The Ryan report’s catalogue of unspeakable crimes against children committed by members of religious orders and supported by the Department of Education, The Garda Siochana and the Law Courts raises a fundamental question: what was it that led to such a wholesale neglect of children and practices that were utterly unchristian, at the hands of individuals and institutions that had people believe they were ‘followers of Christ?’ Furthermore, the fact that there was a high degree of outside knowledge – even De Valera himself knew in the late 1950’s – how was it that the brutality continued unabated? And a follow-up question is ‘is the past over?’
Christ was at his most ferocious when he talked about the sacredness and preciousness of children: ‘whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea’ (Matthew 18:6). What happened to the priests, nuns and Christian brothers, who, undoubtedly, entered these religious orders with holy aspirations but went on to perpetrate a holocaust of horrors? Certainly, in my own experience of religious life in the early sixties, I failed to encounter spirituality or, indeed, Christianity and left the order having lost all belief in Catholicism.
At a social and political level, one can point to the overwhelming power of the Irish Catholic Church and the fears it instilled in its followers, the weakness of the government in relationship to the Church and the Catholic class consciousness that labelled these children whose only ‘crime’ was poverty as ‘bastards’. ‘illegitimates’ and ‘scum.’
However, I believe we need to go deeper – it is not institutions that perpetrate violence, nor a society that turns a blind eye nor a government that ignores a holocaust – it is individuals. Unless accountability is brought to an individual level, I see little hope of change. Accountability is not just about saying ‘I’m sorry’, it is about an in-depth examination of what the acts of physical violence, sexual violations and emotional abandonment of the children mirrored about the interior world, not only of each Christian brother, priest and nun, but also each member of the Garda Siochana, each teacher, De Valera himself, each civil servant in the Department of Education who failed miserably to respond to the truths spoken by the children. Those who were and are bystanders also need to be accountable. Responsibility for our own individual inner darkness is critical to social, educational, economic, political and spiritual progress. All individuals, but especially those who have positions of power – parents, teachers, bishops, priests, Christian brothers, garda siochana, politicians, social workers, psychologists, managers have a responsibility – not optional – to check their individual level of maturity. Status, education or religious or occupational position, age, gender, wealth are no indices of maturity. What is an index of maturity is to the degree that you know, love, value and take responsibility for Self and from that solid interiority, love, value and empower others – not only children. Any of us who perpetrates verbal, physical, sexual, intellectual and emotional violations need to find the means to resolve our inner securities. The frequency, intensity and persistence or such violations are important barometers of the urgency for self-reflection and resolution of inner turmoil. When individuals do not take responsibility, it is critical that other individuals champion the rights of these – children and adults – who are at risk and create solid boundaries around the sacredness of those at risk individuals.
Taking responsibility for Self is about an unconditional expression of one’s lovability, genius, uniqueness and individuality. It is also about examining the nature of one’s actions – emotional, intellectual, social, creative, behavioural, spiritual, physical and sexual toward Self and towards other. Any action across these eight dimensions of human expression that in any way lessens or demeans the presence of Self or the presence of another is a serious symptom and an unconscious call to responsibility.
Sadly, it is still not incumbent on individuals, most especially those in positions of power, to examine their level of maturity and seek the necessary help to resolve their inner turmoil. Until this individual responsibility is endemic in families, schools, educational, medical and work organisations, political parties and churches, the horrors of yesterday will continue to be repeated today and, indeed, they are.
Engendering individual responsibility is not about naming, blaming, shaming – which is totally counterproductive – but is about identifying, owning and actively responding.
Dr. Tony Humphreys practices as a clinical psychologist and is author of several books on practical psychology, including The Power of ‘Negative’ Thinking.