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In Ireland, the recently-released Ryan Report was the product of nine years of investigation into child abuse which took place over many decades at industrial and reform schools, predominantly those run by the Christian Brothers, but also institutions run by the Sisters of Mercy and others. (The executive summary of the report can be accessed in pdf format via RTE News at this link .)

Cardinal Sean Brady of Armagh and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin met with Pope Benedict XVI on Friday last to brief him personally on the report. From RTE News :

Pope Benedict was visibly upset by accounts of the Child Abuse Commission’s report, according to one of the Irish archbishops who briefed him on it in the Vatican.

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin said the message which Cardinal Sean Brady and he brought from last Friday’s encounter was that the Irish hierarchy had to listen to survivors of abuse, to learn from the Ryan Report and to do some deep soul-searching about how the church will look in the years to come.

Cardinal Brady, who met representatives of the Conference of Religious of Ireland yesterday evening to brief them on the meeting, reported the Pope as saying that this was a time for deep examination of life in the Irish church.

The report’s focus was on abuse in reform schools, where the relative isolation and dramatic absence of accountability allowed the most heinous crimes to flourish, but there’s not much doubt that a culture of harsh authoritianism and excessive corporal punishment pervaded the ordinary Irish school system for decades, administered as it was largely by the religious orders in question. Aside from the chief and most obvious tragedy—the suffering of the abused—there is also surely the tragedy of how this has played into the alienation of so many Irish people from their Christian heritage. The forces of secularization, consumerism, new age-ism and the like have surely found fertile ground in a populace where memories and anecdotes of brutality via “the Brothers” are so commonplace. The face of the Church—indeed of any church—should never be transformed from one of Christian charity to one of abusive authoritianism. Ironically, it is how close the Catholic Church was to the political establishment in the Irish Republic—the very lofty position it held—that helped enable this kind of evil to run unchecked.

I confess to something of a personal angle on this, having been transplanted as a child from the U.S. to Ireland, and attending schools run by the Irish Christian Brothers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I guess that I caught the tail end of the era of religious-run public schools in Ireland. My own experience was not so much with the Christian Brothers themselves, who did not do a lot of actual teaching in the schools I attended. Many if not most of the lay teachers in these schools, however, were not shy about using corporal punishment, and there were those who took some obvious sadistic pleasure in it. The abusive ones got away with their abuse in part because small children tend to fear complaining about harsh punishment in those circumstances, fearing that only more will come from reporting it. And then, as the Ryan Report illustrates in other contexts, complaints from those parents who were concerned could always be dodged and stymied in one way or another by the figures who ran things with a kind of absolute authority.

It is to be hoped that current and future generations of Irish children will grow up with a kinder impression of what it is that the Church represents.

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