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Sex abuse in Donegal: A window on the worst of Irish culture

Let us get one thing out of the way, right in the first paragraph of this piece: What follows is not, in any way, an effort or attempt to deflect any responsibility away from the Irish Roman Catholic Church for its record on the sexual abuse of children. The names of people like Father Brendan Smyth, Father Sean Fortune, and others, will live long in the memory of Irish culture, and it is probable that the Irish church will never recover from the revelation that so many abusers were transferred to another parish.

Acres of coverage, though, have been devoted over the years to the Church, and its problems with sex abuse. We recognise it for what it was: An institutional problem, and a catastrophic institutional failure.

What we have, as a country, been less willing to do, is to look at that abuse in the wider context of Irish society, or to observe that many of the patterns of behaviour made infamous in the revelations about the church appear time, and time again, elsewhere in Irish society.

The latest example:

“The so-called ‘Brandon report’ looked at incidents involving a resident in St Joseph’s hospital in Stranorlar for adults with intellectual disabilities.

The report found that residents in the facility were subject to “sustained sexual abuse by another resident, Brandon, over a prolonged period of time” during his residency…

…Basic guidance on such practices as informing families when their loved were harmed were rarely adhered to at that time,” it said.

It found that “it is clear from the evidence reviewed” that the alleged abuse occurred with the “full knowledge of staff and management” of the facility at that time”

Consider that part in bold (my emphasis) for a moment.

This was not a one off incident. This individual (who, it should be noted, had an intellectual disability, though that is no excuse) sexually abused his fellow patients over a period of years. And did so with the full knowledge of staff and management.

It is, again, not to excuse the Church to note that they, at least, moved Priests to another parish. The HSE and its employees, knowing what was happening, actively allowed it to continue.

None of the HSE staff were priests. Or Nuns. Or Monks. Or, to the best of our knowledge, Nurse Ratchet characters. Chances are, in fact, that most of them were perfectly normal people with husbands, wives, children, and friends, who simply did not think it was their job to stop people from being sexually abused, and consciously looked the other way.

If my writing, at Gript, has a theme about Irish society, it is this: We are a nation terrified of rocking the boat. Very few people in Ireland like to stand out from the crowd, or to be seen as a troublemaker, or somebody who points the finger at those in authority. When there is a national consensus, we join it. When it is time to wear the Green Jersey (as it always is) we throw it on. We often seem bizarrely happy about failures in other countries – witness the degree of smugness with which Brexit bad news is covered, and received – and inordinately touchy about failures in our own country. Unless, of course, an external actor can be blamed.

In that sense, the Church is a perfect villain: After all, sure didn’t they make us do it? The officially accepted version of Irish history in the 20th century is that parents abandoned their daughters to cruel mother and baby homes because the Church made them do it. The country, and the people, were just innocent victims of cruel and heartless and all-powerful Bishops. People had no choice.

That, to be frank, is nonsense: People always have a choice. But it is what we widely believe.

So how, then, do we explain Donegal? How do we explain ordinary Irish lay men and women, answerable to no Bishop, simply going with the flow and allowing, it appears, somebody to carry out the most heinous abuse without saying stop?

Does any of this sound familiar? (Credit, by the way, to our sometime friends at the Journal for the original reporting):

Staff told the review panel that their work environment was one where “people were and still are very fearful of coming forward”, describing “a legacy of bullying where people were shouted down and sometimes bullied out of their jobs”.

This created an “ultimately unmanageable situation” at the facility.

“This difficult working environment undoubtedly contributed to high levels of absenteeism and a reliance on agency staff which in itself contributed to Brandon’s on-going mismanagementm” the report found.

It added that the strategy of “moving Brandon from place to place in an attempt to manage his behaviour only served to make the situation worse” as it simply created new opportunities for Brandon to abuse new victims.

A culture of shouting down dissent and bullying people out of their jobs? In Ireland? Who would have thought such a thing would be possible.

It is, perhaps, time, that as a society we started to have a very real and meaningful conversation about the deep flaw in Irish culture which permits these same failures to happen, time and time again. We had a recession in 2008 which followed the Taoiseach of the country suggesting that those who dissented from the prevailing economic strategy should kill themselves. We have a Covid lockdown today where those who dissent are shouted down as far right lunatics and anti-vaxxers. We had a generation or six where those who dared challenge the church were presented, by some, as dangerous communists. This is not a one off.

The reluctance in Ireland to challenge consensus, and authority, and the way things are done, is, and forever will be, the cancer at the very heart of our society. It condemns us to failure, time and time again.

It is a long, and sustained, pattern. We, as a country, flock time and time again towards the majority position. The play it safe position. The keep your job position.

Yes, sexual abuse was a Church Problem, in Ireland. But you have to be blind not to notice the fundamental role that Irish culture also plays in it. But by all means, shout those who say so down. It’s what we’re good at.

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