State to deflect responsibility from itself for
involvement in some of the most glaring outrages and abuses witnessed
since Irish independence?
And if so – if our outrage at past
wrongs is predicated on placing blame only selectively – can it be a
genuine and useful outrage at all?