Brendan Hoban – Survivors need action a lot more than words

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





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  1. Eddie Finnegan says:

    You’re on the ball as usual, Brendan. A very welcome ‘reading’ of the Commission’s Report.
    Now let’s hope that those reparations, redress system and National Remembrance Day will be truly National and involve not only Church bodies and ‘Religious Congregations’ but every county council etc on the Island – the CE and Chairman of Galway County Council have already shown the way.

    The Independent Research Report on Northern Mother & Baby Homes, Asylums & Magdalene Laundries, published yesterday, should be required reading

    in the lead up to the “Victim-centred independent investigation” announced by Stormont’s Joint First Ministers, to be completed within six months.

    I wonder, Brendan, did that courageous young seminarian of Killala go far. Did they ever make him Archbishop of Tuam?

  2. Pól Ó Duibhir says:

    A good question Eddie. I have my doubts.

    Regarding Brendan’s opening paragraphs and the church’s approach to “illigitimacy”, I had occasion to peruse the parish registers for a certain East Limerick parish in the course of my family history research.

    I was shocked to see that the priest had written in bold underlined capitals “illigitimate” and “Bastard” beside some birth entries. I could almost envisage him scratching his pen through the paper. The venom jumped out at you.

    Thankfully we have come a long way from this but we’re not all that long out of it.

    On the matter of the seminarian, I am reminded of the fate of whistleblower Fr. Kenneth McCabe SJ in my own time.

  3. Joe Mulvaney says:

    Mother & Baby Homes Report

    The Irish Catholic (January 21st, 2021) carried texts of numerous apologies from Bishops and Sisters in response to the Report on Mother and Baby Homes. There were further apologies on the website of the Irish Bishops Conference as well as a more recent apology by Archbishop Eamon Martin relating to Northern Ireland. Clearly, something had gone drastically wrong within the Catholic Church and other churches in that era of the Reports. The stories of the women and children are harrowing and heart-breaking. The levels of cruelty, misogyny and patriarchal abuse are shocking especially when juxtaposed with the sham pieties and prevailing Marian devotions of that time. The Report appears unsatisfactory to persons involved. It is very convenient for the powers that were in control to diffuse general blame on to society, fathers, etc.
    It is right and just that the Primate and others issued apologies. However, action is needed from the hierarchy and the State. Active listening to their needs and generous redress is the least due to survivors. All of us Catholics need clarity as to the overall dysfunction, how we are all to blame and the exact reforms and new narrative needed in response to decades of awful Reports and a growing crisis in the Catholic Church. Instead of the traditional policy of doubling down and refusing to own up to systemic wrongdoing, it would be a blessing in those dark times if our servant leaders stepped forward and involved us all in massive reform.
    There were lots of pious words expressed in the apologies. However, there was no admission of the religious roots and patriarchal misogyny behind the abuse of women. There was no confession of the powerful influence and unjust control wielded by the Irish Hierarchy over faithful people in the early decades of the Republic. We await answers to the following questions. Who directed the religious brainwashing of Catholic people, society, doctors, gardai, teachers, civil servants, and politicians? Who denounced women from the altars? Who controlled aspects of education, healthcare, and social services within a shadow State? Who proclaimed Hell for the mortal sin of a sexual thought? What twisted ethos influenced some dedicated and obedient nuns to act without compassion in a system controlled by patriarchs? How are we Catholics now guilty as enablers when we had no vote within the clerical control group? Will future reports find us practising Catholics guilty of collusion with Catholic Catechism teachings that are homophobic and Canon Laws which continue to be unjust to women? Is walking away the best option when the Roman Curia appears totally irreformable?
    Archbishop Eamon Martin apologised for the Church’s role. The word “Church” has different meanings. Did he mean the hierarchy as in pre-Vatican II usage or did he mean the People of God? Excellent foster parents, some families and many Legion of Mary volunteers were among the People of God who did great good rather than bad in those impoverished times. The People of God for much of McQuaid’s Ireland were programmed to pray, pay, obey, and never question in a patriarchal and misogynistic institution. Is that institution reformed and totally changed today? It is profoundly depressing for lay Catholics to observe that all roles are open to women in God’s wonderful world but denied to them by patriarchs in the Curia and hierarchy.
    Bishop Paul Dempsey stated that the Church had a distorted view of sexuality. I presume he meant the hierarchy. They are loyal to the distorted view of sexuality and misogynistic traditions of the Ancient Fathers. Those men promoted the false teaching that Eve was the ruination of Adam and that shameful nudity was the Original Sexual Sin in Eden. Some taught that woman was of the devil and inferior to men. Gradually, they decreed that marriage intercourse was incompatible with celebration of the Mass. The abuse and injustice of enforced celibacy was then imposed on priests. Even married women had to be “churched”! Jesus wept.
    Bishop Dempsey also stated that when the Church (?) fails to focus on Christ, all sorts of distorted practises emerge. That is nice holy talk about Christ, but the truth is that distortions arise when male eunuchs alone decide the narrative. Wholesome governance, leadership, ethos, teaching, and ministry in any Christian Church can only arise from healthy women and men with an equal voice and vote. There is a good chance that the common sense of baptized people will be loving word of God and will not be warped, cruel or authoritarian.
    In the wake of all the Reports and negative events in the Catholic Church since the tragedy of Humanae Vitae in 1968, there was no hopeful signal in the apologies or commentary of any plans by the bishops in regard to the major reforms that are long overdue. A central issue in the recent Report and a central issue for Catholics today is respect and justice for women. Unfortunately, the Roman Curia and the hierarchy do not appear to get that. In true Trumpian fashion, they double down on their clerical policy of apartheid for women under the “sweet soap” of complementarity. Polls have shown over many decades that Irish Catholics do not agree with the hierarchy in their refusal to grant equality and justice to women in the leadership, governance, teaching office and ministry of the Catholic Church.
    We pray that the bishops will listen to lay people and good pastoral priests in their persistent cries for reform and a wholesome new narrative. There is much potential for good growth of the Kingdom of God when there is substantial reform of the largest Christian Church, agreed reunion of all churches and a New Christian Narrative for the 21st century.

