Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Church Abuse

Once Again Words are Not Enough

I’ve hesitated writing about the Tuam babies case. It’s not that I don’t feel strongly about it. It’s not that I’m afraid to write about it.  It’s just that I will simply be one voice in many and surely this is a case where words mean very little unless something can be done about the attitudes that bring us back here again and again and again.

If you’re not familiar with the story, and I’m sure there are plenty who still won’t be, it’s this. On May 24th the Irish Mail on Sunday broke the story. There followed the predictable social media outrage, the even more predictable empty words from those who allowed it to happen, the absolutely inevitable lack of action. Most things don’t happen here until the international press get the sniff of a story and sure enough, once thematter appeared in the Washington Post it really started being talked about.

So what happened? It’s a simple enough story. In Tuam, in County Galway, there used to be a home for Mothers and Babies. It stood on the site of an old workhouse and was run by the sistesr of the Bon Secours order. In this home, between the 1920s and the 1960s 800 babies and young children died. But that’s not it. It’s not that 800 dead over 40 or so years means an average of around 2 a month which might to the casual observer seem a wee bit on the high side. If that was all we would no doubt have already been mollified by those who would drag in every measles outbreak, every flu epidemic, every cholera, typhoid and diphtheria outbreak to cast a swathe through the Irish population in the last two centuries, to make the point that sometimes children die, sometimes a lot of children die. Life they would tell us,  is a fragile thing and you can blame germs, or poverty, or ignorance to tidy away the significant numbers of dead babies of times past.

But that’s not it.

The problem with these 800 babies is that there is a good chance some or all of them ended up disposed of with no care or reverence, thrown in a septic tank.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment. They were disposed of in a septic tank. Not buried in a euphemistically called “angel plot” for the unbaptised. Not placed gently in a little white coffin and honoured with flowers and favourite toys. These children were thrown where you would throw rubbish, in an empty concrete tank that had once held the workhouse’s sewage. There have been suggestions that many of the children who died were the sick, the weak and the disabled, left in what amounted to Dying Rooms to die a slow, sad death of malnutrition and avoidable illness. That these children were left because they were not as lucrative as the healthy children who could be sold to childless couples.

Already there have been those who have denied this. There are those who say that the only indication that there were bones in that septic tank were two small boys who investigated a crack in a concrete slab in the 60s and discovered a horror. There are those who are no doubt hoping that the bones turn out to belong to dogs or rats or sheep – if they are ever exhumed. If anyone bothers to try to find out what happened.

We need to focus on that septic tank because it doesn’t matter if there aren’t 800 babies there. If just one bone of one child is in there it tells us something we should never forget. It means that the body of at least one child was treated like rubbish, was denied the basic funerary rites that we have turned towards as a species since neanderthal times. It means that a child’s body was treated like a dead dog – and perhaps that dog would actually have had more care taken of it. It means that someone turned their back on the most basic human compassion, fought what is surely an instinctive need to treat the dead gently. If there is more than one child’s bone, if there are the dozen’s, hundreds, that have been described then that is an image from a scene of war. That is the piles of bodies in a concentration camp, the smoking piles of war dead. That is humanity lost.

Since the story broke the similar stories have come thick and fast. Just as when the first reports disclosed clerical sex abuse or the horrors of the Magdalen Laundries. There’s never a shortage of stories like that in Ireland. This country has a very, very dark past. Each time a story like this has been told it has caused outrage, anger and disgust. Each time there have been the harrowing first person narratives of what life was like in hell. Each time the Church has responded with platitudes and empty apologies that have never been followed up with action. Each time the apologists have gathered to sweep the dirt back under the now irredeemably bumpy rug. Each time, once a suitable period of chagrin has been observed the Church has sulked about anti-religious agendas and shut their doors yet again.

We don’t know what will happen yet with this. At this stage we don’t even know exactly what the situation is. Until things are clarified, and possibly even then, there will be those who ignore the absolute truth that has been staring us in the face for far too long. RTE journalist Philip Boucher Hayes has outlined what evidence is already available here and Catherine Corless, the local historian whose tireless work brought this story out into the open has put this summary of her findings on Facebook. These are both accounts that can be trusted. This is not a delusion, this is not an exaggeration. If one bone of one child found it’s way into that disused septic tank that is too much. This is not something we should look away from and this is not something we should allow to fade into the past.

