Scapegoating not the way to uncover the truth
'We like our scapegoats, we like our simple stories," Prof Hannah McGee said last week while talking about the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report.
Her point was that it would be easier for us all if there were clearly identifiable groups in society that were responsible for most sexual abuse. Instead, the stark reality is that it is so pervasive as to be almost beyond comprehension. She also said that when it comes to religious/clerical abusers and biological fathers, that people tend to believe that the prevalence rate is much higher in these two categories because of the abhorrence they feel. All abuse is horrendous, yet undeniably, there is a higher level of revulsion when either a father, or someone promoting a high moral code, breaches trust in such a criminal fashion.
She was essentially reiterating what she said in a September 2003 interview with Sarah McDonald in The Irish Catholic. People seize on the figure from the report, that 3.2 per cent of abuse is perpetrated by clerical and religious abusers. Given that people in religious life are a tiny minority of the population, they extrapolate that this figure of 3.2 per cent must prove a greater propensity among clergy to abuse. Not so, Prof McGee says.
The report identified that 3.2 per cent of victims had been abused by a religious minister or a religious teacher. It did not identify the percentage of clerical abusers. In theory, this entire figure could be accounted for by a "small number of very active abusers".
In other words, you cannot take the figure of 3.2 per cent and say that it represents the number of clergy who abuse, because clergy and religious sadly had more access to children and each abuser was likely to have numerous victims. When Prof McGee spoke about this issue earlier this week, it was on a sensitively handled radio programme chaired by Vincent Browne that concentrated on the "other" 96.8 per cent of sexual abuse. Astute readers may notice that this is the same Vincent Browne that I took a highly personalised swipe at two weeks ago. I claimed that he was wrong to fulminate about the unique hypocrisy of the Catholic Church in relation to sexual abuse and complained that he did not make programmes about the other 96.8 per cent.
As well as my intemperate tone, I failed to acknowledge that Vincent has probably done more than any other commentator to keep the 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report in the public eye, and for that I am sorry.
"We like our scapegoats, we like our simple stories."
These words echoed in my mind this week in relation to another news story, that of the Oblate Order's testimony about Daingean at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. I had a very peripheral involvement with Daingean. Six years ago, while still writing for the Sunday Business Post, I was approached by a retired civil servant named Risteard Mac Conchradha. He had been a member of the Kennedy committee whose 1970 report signalled the beginning of the end for industrial schools. He wanted me to write about the horrors he and others had uncovered in Daingean. He had doggedly sought the closure of the reformatory, then for more than 30 years sought to publicise the harm that he felt was done to helpless and vulnerable children. When he retired, he felt free to paint a fuller picture of what happened behind the scenes, including an unflattering portrait of buck-passing between various government departments.
For some people, I would probably seem an odd choice to write such an article. Indeed, this very week, it was implied that my well-known Catholic faith commitment has so clouded my vision as to lay me open to the charge of being an apologist for sexual abuse of children by clergy. Thankfully, that was not how Risteard saw me. When he visited Daingean with others from the Kennedy committee, what they found appalled him. Conditions were Dickensian. The boys had been committed for everything from robbing orchards to stabbings; some were exceptionally difficult to handle. After a tip-off from a lay teacher, the priest in charge, Fr Willie MacGonagle, was questioned about punishment practices and freely admitted that any boy who had committed a misdemeanour during the day was called out at night from an over-crowded dormitory. He was then leathered on the bare buttocks in the presence of other boys. Later, Risteard was shocked that a visiting committee could have uncovered such a practice so easily but that the Department of Education, which was charged with inspection, could deny knowledge of such a practice.
Afterwards, and perhaps even more oddly given my original article on Daingean, I was approached by the Oblates to help Fr MacGonagle put his version of events together. Risteard, who is now dead, was a person of utmost integrity and utterly credible. I discovered that Fr MacGonagle, far from being a monster, is a man struggling to come to terms with his stewardship of Daingean. As a matter of verifiable record, he had been a progressive reformer who sought to humanise conditions for the boys, but was frustrated at every turn by public and State indifference. Those who are trying to highlight the desperate plight of some 300 asylum-seeking children who have simply disappeared from our system, to who knows what awful fate, will understand and perhaps empathise with how difficult it is to effect change for those that society considers of little value.
Fr MacGonagle is deeply hurt by the one-sided and damning media portrayal of the efforts of himself and others. He said to me: "It was taken as read and written down in stone that we were stone-age people with stone-age hearts who gloated and feasted on the sensitivities of other people." Incidentally, Risteard could not be blamed for this one-sided portrayal. He was always more nuanced and careful not to issue blanket condemnations.
Perhaps even writing this article will just lay me open to the charge once again of being an apologist for the indefensible. I suppose I will just have to rely on the innate fairness in people and their ability to see that simple stories and scapegoating, rarely if ever portray the messy complexity of human life.