Brendan Hoban: Our dark, troubled past rears its head again

Western People 4.4.2023

1984 or, more accurately Nineteen Eighty-Four, is the title of a famous novel by George Orwell. It became an instant classic because, when it was written in 1949, people recognised it as predicting a very different future from the one they knew, a place of danger and dread that would replace a more predictable and familiar world.

For Ireland, 1984, when it arrived marked a very different dawn when a compelling Irish controversy, ‘the Kerry Babies’, saw a series of events unfold that seemed to indicate not a threat from the future (as Orwell’s novel did) but a laying aside of a difficult past.

It seemed a point in our history that conflated with the death of Ann Lovett, a 15-year-old girl who died giving birth beside a grotto in Granard, County Longford, in January of the same year, 1984. It too seemed to mark a seminal moment in our history, when we had finally decided to say goodbye to a culture beset by a debilitating sexual obsessiveness riven with guilt in a history where the influence of Catholic Church was seen as intrusive and punitive and the State as abdicating its responsibilities.

The Anne Lovett tragedy, the Kerry Babies controversy and, in subsequent years the developing child abuse scandals all became part of a culture from which Irish society sought to divest itself, once and for all.

But, as our recent history attests, aspects of our past insist on re-insinuating themselves time and again into our national consciousness.

1984 seems a lifetime away – almost all of 40 years. And yet here we are again caught up in the twists and turns of what has come to be known as the Kerry Babies case.

The body of a five-day-old baby, now known as Baby John, was found on a beach in Kerry in April 1984. An embarrassingly flawed Garda investigation showed evidence of forced false confessions by Joanne Hayes and family members that eventually led to a tribunal of inquiry.

Joanne had given birth to a stillborn baby around the same time as Baby John was killed and her cross-examination over five days was a shameful travesty of justice – forcing her to reveal intimate details about her personal life and to endure a tribunal for 82 days with its conclusion that Joanne Hayes could not have been the mother of Baby John.

It was in all a grotesque spectacle which received blanket media coverage in Ireland and abroad and did little to protect the rights of Joanne Hayes or the reputation of many of the professionals – not least the Gardaí and the legal profession – engaged in the whole process. By common consent, ‘shame’ was an appropriate word to describe the sorry spectacle.

Now, almost 40 years on, those who were caught in the slipstream of  the Kerry Babies controversy are forced to re-visit that time again as a cold case review launched in 2018 led to an exhumation of Baby John’s remains in 2021 and a DNA sample that has reactivated the case.

It is as if the intervening years since 1984 have just melted away.

Whatever about the developments in this case, the 40-year interval between then and now – 1984 to 2023 – has seen a huge diminishment in, if not the disappearance of, the authority of the Catholic Church particularly in its former position as the ultimate arbiter of morality in Ireland. While, at the same time – as the historian, Diarmuid Ferriter, has pointed out – all the problems of Irish sexuality should not be laid at the door of the Catholic Church, the popular consensus is that it should. The Catholic Church unwisely took upon itself the moral ordering of sexuality in Irish society and both Ireland and the Catholic Church have reaped the whirlwind.

The Anne Lovett tragedy in Granard and the Kerry Babies case are both indicative of an unhappy Catholic obsession with preventing sex before marriage and the relative importance it has assumed in Catholic morality. It was, for many, the big sin and it has left a huge stain not just on the brittle lives of the young and the vulnerable but on the credibility of Catholic sexual teaching.

The history of Catholic life, as priests who have worked lifetimes in parishes will attest, is littered with victims of an obsessive focus on sexual morality who, though living admirable lives and being loyal to the demands of moral living, can become absurdly scrupulous or guilt-ridden about perceived sins they imagine they haven’t confessed (or confessed properly) when on examination it emerges that they were guilty of nothing more serious than the human condition.  

More recently Irish Catholics themselves have claimed exemption from a sexually obsessive morality and have accepted a greater sense of God’s mercy and understanding of the human condition.

This is why Confession, as we have it in the Catholic Church, once a popular religious rite, has now virtually disappeared. This is why so many Catholic parents and grandparents believe that the Catholic Church needs to embrace change to enhance the faith-lives of their children and grandchildren. This is why so many were so upset by the public humiliation of Joanne Hayes and by the needless, heart-rending death of Anne Lovett. And it’s why Pope Francis’ appeal to focus on the mercy not judgement, has touched the hearts and minds of so many.

No wonder he has entitled his new book, The Infinite Tenderness of God.

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  1. Sean O'Conaill says:

    There is surely a case for re-defining ‘sin’ as self-harm, which seems almost a rite-of-passage when we review the lives of the saints – e.g. Augustine of Hippo; Francis of Assisi; Ignatius Loyola.

    As for ‘original sin’ what Genesis is describing is clearly the instability of our self-esteem, resulting in us too easily falling for the ‘grifter’ who tells us how much better off we will be if we do ‘x’. We make comparisons with others that are invidious to ourselves and set out to right the matter by getting ‘x’ – which appears all the more desirable because someone else currently possesses it.

    The obsession with the 6th commandment necessarily caused also a blindness towards this habit of self-harming imitation – never mentioned in my long experience of clerical exposition on sin in Ireland. ‘Be counter-cultural!’ is the cry, but no one ever sees that imitation is the ABC of culture – or that what Jesus models for everyone is not celibacy but non-imitation of the powerful.

    The result? The hierarchy’s own obsession with maintaining status and power in the face of, first, the Protestant Reformation and then the Enlightenment, leading to the obsession with secrecy on all breaches of the celibacy rule, including the worst breaches of all – and current colossal global embarrassment for the church.

    To follow that one celibate aspect of Jesus’s lifestyle – when St Paul and his followers were expecting ‘end times’ to happen anytime – would have meant the disappearance of the church in the very first century if everyone had followed suit. Never to my knowledge has any pope thanked the Lord that they didn’t, and even yet there are those who consider a celibate clergy a sine qua non of the church’s survival.

    A further benefit of defining sin as self-harm would be the recognition of the sinful self-harm of secrecy on clerical sex abuse – which delayed effective child safeguarding in Ireland until 1994, as well as awareness of the psychological devastation that all childhood abuse causes. And isn’t it time for formal recognition of the essential role of rebellious Catholic families affected by abuse in putting an end to that situation?

    Commandments 9 and 10 on covetousness are clearly warnings against imitating our more prestigious neighbours – yet because the 9th warns against coveting our neighbour’s wife that too was commandeered as proof of the greater danger of sexual desire, and justification for interpreting ‘original sin’ accordingly. The apostle James clearly warned of the role of competing covetous desire in starting conflict (James 4:1,2), but how could high churchmen connected at the hip to dynastic Christian rulers do the same? The seeds of the most catastrophic wars between Christians were sown by blinkered Christian moralists who could never see past sex to the imitative desire that still wracks the world.

    Taught now by all media that happiness depends upon celebrity, status and ‘influence’ is it any wonder that younger generations find no relevance in a moralism that still sees sexuality as the root of all evil, and cannot address the status-seeking that lies at the root of all so-called ‘materialism’, conflict and climatic threat?

  2. Paddy Ferry says:

    Sean@1, excellent! Thank you.

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