From the editor…

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 1 (Jan/Feb 2010), News, Volume 18

76_small_1265299578Après le deluge . . . ?

What next for the Catholic Church in Ireland, indeed for Irish society in general, in the wake of the publication of the Murphy report (November 2009) into clerical sexual abuse of children in the Dublin diocese? What started as a trickle of ‘isolated cases’ in the early 1990s has now become a veritable flood. The Ferns report (2005) could be dismissed by deniers as pertaining to only one diocese, while the Ryan report (May 2009) dealt with the abuse of victims locked away in institutions (orphanages, industrial schools, etc.) run by religious orders outside the jurisdiction of the hierarchy and beyond the direct experience of most of the laity. The Murphy report, on the other hand, deals with the country’s most populous diocese and with abusers who had day-to-day contact with the mainstream of society. And are we to believe that other dioceses are any different?
Of course, child sexual abuse is not confined to the clergy (Catholic or otherwise); it is a problem throughout society, and in fact usually takes place within families. But non-clerical abusers did not have unfettered and trusted access to large numbers of children in schools, hospitals and other institutions; nor did they have the support of an institution that, in the name of avoiding scandal and preserving itself, was prepared to go to criminal lengths to cover up and facilitate abuse by ignoring it or, worse, by moving abusers around and putting other children at risk. This raises disturbing questions. Were paedophiles attracted to the Church and the opportunities it offered? Was there something in clerical formation, in particular attitudes to sexuality, women and celibacy, that made them that way? In this issue Diarmaid Ferriter (pp 41–4) refers to an objection from Archbishop John Charles McQuaid to the Department of Justice (sensibly ignored) about an ad in a newspaper for teenage bras! In a previous issue (HI 15.6, Nov./Dec. 2007) Margaret Ó hÓgartaigh outlined his objections to mixed athletics and tampons. All very amusing at this remove but we now know that he had more serious matters on his desk.
This crisis also raises hard questions for us as citizens, Catholic or non-Catholic, believer or non-believer. How could we have allowed this to happen—a question, surely, that historians have a role in answering? In his controversial 1968 documentary Rocky Road to Dublin Peter Lennon remarked that Catholic Church influence in Irish society wasn’t so much a conspiracy as a bad habit. Little did he realise how bad it really was.

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