'The child abuse capital of the world'
Brendan O'Neill investigates what's behind Ireland's unhealthy obsession with paedophile priests
'The abusers have poisoned and distorted society. The poison goes from generation to generation.' Padraig O'Morain, social affairs correspondent for the Irish Times, sees child abuse as Ireland's national plague. His solution is not only to punish the abusers and treat the abused, but to treat the whole of Irish society. 'We need to understand that it is not only about them, the ones who were abused, but it is also about us, whose institutions and customs have been warped by abuse.'
Combating the emotional, physical and sexual abuse of children has become Ireland's obsession. Since the collapse of the Fianna Fail/ Labour Party coalition government in November 1994, following revelations which implicated the Catholic Church, the judiciary and the government in a cover-up involving a paedophile priest, Irish leaders have made battling child abuse their priority. In May, prime minister Bertie Ahern apologised 'on behalf of the state to the victims of childhood abuse, for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain'. His government launched the Commission on Child Abuse, a 'healing forum' for victims to 'tell their story', with a £4 million budget and a mandate to investigate the 'causes, nature and extent of physical and sexual abuse of children in institutions and other places'.
Not so long ago, nobody in Ireland mentioned child abuse - now, politicians and commentators want to talk about nothing else. Television documentaries, like RTE's States of Fear, detail the abuse of hundreds of children in state orphanages, while newspapers are full of horror stories about paedophile priests and a nun, Sister Dominic (Nora Wall), who in July became the first woman in Ireland to be convicted of rape. (Wall was acquitted by the Court of Appeal four days later, due to questionable and uncorroborated evidence.) Child abuse has gone from being Ireland's 'dirty little secret' to the topic of dinner party conversation across Dublin 4. But who benefits from this new national sport of hunt the abuser?
Much of the fight against child abuse looks like an attack on the Catholic Church. The Catholic hierarchy has been rocked by a stream of accusations about the physical and sexual abuse of children by priests and nuns - like the allegations in November that a former archbishop of Dublin had a penchant for seducing schoolboys. The church certainly has a lot to answer for, having long used its power in Ireland to institutionalise repression, stifle dissent and spread guilt and shame. In Galway in the 1950s and 60s, my father was taught by monks who would punch boys who deviated from 'the way', and my mother by nuns who would dig their fingernails into children's heads until they bled. Ireland truly was a 'priest-ridden' country, a stymied, bottled-up society.
New Ireland is bursting out of the straitjacket - 'speaking out' and kicking up a stink about past abuses. But far from being a rational critique of Catholic domination, the new crusade against abuse is merely an attack on the church's worst excesses and the behaviour of some priests and nuns. Even worse, the national obsession with child abuse threatens to replace Catholic domination with something just as irrational and superstitious - a new religious fervour, with its own stigmatism and witch-hunts.
At first glance, Ireland's child abuse figures might appear to justify the obsession. In July, the North-Eastern Health Board reported a 35 percent rise in allegations of child abuse, from 1178 in 1997 to 1598 in 1998. In September it was revealed that there had been a 29 percent rise in allegations of sexual abuse in the Midland Health Board area - a total of 227 allegations involving 240 children. Accord- ing to Peter Savage, chairman of Louth County Council, 'Unless the root cause is tackled, in 10 years' time we will have a horrendous situation. We are trying to hold back a tide'.
But on closer inspection, things are not so black and white. The headline figures fail to take into account the dramatic fall in substantiation - there may be many more reports of child abuse, but fewer of such allegations can be confirmed. The rate of substantiated cases of sexual abuse has fallen from 57 percent to 31 percent over the past 10 years; in some areas it has fallen to 13 percent, meaning that one in eight alleged cases of sexual abuse is confirmed. Of the 227 allegations of sexual abuse in the midland area which shocked the nation in September, 26 were ruled to be unfounded, 105 inconclusive, 69 were still under investigation, and 27 were confirmed. So in an area which has 65 000 children, there were 27 confirmed incidents of sexual abuse in 1998. This hardly constitutes a 'national plague'.
At a time when the flimsiest of evidence can be used to substantiate abuse in Ireland, the problems of substantiation are striking. The figures suggest that Ireland is not plagued by serial child abusers and evil priests, but that there is certainly more suspicion and allegation than ever before. As Pat Donnelly of the North-Eastern Health Board admitted, 'I believe it is not that there is more child abuse nowadays, but that there is more reporting of it'. And it appears that it is not only incidents of abuse that are being reported, but also concerns, suspicions and unfounded accusations.
