Religious Sensibility Doesn’t Excuse Child Abuse

I was at a theatrical event the other evening where we – as audience members – were asked to select a newspaper headline that made us angry. With a lousy coalition government in charge of the country and so much unrest throughout the world there was plenty to choose from, but the one that really made my blood boil was about Cardinal Sean Brady, the chief of Irish Catholics.

Despite revelations that he had in his possession, in 1975, the names and addresses of children that Father Brendan Smyth was serially raping, and he chose to do nothing with that knowledge – informing neither parents nor police – whilst Smyth was assiduously moved from parish to parish every time the rumours inevitably started, raping children at every port of call; Brady sees no reason why he should resign. He was given the names and addresses by one of Smyth’s victims. Brady oversaw a hostile clerical interrogation of the raped child, who was then sworn to secrecy. Thanks to Brady and his cronies’ inaction, the boy’s sister and cousins were subsequently raped by Smyth, amongst potentially hundreds of other children, whilst Brady climbed the slippery pole to power.

Brady’s pitiful excuse for doing nothing with the information he was handed (he’s not even mentioned the appalling interrogation the abused child was put through) was that it wasn’t in his job description to inform the civil authorities or parents. With organized religion, obeying petty rules and regulations always overrides common decency and ordinary moral obligation.

Part of me is glad that the disgustingly unapologetic hierarchy of the Catholic Church remains intact despite these revelations of obscene abuse of power. It shows them up for what they really are. Ratzinger himself, as a lowly cardinal, was responsible for the official Vatican policy to universally cover-up, rather than deal with the epidemic of child rape and torture back in 2001. It was only when journalists exposed the scandal and the (secular) authorities called for an investigation, and there was a sustained cacophony of moral outcry amongst ordinary betrayed Catholics and secular people that the Church was unwillingly forced to act.

It’s said that the Catholic Church has lost all moral credibility and has been forced to become a much more transparent organization as a result of the scale of the abuse and cover up. I’d like to think that’s true but I have my doubts, and it runs to the heart of the way in which organized religion operates.

Since getting on my high horse at the event, I’ve been thinking through why it’s this story in particular, rather than any of a litany of other abuses of power and human suffering, that riles me.

It does, of course, go back to childhood and my education at the hands of Catholics.

When I was a boy, aged between five and eleven years, I was sent to a Roman Catholic school run by the notoriously brutal Christian Brothers. The priest in charge (who was nicknamed ‘BK’) was no exception to this generalisation. A large, stocky, bull-like man, he paraded the school corridors revelling in his reign of terror. We children were, to a boy (it was male-only until I was nine) terrified of him, and with good reason. His temper was volatile, and he was unable to control his anger without it exploding into physical violence. I soon lost count of the number of boys who would be humiliated in front of the class or the entire school when he would grab their hair and shake their heads like a dog with a rabbit. Often his anger was only sated by dragging boys off to the cellar to be caned, and there were several broken fingers during my six years there.

Since becoming an adult and meeting old school friends’ parents, BK has often cropped up in conversation. On every occasion the parents have become moist-eyed thinking about this wonderful man of god. When I point out that he was a bully, they invariably tell me that, “He may have been firm, but he was fair.”

If that had been true, I’d have no cause to remain angry about this man over twenty years after leaving his school. Sadly, the reality is that he was brutal and unfair. This is a truth that the parents do not wish to hear, and their response is normally to shoot the messenger. Yet it wasn’t they who suffered BK’s aggression: it was me. The school was a terrible environment for shy and sensitive boys.

BK didn’t, as the parents seem universally to believe, justly metre out punishment when and only when a boy required discipline. His punishments were capricious and extreme. More often than not they were simply expressions of his violent nature, and nothing to do with instilling an appropriate discipline measured against a transgression of rules.