    Joe Mulvaney
    Dundrum, Dublin 16
    January 30th, 2021

  4. Sean O'Conaill says:

    ‘Catholic Schools: Communities of Resilience and Faith’. That was the ‘theme’ of Ireland’s ‘Catholic Schools Week’ Jan 24-31, 2021.

    Yet the extent to which Irish Catholic Schools substantiate this claim in the actual faith, idealism and social motivation of their alumni has not been researched in decades in Ireland – despite the emptiness of seminaries, the absence of younger generations from church services and the obvious predominance of self-promotion over social-justice engagement in the Irish society those schools serve.

    For how long will our Catholic educational establishment – and the Irish Bishops’ Conference – go on pumping out this self-serving propaganda, in the same vacuum of evidence of its veracity – while the ongoing social injustices listed by Brendan Hoban remain unaddressed?

    ‘How could this happen?’ asked Archbishop Eamon Martin in relation to the ROI Mother and Baby Homes Report. If he truly wanted to know would the actual received curriculum of Irish Catholic Schools – as distinct from the imagined and idealised version – not have been researched decades ago?

    To hold unyieldingly to a church system that deliberately prevents the questioning of leadership and the building of a corporate sense of Christian idealism and purpose – meanwhile pumping out annually this fanciful rhetoric about Irish Catholic schools – is the very opposite of the synodality the pope is now calling for. There is very little time left to ‘get real’.

  5. Paddy Ferry says:

    Joe@4, what an excellent and powerful piece! Just because nobody has responded to you does not mean that nobody agrees with you. I think you are, largely, expressing the sensus fidelium.

    “Will future reports find us practising Catholics guilty of collusion with Catholic Catechism teachings that are homophobic and Canon Laws which continue to be unjust to women? Is walking away the best option….”

    Joe, my children, now university educated adults, who were brought up joyfully in the faith, now ask me that very question.

    But I certainly do not plan to walk away.

    I have been a Vincentian since I was 14 and that has allowed me to do, I think, genuine good that I would never have done without our church. Here in our parish in Edinburgh our SVdP conference has made a real difference in the lives of those who are housebound and especially during this awful pandemic.

    And that is just one example of the good people can do from within the church. If people like you and I were to walk away, Joe, we would risk Ratzinger’s vision of a slimmed down, purified church — in reality, a sect of right wing zealots — becoming a reality. Now we would not want that.

    Tony Flannery wrote in one of his recent articles that he thinks that even a demoralised church has something precious and important to offer. I agree.

    “Who proclaimed Hell for the mortal sin of a sexual thought?”

    Now that, Joe really struck a chord. The church may indeed contain somethings which are still precious and important but it also contains some seriously damaging stuff.

