Survivors need action a lot more than words
Western People 26.1.21
Many years ago in a parish in which I served, part of the collective memory of the people – from probably around the 1930s – was an incident at Mass in the church one Sunday. News had broken that a young unmarried woman had given birth to a child and the parish priest ‘read her off the altar’. While he was in full flight, a young man – then a student for the priesthood for Killala diocese – stood up in the congregation and confronted the PP. What was memorable, the people said, was not that the PP said what he said – they were used to that – but that the young seminarian had the courage to say what so many were thinking.
Such an intervention was not unusual at the time. In 1934, archbishop Thomas Gilmartin of Tuam directed his clergy to denounce ‘an illegitimate birth whenever it occurs in a parish and is publicly known’ – as a call to repentance and as a deterrent. The following year, the Westport PP wrote to the archbishop informing him that an illegitimate birth had taken place in his parish ‘and that a denunciation will take place on Sunday next’.
So it’s unsurprising, when a government Commission was appointed five years ago to report on the Mother and Baby Homes, that the popular expectation was that the Catholic Church would bear the brunt of the inevitable flood of condemnation. This assumption was compounded when it emerged that Judge Yvonne Murphy (and others from her team) who led the Dublin Diocesan Commission into the clerical abuse of children would lead the Mother and Baby Commission.
However, unlike the Dublin Report that placed an unerring focus on the Catholic Church’s failures and named those who were directly culpable, the Mother and Baby Commission’s findings suggested no such limited targets.
Instead, the Commission concluded that there was a more nuanced and more diffused and diverse responsibility for the scandals of the Mother and Baby Homes. The Commission concluded: ‘Responsibility for the harsh treatment (of mothers and their babies) rests mainly with the fathers of their children and their own immediate families. It was supported by, contributed to and condoned by the institutions of the State and the Churches’.
This diffused responsibility – in the words of Taoiseach Micheál Martin, ‘society’ was to blame – took people by surprise, even though the Commission itself indicated that ‘the conclusions it reaches may not always accord with the prevailing narrative’.
On the other hand, past similar reports, including the Dublin Report, had identified prevailing narratives, and had definitively named the Catholic Church as the primary culprit – which, as it happened, suited the prevailing popular consensus and fuelled the condemnation.
But the key point here is not that opinion is divided on the Commission’s findings but that the focus is kept on those who were at the epicentre of the scandals, the victims and how an effective process of healing and closure might be put in place.
It was important that apologies from Church and State quickly followed the publication of the report as unmade apologies can add to the suffering of victims and, from the perspective of Galway and Mayo whose unmarried mothers and babies attended the Tuam Home, it was encouraging to see how important the apology of the Bon Secours Sisters was to historian Catherine Corless and others.
But apologies of course are only words and when people are hurting and need healing, words are of little use. Actions speak louder, as we say.
A redress system is to be established. Compensation is already being discussed in an inter-departmental committee. The Bon Secours Sisters – who ran the Tuam Home and have already expended €2.5 million on the excavation of graves – have indicated that they are prepared to engage with the issue of compensation and the presumption is that the other congregations will follow suit.
And indications are too that the government will find a way of getting around the legal and other difficulties that seemed to block the release of birth certificates and other data that would help adopted children to find out who they are by letting them know where they came from. And important too will be the recognition that a fitting National Remembrance Day will bring to those who suffered such profound trauma, the product of so much institutional abuse and individual cruelties.
Above all, we need to move beyond the blame-game by acknowledging the varied influences and responsibilities that produced one of the darkest chapters of our history. As Helen Shaw wrote in The Irish Times: ‘We can’t blame the Church today for why only 3% of Travellers live beyond 65, or why some children have spent a decade in direct provision, or why our prison population is predominantly from the poorer part of society, or why homeless deaths rose by 35% last year’.
And as Eoghan Harris wrote in The Sunday Independent, ‘Yes, Church and State failed Irish women – but Irish society failed them first’.
All of that may well be true but, as Bishop Paul Dempsey pointed out, the Catholic Church needs to ask why ‘sins of a sexual nature seemed to be the only sins one could commit’ and why the Catholic Church exercised ‘an unhealthy power over people’s lives, especially in the most intimate areas of life’. And, I would add, how a focus on power and control as well as Catholic rigidity on sexual morality have corrupted Catholic Christianity.
We particularly need to ponder why what Fintan O’Toole called ‘spiritual terrorism’ exercised such a grip on Catholic Church, the toxic effect it inflicted on our culture and the legacy it has left in the shame, judgement, harshness and above all the absence of kindness in the Mothers and Baby Homes.
Copies of my new book, ‘A Priest’s Diary’, are now available at €15 from all local bookshops or online from www.mayobooks.ie