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

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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