    And, how our young lives were blighted by that kind of nonsense. What a bizarre, unhealthy, warped and guilt ridden understanding –misunderstanding — of human sexuality we were brain washed into believing by the institutional church. What gullible, naive eejits we were!

    Now, of course, our church teaches that our sexuality is a God given gift. How the times have changed! The late Prof. Anthony Clare wrote that our sexuality is the primary font of our humanity. Other experts will tell us that if we do not have impure thoughts as young — and not so young — people, then there is something far wrong with us. Of course, we never called them sexual thoughts, they were always “impure” thoughts. I wonder where does all that leave imposed, mandatory clerical celibacy.

    In the late Seán Fagan’s masterpiece, What happened to Sin? — I have it on my bookshelf and I have no intentions of ever burning it — he tells of how he would sit for hours in the confessional and at the end of it all he would often ask himself “What have we done to these poor souls?” I think he called it spiritual abuse.

    This kind of nonsense certainly blighted my life not just as a young fella but well into adulthood and I now deeply resent that.

    “In true Trumpian fashion, they double down on their clerical policy of apartheid for women under the ‘sweet soap’ of complementarity.” I particularly liked that Joe, “the ‘sweet soap’ of complementarity” indeed.

    I think this is a fairly recent invention from the Wojtyla/Ratzinger era to try and justify — unsuccessfully, of course — the continuing scandal of our church’s inability to recognise the equality of women.

    You also mentioned, Joe, women being “churched” after childbirth. I had forgotten about that. Now, that must have been one of the most outrageous and embarrassing pieces of nonsense ever. Yet, so many poor souls just accepted it because the church told them they had too. New mothers whose marriages had been sanctified by the sacrament of matrimony had to go through this charade such was the obsession with the sin of sex. I wonder are there some still out there who would still try and justify the “churching” of new mothers. I wonder!!

    At the beginning of your article, Joe you mentioned the “numerous apologies” in response to the Report on the Mother and Baby Homes. I am sorry to say I now take these apologies with a pinch of salt. After the Ryan Report and the disclosure and confirmation of the horrendous cruelty perpetrated on the most vulnerable of our children, the Redress Board and process was established to offer some redress to the victims of that cruelty.

    Rather than humbly and with genuine contrition accepting their culpability the Religious Orders hired the most expensive legal firm in Ireland to defend their position at the Redress Board proceedings. And, in the process, risked humiliating and abusing the victims all over again. Michael O’Brien’s famous words summed it up perfectly: “Five highly paid lawyers trying to make a liar of me”!!

    On the question of real compensation to those who suffered in the so called Mother and Baby Homes, which Brendan and others have called for, well, I don’t think I’ll hold my breath. To the best of my knowledge — and I may be wrong — the sum agreed by the Religious Orders after the Ryan Commission Report was never paid in full.

    “There is much potential for good growth of the Kingdom of God when there is substantial reform of the largest Christian Church, agreed reunion of all churches and a New Christian Narrative for the 21st century.”

    What a beautiful vision to end with, Joe. And, if there is such a thing as the Holy Spirit, then surely it should be more than just an unrealistic fantasy.

    Joe, I lived in Dundrum for a large part of my student days in Dublin and, after graduation, when I worked in the Dental Hospital. We had a student house — great memories — in Annaville Park, first opening on the left after the high walls of the Central Mental Hospital. I wonder is it still called that.

    I initially went to Bird Avenue to Mass on a Sunday morning. However, what was on offer there was very much fire and brimstone stuff.

    So, I moved once I discovered the church up in Dundrum itself. There were 4 or 5 priests there at the time, an older man whom I always presumed to be the PP and a few younger men among whom were some excellent preachers. So, Dundrum was where I then always went for spiritual sustenance on a Sunday morning for the rest of my time in Dublin.

    Over the years since then when we would visit Dublin I would always take the family to Dundrum on Sunday morning, just for old time’s sake.

    The last time I was there was October 2019 for a family wedding. There is only one priest there now, a very nice man, and, of course, he is PP not just in Dundrum but in at least one other parish as well. Again, how the times have changed.

    Joe, thank you for all that. You hit all the nails absolutely on the head. I hope you will contribute again on this ACP site. Initially, I thought you might be a priest but, maybe not.

    I wonder have you read Fr. Tony Flannery’s great new book, “From the Outside.” You would love it!!

    All the best, Joe.

    Paddy Ferry.

    Edinburgh 10/02/2021

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