Monday, July 13, 2009

An unholy marriage of dogma and power

There was some mention here earlier this summer of the recently-released Ryan Report on the physical and sexual abuse of children in Irish "industrial schools" during the mid-decades of the last century. I have now finished reading Bruce Arnold's The Irish Gulag: How the State Betrayed Its Innocent Children, which gives background to the Report.

It makes chilling reading.

Arnold is a respected journalist who spent ten years investigating and writing about the Irish industrial schools for the Irish Independent newspaper. The book is a compilation of his newspaper journalism. The picture he paints is almost too painful to read.

For half-a-century, from the founding of the Irish Republic into the 1970s, tens of thousands of totally innocent children between the ages of two and sixteen were taken from families that were deemed dysfunctional in one way or another -- destitution, alcoholism, the mother "living in sin", etc. -- and placed in institutions that were essentially prisons, run by various orders of Roman Catholic priests, brothers and nuns. The conditions many of the children endured (as Arnold's title suggests) bears comparison to the Soviet gulags. The kids were ill-clothed, ill-fed, denied access to the outside world and any contact with the opposite sex, provided with only the most rudimentary medical and dental care, housed in dreary, poorly-heated buildings, forced to participate in meaningless religious exercises, psychologically humiliated, beaten mercilessly for minor offenses, and sometimes sexually abused. The children were supposed to be receiving an academic and vocational education that would prepare them to be useful and productive adult citizens; in fact, they were provided with only the most basic instruction and used as child slaves for the benefit of the institutions.

The Irish Church and the religious orders have a lot to answer for, but Arnold more forcefully indicts the Irish state -- the government (in particular the Department of Education which had ultimate responsibility for the industrial schools), the judiciary, and the police. All deferred to the Church. All participated in the incarceration of the innocents.

I have spent my entire life in the company of Roman Catholic priests, brothers and nuns, as a student, teacher, colleague and friend. They include some of the most exemplary people I have ever known, and I never encountered anything other than charity and kindness. So how did things in Ireland go so horribly wrong?

The sorry saga of the Irish industrial schools (and Magdelan laundries, etc.) is a story of theocracy run amok -- soulless, unjoyous, sex-obsessed religion in cahoots with spineless, ring-kissing politicians and bureaucrats. It all came crashing down when Ireland applied for, and eventually received, admission into the European Economic Community, which brought with it not only affluence, but also Enlightenment values, including a healthy dose of empirical skepticism and (at least the beginning of) separation of Church and state.