An 81 year old retired Irish cardinal, Desmond Connell, has gone to the High Court in Dublin for a writ to stop his successor as Archbishop of Dublin from handing over church files on paedophile priests to a state-organised inquiry into clerical abuse of children.
He has called on the court to prevent the head of the Catholic Church in the Dublin diocese from handing over information about criminal priests to the government-appointed investigation. He has got an interim writ, freezing proceedings until there can be a full court hearing. He claims that some of the files contain solicitors’ advice to him, and therefore that they are privileged, exempt from scrutiny without his say-so.
This strange affair deserves the attention of socialists and secularists in Britain.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Primate of the Catholic Church here, who plausibly claims that his is now the most numerous Christian denomination in the country, has a lot to say on social and political questions these days.
A lot of it is reactionary — its attitude to lesbians and gays, for instance.
His overriding concern is to have as large a part as he can of the affairs of society — its mores, its morality, what it allows and what it forbids to the citizen — regulated by the “laws of God”, as his church understands them. In Britain now it is an effort to have society ruled according to the teachings of a church which the big majority does not accept.
The attempt by Murphy O’Connor and his bishops to impose the prejudices of their church so that lesbians and gays could not adopt or foster children is only one recent example.
The Catholic people of Ireland are now once again, in the grotesque Cardinal Connell affair, being unpleasantly reminded of what rule by priests, bishops, and cardinals sometimes has meant for them. For many decades, Catholic priests, members of the Christian Brothers (a monk-like teaching order), and nuns, running Irish schools, orphanages, and reformatories, savagely abused children, beating and raping them.
That they subjected them to relentless and merciless violence was known to everyone. What was not widely known — scarcely known at all, except to its small victims and to maimed and troubled adults who had been small victims — and certainly never discussed in public, was that sexual abuse of children in schools, orphanages, and reformatories, was also an everyday thing.
The abuse of children is now understood to be a feature of all institutions where children are helpless at the mercy of adults. In Ireland, within a loose and light framework of state regulation to check such things as the qualifications of teachers, schools (etc.) were an archipelago of hell-holes run or supervised by priests, Christian Brothers, and nuns.
Officially, Catholic Ireland was a desert of lacerating, arid sexual puritanism — a place where for many decades the average age of marriage was 35, and many lay men and women, never marrying, lived entirely celibate lives.
The poet Patrick Kavanagh — he is also the author of the well-known song, “On Raglan Road” — borrowed the common name for the Famine of the 1840s, in which a million starved to death, the Great Hunger, for the title of a long poem about that, Ireland’s other great hunger.
In that Ireland, the priests and nuns were honoured as paragons and models, demigods more closely connected to the Big God than anyone else could be. They were the moral police for a strict and very puritanical morality.
In the towns and in the villages, the priests were central in all social and political activities, honoured and deferred to in a way that people in Britain’s quasi-secular society cannot easily imagine. They set the standards in everything, including what writers of fiction could publish. They imposed rules under which most of Ireland’s best writers had at least some of their work banned in Ireland.
They laid down the law to politicians. When, half a century ago, an attempt was made to bring in state provision of rudimentary medical care for mothers and children, the bishops squashed it. They sent for the Minister of Health, Noel Browne — a Catholic who would be Ireland’s leading socialist until his death a decade ago — and told him that it should not be done.
Why? He tried to ask, and was told — the minister of the elected government — that they would not discuss it. It was not for such as himself to have explanations given to him by such as themselves, the Princes of God’s Own Church.
He asked why, then, the bishops had not denounced the National Health Service in Northern Ireland, which was a great deal more advanced that what he proposed. He was told: we do not explain.
The answer was only too obvious: in the 26 Counties they could get away with banning reform; in the UK they couldn’t, and didn’t try.
In Catholic Ireland, the priesthood had for centuries shared the oppressions of the people at the hands of the then bigotedly Protestant British state. They were the leaders of the helot Catholic people. Their prestige and their power with their people came to be greater than anywhere else in Europe, even in clerical-fascist Spain. The Irish clergy did not need a police state: they ruled with the reverent consent of the people.
Those priests who were the conscience and model of Ireland were — and are now generally known to have been — often viciously hypocritical child-molesters; and the Bishops are generally known to have been, at best, their protectors. An accused priest was frequently, perhaps normally, simply moved by his bishop to another diocese — and new victims.
Cardinal Connell, who became Archbishop of Dublin in 1988 was forced out in 2004 after a big sex scandal was exposed in Dublin. Now, like the savage spirit of the old Irish hierarchy rising out of its bolthole, the old clerical hoodlum has rudely pushed aside his successor as Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, appealing to the courts to prevent the church files compiled during his Archbishopric being read by the official investigation.
It is said that his action has the quiet support of many priests. But now there is a well-informed and critical Irish citizenry watching and listening and judging.
The good side of this story, if it can be said to have one, is that Connell, a priest since 1951, bred in the old school of Irish Catholic priests, is digging the Irish Catholic Church deeper into the mire by his arrogant assertion that the clergy are a privileged breed, answerable only to their own caste and to God.
The historical atrocity that is the story of Christianity in modern Ireland — of the Catholic Church, but not only the Catholic Church: arguably the most evil of all the Christian bigots in recent Irish history is the 83-year old Ian Paisley, now “First Minister” of Northern Ireland — holds the mirror up to Britain.
Religious bigotry is growing. Segregation of religious-ethnic communities is increasing. The bungling clumsiness with which the Government pursues its “war on terror” is contributing greatly to communal polarisation. Religious assertiveness by organised groups of bigots is growing.
In Britain faith schools have multiplied, encouraged by the New Labour government.
These are schools where Christian bigots, Jewish obscurantists, medieval-minded Muslims and others are licensed by the state to inflict their fantasies, obsessions and food-fetishes on emotionally and intellectually vulnerable children.
The Catholic Church campaigns against the right of a woman to abort a foetus at any stage in pregnancy. Murphy O’Connor recently even presumed to tell Catholics in Britain that Catholic doctrine on abortion should determine how they voted.
The horror stories from the land where the Catholic Church ruled the lives of the people and of the children, and the cover-ups by bishops like Connell, show how much they care about living, real children.
What the unrepentant old scoundrel Connell says to us in Britain is, don’t be complacent. What Solidarity says is: fight for a secular Britain, for the separation of church and state, the banishment of religion from public life, the abolition of faith schools, and the creation of a comprehensively secular schooling system where the children of parents of all religions and of none are educated in a common secular citizenship.