Disclosures about the oppressive and secretive atmosphere that pervades the Republic of Ireland’s national seminary at Maynooth don’t surprise me.
While researching a book on the industrial school era (“Escape from Grievous Faults”) I spoke to retired clerics and former members of religious orders who told me of bizarre practices to which they were subjected: These included having erections “beaten down with a cane” as they stared at a poster of film actress Jane Russell.
This might sound comical until you consider the catastrophic impact on fellow novices/trainees of sexual repression and/or outright sexual abuse that, according to my informants, was unwittingly promoted by the obsessive emphasis on chastity and celibacy in both the seminaries and the training centres for religious orders.
The obligatory signing of confidentiality agreements at Maynooth and other similar venues has been deeply unhelpful, to put it mildly, to investigations of alleged clerical sexual abuse and the widespread (now proven) physical, sexual and emotional abuse in industrial schools and other institutions.
Whistleblowers who might have exposed serious crimes would themselves have been penalised-or bullied or harassed – for doing what they surely must have considered their moral duty.
Whilst recognising that abusers with the Catholic priesthood and the religious orders have always been in the minority, and unrepresentative of the vast majority of decent priests, brothers, and nuns, it is also a sad fact that far too many of those “good” men and women of the cloth failed to intervene, or cry halt, when they became aware of what their errant colleagues were doing. The nature of the wrongs was such that surely even dismissal from the priesthood or religious order should have been a small price to pay for outing the abusers. Yet, when true courage was so desperately needed, eyes were averted. Silence prevailed.
One can debate the relative gravity of the various sins and misdemeanors set forth in catechisms and prayer books. But surely the destruction of innocent young lives is a sin that puts most others in the shade. Not far behind it ought to be the “culture of secrecy” that facilitated the abuse. Where was the “holiness” in muzzling potential whistle blowers… or staying silent about a crime that never stops hurting?
John Fitzgerald, Co Kilkenny