The Catholic Church

Published in Issue 3 (May/June 2018), Letters, Volume 26

Sir,—In her Platform article, ‘Church archives—private or public records?’ (HI 26.2, March/April 2018), Catriona Crowe argues for the opening of archives under the control of religious congregations. In some ways it is strange that religious orders are reluctant to reveal to the public first-hand evidence of the enormous contribution they have made to life on this island over the past 200 years.

As Ms Crowe points out, ‘the history of the Catholic Church in Ireland is intensely bound up with the social, economic and political history of the country’. The inability of England to incorporate Ireland into its United Kingdom, as it did with Wales and Scotland, was due in no small part to differences of language and religious affiliation. Had the Reformation been as successful in Ireland as in the rest of the UK all of us might be Brexiteers now.

One reason she posits for this reluctance to open their archives is that ‘religious orders are wounded by the commissions that investigated them’. She then adds that ‘some of their members feel that most of them did not behave in the way the worst of them did’, but then accuses these same people of doing nothing ‘so that vulnerable children and women were severely damaged by their actions’.

Applying this same logic, are all Germans guilty of Nazi atrocities or all Russians guilty of the unspeakable crimes committed during the Soviet era? It’s so easy to suggest that people should be whistle-blowers in large organisations or long-established institutions, but look at the fate of such people even in modern times. There’s also the wisdom of hindsight. Patterns of behaviour, such as capital punishment by the state and corporal punishment in schools and home, which are anathema now were accepted as normal in the past, so the events of those days have to be seen in their historical context.

In adopting this judgemental attitude Ms Crowe seems to be abandoning the impartiality required of a historian and seems to have decided in advance what she wants from the archives. This is reminiscent of the Gardaí in the Kerry Babies controversy, who first decided that Joanne Hayes was guilty and then sought the evidence to prove their case. It’s also revealing that while the report of the Ryan Commission gets Ms Crowe’s imprimatur, the McAleese Committee Report doesn’t.

I would like the archives to be open to impartial scrutiny so that the entire work of these congregations can be examined and not just a corner of it. Most of the religious orders under scrutiny were founded by Irish people with the highest of ideals and staffed by people who devoted their entire lives to educating, healing and looking after those who were social outcasts. Ms Crowe acknowledges that ‘so many families have someone a nun or priest until relatively recently’. All the more reason why care must be taken in ascribing malicious or evil intent to large numbers of people and criminal indifference to others merely because they were members of Catholic religious congregations.—Yours etc.,


Co. Galway


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