The problem, the huge problem, with this is not simply that it is yet another account of a past full of unimaginable cruelty and heartlessness, it is because these attitudes have not been left in the past. The attitudes that allowed these things to happen that keep coming to light, that keep shocking us, the attitudes that dismissed life so absolutely are still here and they are all around us.

When a story like this breaks there are still those who deny it ever happened, who accuse the people who have brought the latest horror to light, of attacking the Church. The newspapers will still ask the local bishop what he thinks, will still listen to the response. The investigation will move slowly unless it gets indefinitely postponed while yet another inquiry creaks forward toothlessly. A lot of columnists will write elegant phrases about how hard the past was before moving on to the next outrage. Social media will get outraged for a while until the next thing turns up. Months down the road there will be a report or an investigation where more details come from the mouths of the victims. Outrage, disgust once again – until the next time.

Has the heart of the country really changed from the time when families were so soaked in catholic guilt that they would turn their back on their own? Isn’t it still a lot easier to listen to what those in power tell us to do than to stand up and demand change? Isn’t such deference hardwired into jaded souls so that certain views still have weight when they should have been resigned to the past.

It’s buried deep but there is still a checklist that weeds the good from the bad, a rigid code that places each of us in one pile or another. If you don’t check the right boxes you are bad, unsaveable, lost. In a mindset based on black and white, good and evil, ours and their,s that line is drawn deep. In my teens and early 20s I first noticed it. Because I was an “outsider” I could never be a good girl. I’ve seen what that does to the attitudes of the guys who were too sure in the discos we called nightclubs. I’ve seen it in the sneers from a certain type of dark-clad granny who would slowly look me up and down on the bus, making me blush and feel like dirt. That was what they meant to do. I was on the other side of the line. There would be no crossing over. I’m not comparing a few slights to what went on in the various homes but I recognise it.

Having a line like that is a dangerous thing as history never fails to show us. Lines like that destroy empathy. Lines like that cause genocide, brutality, slavery. We don’t even need to look to the world for proof of that. There’s ample evidence at home.

As long as that deference is there then so is the line. It goes deeper than prejudice, it’s the difference between black and white. It is hard wired into this country and it’s something that needs to be fought if  the ground is ever going to be kicked over and humanity restored. As long as that line is there people find it easier to assume that those who have been hurt will lie – as the Irish Times managed to point out when talking about the #YesAllWomen Twitter hashtag (which I’ll return to another time). As long as it’s there the voiceless will never have a voice and the sins of the past will never be truly repaired.

 

Beware the Big Bad Wolf

Mick Phillpott is no bogey man like Sawney Bean

Mick Philpott, who last week was sentenced to life in prison for setting a fire which resulted in the deaths of six of his 17 children, looks set to become the kind of legend that conservative mothers scare their children with when they won’t do their homework and eat their greens. His case has caused political ructions and spawned a slew of TV specials in numbers normally reserved for matters of grave national importance, like wars or epidemics. For a man who loves the limelight it must all be very gratifying, after all he’s no stranger to being cast as public enemy number one.

I’ve hesitated in posting on the case.  After all, it’s only a couple of months since I swore my days of writing about sensational trials are over. But Mick Philpott fascinates me. I’ve seen his type before. Most of us have. While Philpott might be being cast as the product of Trash TV and The Benefit Culture, his story is sadly nothing new. Men like him have been making bogey men for centuries. There’s something about that particular blend of monomaniacal swagger and ruthless selfishness that stops those of us who consider ourselves law abiding, or god fearing or unassuming members of society, in our tracks. We baulk at such shameless profiteering, such casual cruelty. It’s natural. If society has too many Mick Philpott’s in it’s midst the whole thing will come crashing down.

Delivering her sentence, the trial judge in the Philpott case went into unusual detail in highlighting a particular part of the evidence, including matters which had not been put before the jury. Mrs Justice Thirlwall’s full sentencing speech makes interesting reading and it’s also worth reading Grace Dent’s analysis of it. Both make clear the fact that Philpott was a very specific type of abuser. Dent compares him to Fred West, which is a fair enough but I’ve been struck by another comparison , a case I wrote about at the time and which sparked a similar furore in Ireland after the sentence, that of wannabe ruler of the New World Order and friend of social workers and gardai, Ronnie Dunbar.

