As I’ve said so often here in this space, the last few decades have been an absolute nightmare for the Catholic Church in Ireland. From the revelations about Fr. Brendan Smyth to the Dublin, Ferns, and Cloyne reports, right through to the present controversy about the Mothers and Babies Homes, the enormity of the abuse suffered by so many has surfaced a great wave of emotion and retribution as our Church has apologised time and again both for the abuse and the way it has been handled. There’s no denying, no excusing, no pretending.
As a result the Church has been left bruised and battered, exposed and embarrassed. And so we should.
As a result too we’re less inclined to enter the public forum because we know that no matter how persuasive or important our message may be, we feel the current of public opinion is running against us. Once a victim relates his or her story, nothing else really matters. In that context even reasonable comment can seem like making excuses.
In a sense the experience for Catholics has been one of trauma, a shocking and startling experience that has a dramatic effect on our ability to react, respond or recover. For many, including bishops, priests, religious and church-going Catholics, the response has been to pull the duvet over our heads and to wait until it all goes away, (it won’t), or at least until the dust settles (it won’t). But sometimes despite an understandable reluctance to say our piece, situations develop which compel us to address our position.
I’ve often wondered why the 18 congregations responsible for Catholic institutions in which abuse of some kind occurred have for years left the field spectacularly open to those who sought to condemn, lecture, insult, revile and bully them. And for years they’ve been a soft target for anyone with a gripe against priests, nuns, bishops and even God.
Recently, the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, in reacting to what he perceived as an unacceptable level of compensation for victims from the 18 congregations, pointed out that it was government policy that the congregations would share equal liability with the State, that the congregations had a moral obligation to increase their contribution and he piled up the pressure on the Church by suggesting that many ordinary Catholics were dismayed that ‘organisations with stated missions to serve the public and uphold moral codes apparently place so little importance on these values’.
Normally such lectures from politicians struggling to hold their feet on the high moral ground are greeted by the congregations involved with a deafening silence. But Bruton’s speech, patronising and insulting as it was, provoked a reaction from the Oblates, one of the congregations, but a reaction with which it seems the other congregations are in agreement.
The Oblate statement spelled out clearly
(i) that the campaign to pressure congregations into paying half the cost of compensating those abused was itself immoral and unacceptable:
(ii) that the congregations have no moral obligation to pay a share of the costs of the commission of investigation and the redress board (and that such a demand has no precedent):
(iii) the State alone has responsibility for the high costs of the redress scheme because the bill setting it up in the Dáil was the business of the State and the congregations have no bench-making responsibility for it.
Suddenly, as Marty Morrissey might say, it’s game on. For years we’ve been used to brick-bats from everyone with an axe to grind against Catholicism, from anti-Catholic individuals and groups who enjoy every opportunity to put the boot into the Church, but the recent lecture from the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton has provoked a much-needed response.
Let me explain the background.
When the Laffoy (later Ryan) commission of inquiry into homes run by Catholic religious congregations was first mooted, victims’ groups threatened not to cooperate unless a redress scheme was first put in place. The popular mood was such that the government rushed into a decision, even though wiser heads could see that making awards before the commission had completed its investigation was putting the cart before the horse.
However, the government made it clear that the redress scheme would go ahead regardless of the involvement of the 18 religious congregations and agreement was reached in 2002 whereby the congregations would pay €128 million and the State would indemnify the congregations against further claims.
The first estimate was that around 3,000 would have to be compensated. Then it seemed 4,000 was a more likely figure. Later the estimate rose to 5,000. To date over 15,000 people have each received an average of €62,250. It’s quite clear now that the government got it spectacularly wrong, not just in estimating the numbers but in the wide definition of abuse and the low burden of proof involved.
Once it became clear that a figure in excess of €1.5 billion was needed to service the scheme, further pressure was put on the religious congregations to increase their contribution. From early on, when it became clear that the cost of the redress scheme was escalating, the government suggested that the congregations and the State might fund it on a 50-50 basis.
This was rejected by the congregations on the reasonable grounds that
(i) the redress was a State scheme and
(ii) that an agreement had already been reached on what the congregations would contribute.
For some time now, every effort has been made to force the Catholic Church to keep increasing their contribution, as if there was a bottomless pot of gold available and without any regard of the consequences for the ongoing responsibilities congregations have for the work they do and the members they support.
Full marks to Patsy McGarry, and the Irish Times, for saying that the congregations have got it right.
Can we hope that the biased and completely lop-sided coverage to date in the rest of the media given to this issue, reflecting an obvious secularist campaign to rubbish the Catholic Church and all it stands for, can now be balanced by a justified respect for the integrity of thousands of priests and religious still working away and for the thousands more now being cared for by their congregations after lifetimes of service to God and to their country.