The secret history that scars my nation

After three psychotherapy sessions, a priest guilty of gross sexual abuse was made a parish chaplain
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THROUGHOUT HIS life my father carried the mental scars of his schooldays in the newly independent Irish state. In those days, the role of headmaster in many secondary schools fell to priests or brothers from the religious orders. The priest who ran my father's school was a big man who enjoyed absolute power over the young boys in his charge.

On the streets, people raised their caps to him, deferred to his opinions, and stepped to one side to let him pass. Out in public he was the stern and dignified figure of authority. But in the memories of my father and others, he was a sadistic monster.

There was one punishment that the big priest particularly favoured. He would summon an offending schoolboy to the top of the class, tell him to lower his trousers and underwear and then force him to place his head out into the school yard through an open window. The window would be lowered onto the victim's neck until it was jammed tight, trapping him. The child's head faced out into the schoolyard while the priest was free to savagely thrash his exposed lower parts inside the classroom. The rest of the class looked on in silent terror. Years later, my father's voice would quiver with anger and shame at the memory of those beatings.

In the "old" Ireland, these were not exceptional events. This was a state where politicians - with one or two honourable exceptions - bent over backwards to please the men of the cloth. Servile is a word that springs readily to mind. The church had been our bulwark in times of oppression. It had provided education for the poor when nobody else would. The debt of obligation was immense.

Now though, it was payback time. Education was to be the uncontested territory of the church. As well as schools, the clergy were allowed to run orphanages and reformatories. Letterfrack, Daingean, Artane - names that induced mortal dread even in children of my generation. We all heard the stories of the beatings that went on in these places. And we heard other stories, of strange priests and brothers who would do "things" to you.

But they were days of silence in our cosy little republic. The violence was known about and tolerated. How often did children come home to complain about a beating only to get another one from their parents? The assumption was that the clergy were always right. "You must have done something to ask for it," was a familiar refrain.

As for the sexual abuse, only now being reported in our newspapers, it took a brave boy or girl to complain about that. In Holy Catholic Ireland, sex was a deed of darkness, something discussed in the language of whispers and nudges. We learned that there was something implicitly dirty and wrong about the whole business.

Growing up in a middle class neighbourhood, I was never likely to find my way to a reformatory. What clerical violence I experienced was minuscule; a slap here and a slap there. Neither did I encounter any of the more perverted men in black. The brothers who ran my secondary school were decent and kind men, of whom I have only the fondest memories. I suspect that most of my contemporaries would probably remember things the same way.

But I knew kids who weren't that lucky. They were the ones from hidden Ireland - the country of poverty and sickness; of huge council estates and inner city tenements; of small villages where unmarried mothers were dispatched to convents to hide their shame, and whose children were taken away from them and given up for adoption. That was a country where inconvenient truths were censored and where the hierarchy had the power to block social legislation it did not favour.

It is only now, in these more confident and secular times, that we are beginning to count the costs of those years. Only now are the criminals being called to account. To date, 31 Catholic priests and brothers have been convicted on charges of child sex abuses. Another 13 cases are pending. Those involved in such abuse were a small percentage of the clergy but the havoc they wreaked on young lives is immeasurably huge.

Earlier this week, a Dublin court convicted a priest for a catalogue of abuse that took place over two decades. Father Ivor Payne had been a chaplain at a hospital for sick children and for nearly two decades was free to scar the lives of children. What made the case notable was the revelation that Father Payne had been allowed to continue with his ministry after serious allegations of sex abuse had been made against him.

The church in its wisdom decided that three sessions of psychotherapy would be enough to cure him. Three sessions! Afterwards, Payne was appointed as a parish chaplain and continued in his perverted ways.

As the judge at his trial tellingly remarked: "They (the children) didn't think they would be believed because the idea of accusing a priest of such offending was almost unthinkable." There are now growing calls for a full public inquiry into the way the church has handled allegations of sexual abuse against its clergy. In simple terms, an inquiry would try to find out what the hierarchy knew, and when. To date, all we have had from our bishops are apologies and the offer of sympathy for victims. But sorry is not enough.

Even if the Irish government refuses to set up an inquiry, the bishops should open up their records and tell us what they knew. I don't suggest that they name individuals who cannot defend themselves. That would be a denial of the principles of natural justice. But they can give us the big picture.

How many cases were reported to the Bishops over the long years when the church reigned supreme in Irish society? And crucially, what action did they take to protect children at risk? And don't stop with the sex abusers. They must tell what they knew about the sadists who made school life a living terror for so many youngsters.

The answers to these questions may be uncomfortable for the church, but we need to hear them. They are the secret history of the Irish nation. An institution which preaches social justice and which holds the truth as sacred should not keep secrets about matters as fundamental as the abuse of children. The information should not have to be dragged out in bits and pieces through the courts. For the victims of abuse, those who were left powerless and alone, it is the least that can be done.

In these more secular times, we look back and wonder how and why such things happened. The answers are more complex than one might suppose: start with a history marked out in repression and dispossession, add hunger, poverty and sexual repression and you get some idea of where we were coming from. We were all of us - church and children - prisoners of the past.

Now the country where church and state live in holy matrimony is gone. We have grown up. We look outwards. We have begun to recognise a "real" history rather than an imagined one.

The romantic nationalism of my schooldays is dead. So too the blind obeisance to the church. But until such time as we face the full truth of our secret history, I will find it difficult to believe that we have reached the "new" Ireland. It is time for the Bishops to open up and show the way.