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Ireland’s New Troubles

When the recent news from Ireland appeared, my friend Robert Royal asked me to comment on the physical and sexual abuse scandal swirling around the Christian Brothers and other orders. Initially, I turned it down because it was too intense and conflicted an issue for me, for I owe an immense and un-repayable debt to the brothers. I was born in Ireland, and they educated me for next to nothing and attracted me enough by their kindness and goodness that I tried out their life and rule for a while. Though I left at age twenty I had never seen the slightest indication of abuse anywhere I lived.

How many Irish Christian Brothers abused boys sexually and physically? I don’t know, but maybe something similar to the percentage of U.S. priests who were sexual abusers. That would mean about 97 percent of the brothers remained decent, dedicated men. If the rest of us suffer just reading the reports, how much more do they?

The deeper and more difficult question is: how did superiors and government auditors permit this to happen? The Irish have their own weaknesses and one of them is never to correct moral failings face-to-face. Behind the back, yes, face-to-face, no.

The Christian Brothers in the 1950s, the ones I knew, were good men. Some of them were a bit tough. But as kids we much preferred to get our “biffs” (slap on the hand, sometimes severe) rather than other disciplines, such as staying after school. This was not ideal pedagogy but it was admired by many parents, and often preferred by pupils.

It may be that therein lay the harsher seeds that corrupted some brothers. That and a “warehousing” dictated by tradition and national economic realities: class sizes were often fifty boys. Export that to the locales of the scandals, the “industrial schools” filled with sometimes difficult, though mostly lonely, abandoned boys. Add a few men who stayed there and got tougher and tougher, and gradually got satisfaction from inflicting pain, while the more normal brothers exited to ordinary schools as quickly as they could. This is pure speculative interpretation of the report [1] on my part.

What to do?

I leave the legal consequences to the courts. And though since my days with the brothers, I have taken advanced degrees and practiced both clinical psychology and social policy, I would begin with some simple, spiritual advice. Confess, repent, and start all over again. Plus, ruthless self-examination and examination of the structures that allowed the corruption. The Church deals with corruption repeatedly, which it confronts with both firmness and kindness. St. Paul had to deal with corrupt members in the early Church. We’ve even had corrupt popes (sexually and in lots of other ways, too).

But don’t expect the Irish, especially those on a rant right now, to lead the reform of sexual attitudes and practices in Ireland. They love their license too much and will flay you, as only the Irish can, should you dare criticize them. They are silent on other forms of present serious sexual abuse of children, but refrain from calling them such: the abuse of sexually transmitted diseases, even deadly HIV; the abuse of children born out of wedlock, or much worse, aborted; the abuse of children abandoned by fathers for other women or women leaving husbands for other men. Are these serious sexual abuses? Of course they are, but not in modern Ireland.

Now how to deal with the children who were abused? Monetary compensation is certainly justified, but it can’t fix where the damage is worst, in the hearts and in the later adult sexual capacities of the abused. The likely consequences in their lives: Broken marriages, depressions, anger, abortions and out-of-wedlock births, all of which will tumble on into the future for at least a few generations to come. The only real answer is the kindness and patience they need to heal whatever damage manifests itself. There is no real recompense but the closest to it is love, care, patience, and understanding.

If God is willing and the Irish Christian Brothers are to survive, they have a stinging nettle to grasp. They will first have to establish a reputation for sanctity. Do they have the saints to lead them that way? I hope they do. Our Lord called them to follow Him and their own Calvary certainly has begun. They might start anew with a special dedication to the children and grandchildren of the abused.

But even with that they will suffer much for a long time. Those who hate the Church will see to that. It will take a special courage, humility, and grace to enter the order to serve the abused and their children. But with God nothing is impossible.

There are many to pray for in this debacle: the abused and their families, the innocent. brothers, those superiors who lacked sound judgment, and the abusers who have to face a Judge Who said “But he that shall scandalize one of these little ones that believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be drowned in the depth of the sea.” May the Lord forgive them – and all the rest of us, too.

Patrick Fagan, Ph.D. is a Washington policy analyst and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Social Services Policy at the Department of Health and Human Services.