Good can surely come out of Ryan report
'THE stuff of nightmares', 'The Irish Holocaust', 'A crisis for Ireland'. Ever since the Ryan report came out we have not been able to stop talking about the terrible history of abuse of children that it has revealed. Turn on the radio and there's a discussion going on about it. Open a newspaper and every columnist and commentator is writing about it. Families talk about it, friends talk about it and even total strangers ask each other what they think about it. Ireland is in deep shock.
One response is to puzzle over what sort of culture there was in those times which made possible such horrific cruelty to small children and young people. It seems to have been a combination of centuries of repression by a foreign nation and, maybe as a direct result, a desire to place 'godly' Irish people on a pedestal and treat them as though they themselves were small gods.
When my family and I moved to Ireland, 13 years ago, we were astonished by the way some Catholic clergy (not all of them) expected to have everything done for them, as if the people were their servants. They did not seem to expect to wait their turn in a queue, or to have to pay for things the way ordinary human beings did. I have to admit, as a Church of Ireland clergyperson, that it was touching that clergy of other denominations were in some places given the same sort of queue-jumping priorities. That politeness always seemed a nice bit of ecumenism, even when it didn't feel right to take advantage of it.
Respect for clergy and for men and women in religious orders is fine. But here in Ireland, historically, it went beyond respect into an area where anything they did was to be respected and nothing they did was to be criticised.
Remember 'brain-washing'? That used to be something we associated with wars in the Far East, and then with strange religious cults, mostly in countries like America. Brain-washing, in that sense, meant that the followers of a particular leader or cult would do whatever they had been trained to do without any judgement of their own. Without allowing themselves to think whether what they were asked to do was right or wrong. The habit of obedience within the religious orders ('poverty, chastity and obedience') appears to have been so strong, during the last century at least, that it can only be described as brain-washing. We now know that nuns and monks (it is difficult in these circumstances to call them brothers and sisters) often maltreated the children in their care not by their own decisions but because they were told to by their superiors. The religious themselves were brain-washed about their own behaviour and the people were brain-washed not to allow themselves see what the religious were doing.
Now it is all, or nearly all, out in the open. These must be the darkest days of the spirit of Ireland. The other dark days of the past, years of famine and oppression, have been the result of what nature and foreign power combined to inflict on this country. But these horrors grew up among the generations of our parents and grandparents. They themselves may not have abused the young but far too many of them knew about such abuse and did not speak out against it.
Yet good can surely come out of all this. These revelations mean that our eyes can no longer stay conveniently shut to the presence of evil. 'Say nothing' may have been a necessary way of living when the oppressors were just around every corner. But it will not do now in situations where wrong is being done not by 'them' but among ourselves. And not just in the church but in every level of public life. Why do we continue to joke about 'brown envelopes' changing hands when someone wants something done that is not legally available to them? Why do we persist in admiring the 'cute whoors'? A couple of years ago some survey told us that Ireland is the second most corrupt country in Europe. The most corrupt was that other very Catholic country, Italy. What is it about our moral teaching that has allowed so many of us engage in corrupt practices, and so many of the rest of us to admire it or at least to wink at it?
To joke about brown envelopes and cute whoors is to assume that nothing can be done about them. But indeed it can, if we realise we are tired of being robbed and rubbished, and if we object with loud enough voices. The Ryan report has caused such shock that it must be a call to us to sweep our whole house clean, clear it out, scrub it, make a fresh start. In politics and in our organisations and in government at local and national levels.
And in our churches, all our churches. Way off in the future I hope that people will be saying that the Ryan report was the turning point for Christianity in Ireland. That from 2009 onwards, authority has not been self-awarded but earned. That those who become the religious leaders in the community and in the country as a whole are chosen by the people themselves. That it is the people themselves who decide who will be their priests (including married men, and women, if that is what the people want) and who will be their bishops - if bishops are wanted. That it is the people who organise the churches, and that the leaders are not little princes but, following the teachings of Jesus, their servants.
Many people are convinced that the twenty-first century is a time of huge religious upheaval worldwide, an upheaval that seems to come every five hundred years. Like the split between the Celtic church and the Roman church, then the split between the Orthodox church and the Roman Catholic Church, and then the Reformation. They believe that we are now on the verge of a totally renewed Christianity. Many others also believe that when God is totally exasperated with what people are doing she/he pulls the rug out from under them so it all has to start from scratch again. That would be wonderful.
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