I sat next to Dunbar for pretty much every day of his trial. That was back before criminal trials moved out of the Four Courts into the new Criminal Courts of Justice and in the absence of press benches the press often found ourselves sitting beside the prisoner in the dock. As the only left handed hack in the pack I usually found myself shunted down to the end of the row by clashing elbows. As a consequence I’ve sat next to quite a few of Ireland’s most notorious murderers. Most of them are very polite.

Dunbar was a particularly chivalrous child killer. He would great me with a warm smile each morning and once or twice bent to pick up a dropped pen. It’s unusual for a defendant to be so outgoing with members of the press but in this case, no one was particularly surprised. We’d already been regaled with stories in the press room from a colleague who’d doorstepped him during the hunt for his victim Melissa Mahon, whose body was undiscovered for two years. This journo, who’d fully expected to have the door slammed in his face was amazed to be ushered into the house. Dunbar shared that with Philpott. He liked the attention.

That craving for attention tends to put us on the back foot. When someone is aggressively upfront and outgoing they illicit a conditioned response. We smile and comply and engage – even if every sense is screaming that this person is as dodgy as hell. Before the brain has a chance to step in the head nods and the mouth smiles politely. Men like Dunbar and Philpott thrive on this. They are not the kind of killers who will hang about on the fringes of a crime, drooling over their gory deeds like the villain in a TV cop show. They will be front and centre, helping in the search, appealing on TV, offering suggestions. Men like that are so obsessed with control that they will try to take it everywhere. They are flamboyant in their seeking, greedy, hungry. We are always put on the back foot.

One of the most horrifying things about these cases is their inevitability, an inevitability most visible in hindsight. Fred West got help to lay the cement in the garage that covered the grave of one of his victims years before he was caught, Ronnie Dunbar became the go to person for albeit reluctant social services trying to care for vulnerable teen Melissa Mahon, Mick Philpott of course, was a memorable guest on the Jeremy Kyle Show. It’s easy to say after the fact that surely someone should have known. Surely the final tragic events could have been avoided? But these cases remind us that real life isn’t that easy. The clues might all be there but the great detective isn’t called in until after the fact and everyone else will smile through gritted teeth until it’s all too late.

It’s not particularly surprising that cases like this become ciphers for other gripes. We seek justification, an easy ending. The idea that someone that blatant, that obviously dodgy, could go about with their swagger wreaking whatever havoc they may doesn’t sit well with an ordered society. So Ronnie Dunbar’s crime becomes a stick to beat the HSE with. Don’t get me wrong, there are massive failings in that area but the Dunbar case was the fault of one manipulative, narcissistic, sociopath not the social services in Sligo town. But it’s easier to think that it could have been prevented if the powers that be had been on their toes. It puts men like Philpott or Dunbar in a box, but that containment is an illusion.

Men like Philpott and Dunbar and Fred West fascinate because they are truly horrifying. They act with such disregard of societal norms that strikes against some very deep taboos. That’s why this particular type of robber baron takes the headlines, why they appear and reappear in fiction and legend. Take the case of Sawney Bean, illustrating this piece. It might have been a piece of anti Scottish propaganda but the tale of Sawney’s cannibal clan was used to terrorise generations of kids. The character crops up across popular culture too. Take Brian Blessed in Terry Nation’s original series of Survivors made in the 70s. His character Brod is a fictional take on much the same kind of character.

I’m not belittling the harm that Philpott, Dunbar and West have done. We are better off recognising this kind of abusive arrogance wherever it occurs rather than treating each new instance as an aberration and looking for somewhere else to lay the blame. Serial killers and cannibals might be outside the norm but narcissistic sociopaths who think the world owes them are two a penny and too many of them get what they want. Take the revelations about Jimmy Saville or the abuse detailed in the Ferns Report (and the rest) or pirate radio’s most notorious child abuser Eamonn Cooke. Abuse on this scale can only take place because an awful lot of blind eyes are turned. Philpott and Dunbar were both treated in the past as harmless clowns. Philpott got to make more TV. Staff walked out of Radio Dublin in the 70s when rumours were known but Cooke’s abuse continued for years. I’ve mentioned a disparate mix of cases in this post. They really only have one thing in common. The sexual abuse of the vulnerable. Arrogant men abuse. Arrogant men who are pandered to and allowed to continue. Sometimes they kill. All of the time they ruin lives.

