The Taoiseach has called the culture that permitted the existence of Mother and Baby Homes “deeply misogynistic”. Both he and the Minister for Children have iterated that Ireland, as a society, treated both women and children incredibly badly for many generations. “We did this to ourselves,” Michael Martin has said.And he’s right.
The Roman Catholic Church was the weapon used, but we shouldn’t forget they acted with impunity because we allowed it. The priests and the nuns and the brothers were a weapon used to bludgeon the most vulnerable members of Irish society into becoming a kind of prey species, a demographic that could be used in whatever way those who governed over them saw fit.
This was Darwinism at its most cynical and depraved – those who were in a position of power were given leave to treat those without a voice and without agency with utter contempt. Violence was seen as wholly acceptable. Criminality was given free rein.
It’s no secret that I have my own history with the Church. I grew up in a community where physical and sexual abuse was a simple fact of daily life. I attended a school where every boy knew what was going on, but were afraid to speak up for fear of what might happen. I spent most of my childhood with fear as a constant companion – it was so ever present, it got so that I struggled to cope when it wasn’t there anymore. My life felt strange without it.But for all that, I got to go home at the end of every day. I had a mother who was not perfect by any means, but whom I knew loved and valued me. I cannot even begin to imagine the depths of despair the women and children who found themselves in the hellish environs of somewhere like Tuam must have experienced.
The Taoiseach is to issue an apology to the survivors of the Mother and Baby Homes today. We have already heard apologies from several Church leaders. The report on the atrocities committed in these barbarous prisons (for that is what they were – in fact, ‘prison’ may be too mild a word) has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
Catherine Corless, the fearless historian who brought these truths into the light, has said she does not hold much hope for anything other than tokenism in whatever follows, from both the Church and the State.I agree with her.But let’s not mince words here: what needs to be done is very, very simple. I think there are three steps to be taken, and here they are:
1. Prosecution: The majority of those who were in charge of the Mother and Baby Homes are deceased, but the people who kept the secret and who knew where the bodies were buried (literally) in the intervening years are not. I’m not talking just about the religious here, either. Prosecute them to the fullest extent possible. This may not mean lengthy jail terms, although it should, but as a society we HAVE to show that this kind of depravity will no longer stand. If we acknowledge that as a community allowed this to happen in the past, we must show that it will be tolerated no more. That there are still children buried in unmarked graves, babies whose families still don’t know where they were interred, is a fact that has me almost beside myself with anger. Someone MUST be held accountable.
2. Make Amends: While there isn’t enough money in the world to make up for the horrendous abuses these women have experienced, it’s the only language the institutions who abused them understand. Babies were sold – that’s an undisputed reality. Children were rented out for drug and surgical trials. Also a bitter fact. The residents in the Church run institutions were a cash crop, and they deserve to be compensated for that. The Roman Catholic Church has long plead that it is virtually bankrupt in Ireland, and cannot afford to pay large compensation bills – I call bullshit on that. As loudly as I can. The Irish government has done its best to shelter the religious from paying the piper in the past. Michael Martin yesterday signaled that time is coming to an end. I hope he sticks to his guns.
3. Shut the Church Down and Start Again: I’ve called for this before, and my position hasn’t changed. The Roman Catholic Church has shown itself to be delinquent to its core. It has done more damage to the poor and the vulnerable it was supposed to serve than any other group I can think of. I’m not saying it needs to go permanently, but the old systems are not working, and the whole thing needs a reboot. Those in charge now should resign wholesale. Maybe a church run by the laity would offer a fresh direction and a dynamic energy. I am well aware vocations are at an all time low, and the religious have no one to blame for that but themselves – when an organisation has become synonymous with abuse, violence and corruption, can you really expect idealistic young people to want to dedicate their lives to it? Tear it down and start again. I believe we need the beauty and the mystery and the ritual of our faith. But many people struggle to engage with a Church that has so harmed those it was supposed to love and nurture. If there is to be any hope of Catholicism returning to Ireland, it must be in a new form.
Where abuse has occurred, there is never really closure. You learn to absorb the reality of it into your persona, and move on. The support and solidarity of your community is an integral part of that process. Let’s show the survivors of the Mother and Baby Homes that we care deeply about them and their future.
Sorry isn’t enough.
They need action.