One of the most delicate questions surrounding the wicked child abuse by Irish Catholic clergy, brothers and nuns is this: how much of the abuse was Irish and how much of it was Catholic?
The question of Irishness has been hovering over the Catholic abuse scandals for years, ever since journalists noticed (but scarcely dared point out) that they seemed concentrated among the Irish Catholic diaspora of the United States, Canada and Australia.
Yeah, see? So anyway, onto the how much Irish, how much Catholic:
I’ve just asked a well-informed commentator on Irish affairs about the respective influence of Irishness and Catholicism in this scandal. His reply was deliberately provocative: “The violence was Irish, the sex abuse was Catholic,” he said.
He explained that Ireland has for centuries tolerated levels of domestic violence and alcoholism that are much higher than those in other Catholic cultures. There’s no single, neat explanation for this – but the brutality of English colonial oppression certainly rubbed off on society. Rural Ireland until the 1970s was basically a Third World country… And this is the culturally and intellectually impoverished class from which many of the Christian Brothers were recruited. …
What did my colleague mean when he said that “the sexual abuse was Catholic”? It’s an over-simplification, and he’s referring to a Catholic problem rather than any aspect of authentic teaching, but here’s one interpretation of the statement. The chief villains of the report are (mostly long dead) brothers who took vows but were not allowed to feel any vocation to the priesthood. Like many Irish priests, they were pushed by their families into celibacy, but enforced celibacy was not an aspect of Holy Orders. A sexually unstable brother was not restrained by a high religious calling, because in the eyes of society he had none. He was doubly trapped by the Church.
Of course, there were many priest abusers, too – and here we face the horrible paradox that the high religious calling, the unique prestige of the priesthood, enabled unscrupulous priests to abuse mostly teenage boys. But here my colleague’s Irish violence/Catholic sex abuse theory does begin to break down, because clergy from Irish backgrounds are over-represented among priest abusers throughout the English-speaking world.
Last night I had supper with a distinguished American priest-scholar and made this point rather nervously. To my surprise, he agreed immediately. He said that the Irish didn’t leave their legacy of domestic violence and alcohol behind them when they arrived in America; the phenomenon of the weak, drunken father persisted, and this reinforced the towering status of the priest in the Irish diaspora, enabling a minority of clergy – and it was never more than a small minority – to abuse spiritual power for sexual ends.
He added: “There’s a particularly Irish Catholic culture of secrecy, too, partly rooted in a history of persecution, but also not unrelated to the corruption and back-room deals of Irish political life. That culture enabled abuse to happen, and to keep happening.”
Interesting. Meanwhile, RC2′s been on the case as well: