After the truth

The Ryan Commission has revealed decades of child abuse within institutions run by the Irish Catholi

There are about 150 religious orders based in Ireland. Many of them are very small. All are declining very fast.

Of the 150 or so orders, 18 ran the country’s system of industrial schools and reformatories from the late 19th century until the 1970s, when the last of these institutions was closed.

The system was established during the years of British rule in Ireland. Britain itself had imported the system from Germany, Switzerland and Sweden where it originated in the 19th century. Industrial schools were a response to the problem of the thousands upon thousands of street children, like those Charles Dickens depicted in his novels.

Ten years ago, the Irish Government set up a commission to investigate what happened in our industrial schools; the conditions the children lived in, and how they were treated by those entrusted with their care.

The investigation was prompted by documentaries that told the harrowing stories of many of the former residents of these places, stories of sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. Last week this commission, headed by Justice Sean Ryan, issued its report, a report that runs to five volumes and 2600 pages.

I am a journalist. In fact, I attended all of the Ryan Commission's public hearings, as religious affairs correspondent of The Irish Independent through 2004 and 2005. Therefore its findings were terrible to me but not surprising; they were sadly familiar.

But I am also a practising Catholic. To have it confirmed that senior members of the Church to which I belong were guilty of crimes that can only be described as anti-Christ (I think that description is exactly right), is extremely painful.

What Catholics are trying to square is this; Christians are supposed to draw their inspiration from Jesus Christ. His two great commandments were to love God and to love our neighbours. If these two commandments had been at the heart of the work of the religious orders, the institutions they ran would have been far more humane than they were. It is clear, therefore, that they lost sight of the great commandments.

The question is, why?

I think there are a number of reasons. One is that many people who entered the priesthood and religious life in Ireland had no real vocation. They did so for social, family and economic reasons. Another is that the Church was both fed by, and itself fed, the ultra-authoritarian temper of the times.

Furthermore, the Church often became more concerned with moralism than with love, which was a terrible betrayal of the Gospel. Another factor, which is not unique to the Church, is that when one group of people is given great power over another, there will always, always, always be abuses unless necessary precautions are taken. Subsequently, when institutions are confronted with evidence of their own malfeasance, they will cover it up so as to protect their reputations.

This is a terrible time to be a Catholic. We search for explanations for what happened but in the explanations there is no comfort at all. How can there be?

What does this do to my own faith, and to that of other Catholics? One thing it certainly does is to erode trust in the leadership of the Church, the bishops and the heads of religious congregations alike. On the other hand, the scandals, which have been in the public realm since the early 1990s, don’t appear to have accelerated the decline in weekly Mass attendance, which now stands at roughly 40 per cent.

Why is this? I think it’s because people can distinguish between the Church and those who run it. Catholicism is either true or it isn’t irrespective of the behaviour of many of its members.

Many Catholics are hanging on in there despite the scandals because they still believe Catholicism is true.

David Quinn is a columnist for The Irish Independent and a former editor of The Irish Catholic

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
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Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.