Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Politicians share blame for turning blind eye to abuse

The silence of our politicians is as shameful as Cardinal Brady professes himself to be. They have had nothing whatever to say about their part in the abuse of children and their responsibility for the inadequacies in the law, or for the failure of the law to be implemented.

This has happened time and time again, and has been referred to, time and time again, without lifting the pall of silence in which politicians look the other way.

We have been lectured to by the media on the punishment of abuse and questioned over what to do about the criminal concealment of abuse by senior clerics. Yet, with a few commendable exceptions, both personal and party, the politicians have generally subscribed to that ultimate piece of hypocrisy -- hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.

Not even the extraordinary oppression of an oath imposed by Cardinal Brady on the two children abused by Fr Brendan Smyth has brought forth any reasoned and logical response raising questions about the legality, the constitutional propriety, and respect for the family in what he did.

To his credit, Fergus Finlay, now head of Barnardo's but formerly a political adviser, pointed out that this single act by Cardinal Brady was itself a serious abuse of the children. The same abuse was imposed on tens of thousands of victims in the industrial schools, in other institutions and within Irish Catholic dioceses. On its own it is a sufficient disgrace to require the cardinal's resignation.

He pleaded what so many others have pleaded, that things were different then. They were not. They were the same. The church was the same. The politicians were the same. And the shameful relationship between the two was the same. Mostly, it was a nod-and-wink relationship, but there was one significant exception, occurring at the time when Cardinal Brady was imposing that terrible oath on the two children.

The occasion is worth recalling for its hypocrisy and for the jelly-like substance to which politicians were reduced by the church. The occasion of the Brendan Smyth investigation, in 1975, coincided with the public outcome of a 1973 Supreme Court judgment. This was the McGee case finding that the State had no right to intervene in marital privacy, including the question of a couple's right to choose artificial means of contraception.

The practical result of this was to allow the unrestricted importation into the State of contraceptives. The church was opposed to artificial contraception in any form. The State, in compliance with the court judgment, brought in legislation allowing for the controlled importation of contraceptives. It was a government bill. Fianna Fail voted against it. It would still have passed but the head of government, Liam Cosgrave, a devout Catholic, and his Education Minister Richard Burke, together with two backbenchers, Oliver Flanagan and Tom Enright, voted against on the second stage and the bill was withdrawn. All four did so believing that this would hold things up and please the Catholic Church. It had the opposite effect, of making legal the unrestricted access by everyone to contraceptives, the church remaining displeased.

They probably also believed the 'Lugs' Brannigan approach to the law would stop people getting condoms. As an expression of political knuckling-under to the church, it beggared belief to see a Taoiseach and a senior cabinet minister voting against a government bill.

Garret FitzGerald was part of that government. In his continuing capacity as a commentator on political life he has been uniquely placed ever since to enlighten us about the so-called 'climate' of political deference to canon law which has been so pernicious a corruption of political will. He is enough of a theologian to be more than capable of doing this. Yet, in the only piece he has written on the subject of the Irish bishops in the last year, he saw fit to refer only to them getting their own house in order and not to the huge and growing problem of state tolerance of criminal corruption within the Church.

Very few other politicians have dealt with this problem.

Garret FitzGerald's former party has seen fit to miss out on this large and complex question in its programme for reform -- a programme that has been deservedly and comprehensively rejected by Young Fine Gael. Alan Shatter is arguably the only politician in the Dail who could put together a legislative reform programme and lead it when in power, but this was not included in the largely fatuous Enda Kenny-led reform proposals.

The Labour Party has individual members concerned about these issues. Commendably, it put forward a small but important piece of legislation to exonerate all those who had been committed by the courts to the industrial schools from the taint of criminality. The Government turned this bill down; instead of it, Justice Minister Dermot Ahern instituted a system of individual 'pardons' to anyone worried by this taint who applied to him.

He did not make public this process and few applied for it -- a fact that will no doubt be used to contradict those who express concern about this element of guilt and distress with which elderly victims of the industrial school system have had to contend throughout their lives.

Anyone who, without the presence of their parents or guardians or legal witnesses of what they are doing, makes children sign a document saying: "I will never directly or indirectly, by means of a nod, or of a word, by writing, or in any other way, and under whatever type of pretext, for the most urgent and most serious cause, even for the purpose of a greater good, commit anything against this fidelity to the secret, unless a dispensation has been expressly given to me by the Supreme Pontiff" commits a grave abuse of their constitutional rights, the legal proprieties under which a 'document of threat' is enacted, and over their juvenile, unformed understandings. For this alone, Sean Brady should resign.

The Pope's letter to the Irish faithful will not remove the fact of Roman Catholic canon law remaining part of State laws. And politicians will continue to look the other way.