I’m sick and tired of the constant surprise when these cases come to light. These men are predators. We should instinctively know how to spot them. It should be so deep rooted in us that we will run a mile but again and again those blind eyes are turned and nothing is done until it’s too late. The big, bad wolf is not cuddly. He’s a menace. He’s never a product of a society, however ill. He’s the thing we’re supposed to be keeping out. I didn’t mean for this to turn into a rant but it really does piss me off. As a journalist I watched some of the worst of these as they swaggered through their trials, acting the gentleman or even the victim. I’ve seen their victims tremble. But I’ve also known  my own big, bad wolf and I’ve been staggered at the blindness of others. Can we stop trying to blame these men on societies that are groaning at the seams and take a little bit of responsibility ourselves? I’m not in any way advocating anyone burning out their local paediatrician but if you know a child or a woman or a man who is in actually in trouble and who you genuinely feel is in danger for god’s sake say something to someone. The big, bad wolf does what he likes only when he’s allowed to and we all allow him.

Time to Say Enough

So here I am throwing open my window and shouting out into the night – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!”. Something has to change and it has to change now. The past week has been a bad week to be a woman in Ireland. Actually not just a woman, it’s been a bad week to be in Ireland.

On Saturday, 70% of the voters in this country were too confused or too apathetic to go to their local polling station and vote on the rights of children. In a country that has seen countless children abused and ignored over the history of the State, you’d think this would be a subject that people might have feelings on. There were strong feelings on both sides but they did not translate to votes. Of the 30% who voted on an amendment that was supported by every major political party, not to mention the majority of advocates for and protectors of children, 40% of that 30% voted No.

On Wednesday the country awoke to the news that a healthy 31-year-old woman, expecting her first child, had died needlessly and avoidably while doctors stood by staring at a foetal heart monitor while the mother died of septicaemia. As the world now knows, last month Savita Halappanavar arrived at University College Hospital, Galway complaining of back pains. She was miscarrying at 17 weeks and her amniotic fluid was leaking. Instead of bringing her in and helping her through this traumatic event safely and speedily, doctors waited until there was no foetal heartbeat before acting. She died in agony a week later after repeatedly asking doctors to terminate her pregnancy. They failed to act. Savita’s husband has said that on at least one of the occasions his wife asked for an abortion she was told that option was not available as Ireland is a Catholic country. There will be an inquiry into what happened in Galway but it’s no surprise to anyone familiar with Irish abortion law that the legal situation is a mess. There’s been a lot written about Savita all over the world over the past two days and there will be a lot more but here in Ireland we’re good at talking and not so good at acting.

Also on Wednesday 39-year-old graphic designer Mark Jordan, with an address at Donabate, North County Dublin, who beat journalist Jane Ruffino and left her scarred for life, walked away from court with a suspended sentence and the price of her suffering was put at €5000. Sadly, as the linked article points out, this sentence was not unique. The judge, former garda Martin Nolan has considerable form but here in Ireland this kind of story might cause outrage but it’s a weary outrage dampened by overuse for as long as anyone can remember. Those who attack women or children here are rarely sentenced to more than a couple of years in jail. Sentences of more than eight years are rare. It’s a subject that has angered me since I started working in the courts and one that I’ve written about often on this blog.

So that’s one week, seven days, that have shown the dark side of Ireland. The side that would prefer to stay in the shadow of the Church, ears closed against the cries of the vulnerable, in pursuit of a life of piety and obedience. This is the holy Catholic Ireland of legend where dissent is quashed, the Church reigns supreme, men are men and women and children shut up and do what they are told. It’s hard to see this Ireland in 21st Century Dublin on a day to day basis but there are certain things that make it show it’s face. Any time the Family is mentioned you will see it. It’s the reason why successive Irish governments have taken more than 20 years to act on the X case. It’s the reason why there’s also no legislation on Assisted Human Reproduction here and why the country’s fertility clinics are unregulated. Make no mistake, holy Catholic Ireland is very much alive.

There are plenty here who’d like to go back to that Ireland. They feel safer there, wrapped in so much moral certainty, but what about those who don’t want to go back? What about those who are happy with the more secular, more liberal country we have now? Who have been ashamed of their country as the world watches the story of Savita’s tragic death unfold? What about those who didn’t come from that tradition in the first place, plentiful in our increasingly multi cultural society? Savita and her husband are Hindu but they were bound by the laws of old holy Ireland. There are plenty of couples who aren’t religious who go through fertility treatment every year but have to endure the the taboo that still exists around it because of these attitudes. But they are vocal, these inhabitants of holy Ireland. They try to shout down voices raised against them, just as they always did. So governments fail to act. The people fail to speak up, to shout stop. But it’s time we all stood up and said we’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it any more. It’s not ok that men can attack women with little consequence. It’s not ok that women in desperate need of medical care are forced to travel outside the State if they have any hope of receiving it. It’s not ok that people don’t stand up, don’t speak out, don’t demand change. It’s not ok that couples are judged because they have IVF.