I witnessed BK throw a boy through a glass window for allegedly ‘talking in line’. He held a boy by the neck against a brick wall when he stopped during a cross-country run because he had a stitch. But the source of much of his aggression was taken out on a young boy in my class who may have been Jewish. He would walk into our classroom whenever he felt like it, tell our usual teacher to leave, and then drag this boy to the front of the class by his hair. Whilst calling him ‘teacher’s pet’, he would lift the boy off the floor by the hair and shake his head, only stopping when the boy cried. This shameless bullying and abuse continued for two years until the boy’s parents withdrew him from the school and sent him to a nearby secular school where presumably he wasn’t tortured by the headmaster.

Of course we would tell our parents the terrible things that BK did, and possibly they would believe us up to a point. They would assume that we were exaggerating the details, and ‘threw a boy through a glass window’ would probably mean ‘gave him a loving clip around the ear’: but they always insisted that the boy must have done something to deserve the punishment. If we told them that they boy had done nothing wrong, they would smile and knowingly shake their heads and explain to us that we were too young to understand. Worse still, we were sometimes told off for criticising a man of god.

Daily the parents would queue up and take turns to kiss BK’s arse again and again and again. I’m not claiming it was a lightning bolt realisation, but I still recall the mother of one child lavishing praise on BK whilst her boy stood next to her, cheeks still red and puffed from crying, hand bruised from the caning he had received an hour earlier. At that moment I began to recognise the disconnect between religion and morality, and began to realise too that the parents chose to not see what was right under their nose.

None of them, in all my years at that school and in the two decades since, have ever been made to see.

Here’s the point I always make: if you asked any responsible parent if they would like an alcoholic with violent tendencies to be in charge of their children, they would be appalled by the idea. Yet simply place a dog collar around the man’s neck, and suddenly he is the best possible candidate to look after and provide moral guidance to their child! Why can they not see past the dog collar?

It’s precisely this deference to religious authority that enabled the Catholic Church to get away with its horrendous abuse of children for so long. I may have only been physically abused, and other boys tortured, rather than raped; but the pain and distress BK caused me and others resonates down the decades. Thankfully, the school I attended is no longer able to get away with its horrendous abuses of power, thanks again to secular laws, government and morality outlawing such religiously-inspired barbarism.

I worry though that faith schools will continue to abuse their power over innocent minds in more insidious ways. The last few weeks has shown the Catholic Church persuading children as young as eleven to support their aims in attempting to block the government’s plans to extend equal marriage rights to gay people. If that isn’t an abuse of power I don’t know what is.

The tragedy is that I’m sure the vast majority of parents who send their children to Catholic or other faith schools do so with the very best of intentions, truly believing that their child will benefit from such an environment. Religious authorities are the most successful in telling people what they want to hear and having them believe it. But what recourse for the students when things go wrong?

There should also be a child’s right to be, in an educational environment, immune from the prejudices and beliefs of their parents, especially since statistically speaking they are more likely than ever before to grow up to shed them.

I take comfort from the fact that the school I attended almost three decades ago is unrecognisable in its ethos to the one in the present day, and for the better. I also take comfort from the fact that religiosity is declining, and that at long last it is socially acceptable to question and criticise religion in the West. Religion is, very slowly, losing its stranglehold on the minds of people and perhaps as a race we’re learning to think for ourselves.

But suspicion of religiosity was ingrained in me from a very early age by directly witnessing and living in fear of horrendous abuses of power. This was not the intention of my teachers nor my mother; but it was inevitable from the moment I saw BK for what he really was. Growing up to learn that he was the rule, and not the exception, and that the abuses of the Catholic Church in other parts of the country and throughout the world have been many degrees of magnitude worse only strengthens my resolve in wanting nothing to do with such a horrendous organization.

Ratzinger was right about one thing: he advocated cover-up because he knew the sexual abuse scandals would cost the church. They have already been forced to pay out billions of pounds worth of compensation to victims; and they are only the ones who are still alive and have been willing to come forward.

The day when Sean Brady is tried and convicted for harbouring and aiding a serial child rapist is the day when real justice starts to be done, and the crimes of the church start to be accounted for, and also the day when my anger begins to subside.

I’m not holding my breath. My ten year-old self would have been anything but surprised by all the revelations. Yet how hollow it is to think and to say, “I told you so.”