The government has helped to open the floodgates to allegations of abuse. Sensitive to accusations that previous governments tried to 'silence the abused', the current Fianna Fail/Progressive Democrats coalition government has introduced a raft of measures to make it easier for people to 'speak out' about abuse. In January 1999, the Protection for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act relaxed Ireland's stringent libel laws by granting immunity to those who report concerns about child abuse - so those who falsely accuse somebody of being an abuser (which can have deadly repercussions in zero-tolerant Ireland) can no longer be sued for slander. Child abuse is the only thing you can speak freely about in censorious Ireland. In May, the government amended the Statute of Limitation laws so that an adult can pursue legal action for abuse they claim to have suffered as a child, however long ago. And in September, the minister of state with responsi- bility for children, Frank Fahey, issued 'the most powerful guidelines yet' on reporting abuse, emphasising people's 'corporate duty and responsibility' to raise the alarm when they suspect abuse. Kieran McGrath, editor of Irish Social Worker, says that the guidelines 'stop just short of enforcing mandatory reporting'.
In a country where you can make wild accusations without being sued, where you can wait until you are 45 before taking action for abuse suffered as a three-year old, and where the government implores you to report anything untoward, it is not surprising that allegations of child abuse have soared. If Ireland is the 'child abuse capital of the world', it is because everybody everywhere is on the lookout for perverted adults and degraded children.
You don't have to be a friend of the abusers or a nervous priest to be chilled by Ireland's obsession with child abuse. The crusaders against abuse have drawn a line between good and evil as rigidly as the church ever did. And anybody who crosses the line is turned into a pariah. In February 1998, GPs were lambasted when they suggested that strict guidelines on the reporting of abuse might undermine their relationship with patients. The Irish College of General Practitioners reasonably argued that it was unethical for them to betray patients' confidences by reporting everything that hinted of abuse. The Irish Times hit back that it was 'simply not acceptable' for doctors to 'take a back seat and let the abuse run its course'. Now GPs feel pressurised to report everything from nappy rash to bruising as potential abuse, seriously undermining confidentiality between doctor and patient.
In October, the Eastern Health Board reported that it was 'increasingly difficult to recruit social workers', as college graduates fear getting caught up in the child abuse web. Many childcare assistants and social workers employed at Madonna House, which was closed down in 1995 following revelations of abuse, have found it impossible to get jobs. In April, the prestigious sports body Swim Ireland was publicly humiliated after an investigation into two of its trainers - now all sports bodies have to appoint somebody to keep an eye out for abuse and to liase with the police and the local health board on children at risk. Any health, teaching, training or sports body which does not do its bit in the war against abuse quickly finds itself hauled up before the media and accused by the government of failing in its 'corporate responsibility' to challenge abuse.
Despite the destructive consequences, the crusade against child abuse continues as an attempt to define the new Ireland. As journalist Oliver O'Connor pointed out in an article headlined 'Out with the old state, in with the rule of law': 'The traumas of...child abuse and public health negligence are the uncovering of the failures and hypocrisy of what is now an older generation of leaders. Guilt, revenge and hate are mixed with justice and righteous anger in the opposing sides of the generation that is fighting its last battle, the battle to shape history.' (Irish Times, 1 October 1999) New Ireland may not be sure what it stands for or where it is going, but one thing is certain: it is not old Ireland, that backward, priest-ridden, child-abusing country from the past.
Despite the government's promise to bring about a 'child-friendly society', the message to Irish children is clear: don't trust priests, who do nasty things to altar boys; don't trust nuns, who hold down little girls so they can be raped; don't trust sports coaches, who will spy on you in the changing rooms; don't trust teachers, who will keep you behind to abuse you; don't trust your parents, because, even in Ireland, 'most abuse still takes place in the home'. This is where the new religious fervour of 'speaking out' appears even worse than the stifling Catholic repression of old. At least those children holed up in industrial homes and filthy orphanages could leave when they were 16 and get on with their lives. Today's children are being taught a lifelong lesson in distrust, with no release, except to grow into cautious adults well versed in the ways of 'appropriate touch' and 'abuse awareness', in a country with no higher vision than to hunt and humiliate those accused of child abuse.
What was that about 'poisoning and distorting' society?
Reproduced from LM issue 126, December 1999/January 2000