I want to live in a country I can be proud of but after the week that’s in it, that country isn’t Ireland. There might be a chance to change things though, even after this horrible week. There are demonstrations and vigils all over the country and beyond in the wake of Savita’s death. Let this be a catalyst for change. One that both the politicians and holy Ireland will have to listen to.

A National Shame

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Thousands of people took to the streets of Dublin today to show their outrage at the abuse meted out by the Catholic Church in institutions over the years.  Once the crowds had assembled outside Leinster House where the politicians were arguing about the worth of the Government, stories were told of how the abuse wrecked lives and calls were made for belated justice.

I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t with the marchers.  The husband was, that’s his photograph at the top of this post.  I was working on editing the book, sitting in a favourite hideaway where I can work in the centre of town in peace and quite.  This afternoon there was another sound that drowned out the buzzing of the bees, from Kildare Street a good ten minutes walk away I could hear the speakers at the march.  Their voices carried through megaphones, bounced between buildings, came through the air in a strange ebbing echo, fragments of their stories reaching me on the wind while the shouts of the massive crowd were only a murmur.  This is as it should be.  Their stories should ring out across town and the whole country should hang their heads in shame at the hurt and harm that so many children and pregnant women had to undergo at the hands of a too powerful church.

The first time I personally became aware of the scale of the abuse was when my mother was cast as the head nun in Louis Lentin’s 1996 documentary Dear Daughter.  She was staying with me while the series was filmed and told me about visiting the old Golden Bridge orphanage with some of the women who had suffered so horrifically there.  One of them, Christine Buckley, whose story Dear Daughter followed, is in the photograph above, in the front row of protesters.

My mother told me about the first day of filming, when she was in her nun’s costume for the first time.  She got ready for her entrance at the top of a flight of stairs.  The women who had once been inmates of that grim place were standing in the hall below watching the shot.  She told me that as she came down the stairs as Sister Xavieria, the woman who had been in charge of Goldenbridge in the 1950s, the women all gasped and became visibly upset.  The similarity was far too great, the memories too vivid.

Dear Daughter came three years before the infamous States of Fear series which detailed the abuse suffered by the children who had been sent to the infamous industrial schools.  It told of horrendous abuse perpetrated by the Sisters of Mercy nuns on the children in their care.

But now 13 years later we are still being shocked at the details of that abuse.  Every time there is another report further details of the cruel, sick, inhumane treatment suffered by some of the most vulnerable citizens of this country, come out and the people react with horror, as they should.  But in those thirteen years very little progress has been made.  The story just keep getting bigger and bigger, with more and more victims hurt by a church that should never have been allowed to have such a stranglehold on the country as a whole.

When the Ferns Report was published, detailing more than 100 allegations of child abuse in a single diocese, the same noises were made and the same outrage expressed.  Now we have the Ryan Report which goes into institutional abuse across the whole country but still there is a lack of decisive action on the part of the Government.  How many abusers are still walking free and how many victims still waiting for closure and justice?

The fact that one organisation, the Catholic church, was so twisted and corrupt as to allow and condone such wholesale abuse of the people in their care, is horrifying.  The fact that the State still seems to show deference to the religious rather than ordering them to face up fully to what they have done, is even worse.  There is something very, very wrong with a country in which a slavish subservience to those in power means blind eyes will be turned to whatever abuses the powerful ones choose to get up to.  Whether you are talking about the religious orders who had care of the countries children or the likes of Dr Michael Shine, struck off last year for abusing youngsters, there are those who will gather round them protectively, looking up to the priest or the doctor in adoration and hearing no ill.

Surely it’s time that justice was finally doles out?  There is no excuse, no mitigation to what these people did.  The laws of the land still apply.  But instead of being cast out, the religious are treated as a special case.  They were handed a ludicrously sweet deal when it came to compensating their victims and the news that they are to cough up more is greeted as if they are doing the country some kind of favour.

It can only be hoped that the voices raised this afternoon were heard and a change in attitude takes place.  But going on past evidence it’s going to take a lot more marches before anything changes.

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