March 31, 2010
When I was a child, Ireland was a Catholic theocracy. If a bishop came walking down the street, people would move to make a path for him. If a bishop attended a national sporting event, the team would kneel to kiss his ring. If someone made a mistake, instead of saying, “Nobody’s perfect,” we said, “Ah sure, it could happen to a bishop.”
The expression was more accurate than we knew. This month, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a pastoral letter of apology — of sorts — to Ireland to atone for decades of sexual abuse of minors by priests whom those children were supposed to trust. To many people in my homeland, the pope’s letter is an insult not only to our intelligence, but to our faith and to our country. To understand why, one must realize that we Irish endured a brutal brand of Catholicism that revolved around the humiliation of children.
I experienced this personally. When I was a young girl, my mother — an abusive, less-than-perfect parent — encouraged me to shoplift. After being caught once too often, I spent 18 months in An Grianán Training Centre, an institution in Dublin for girls with behavioral problems, at the recommendation of a social worker. An Grianán was one of the now-infamous church-sponsored “Magdalene laundries,” which housed pregnant teenagers and uncooperative young women. We worked in the basement, washing priests’ clothes in sinks with cold water and bars of soap. We studied math and typing. We had limited contact with our families. We earned no wages. One of the nuns, at least, was kind to me and gave me my first guitar.
An Grianán was a product of the Irish government’s relationship with the Vatican — the church had a “special position” codified in our constitution until 1972. As recently as 2007, 98 percent of Irish schools were run by the Catholic Church. But schools for troubled youth have been rife with barbaric corporal punishments, psychological abuse and sexual abuse. In October 2005, a report sponsored by the Irish government identified more than 100 allegations of sexual abuse by priests in Ferns, a small town 70 miles south of Dublin, between 1962 and 2002. Accused priests weren’t investigated by police; they were deemed to be suffering a “moral” problem. In 2009, a similar report implicated Dublin archbishops in hiding sexual abuse scandals between 1975 and 2004.
Why was such criminal behavior tolerated? The “very prominent role which the Church has played in Irish life is the very reason why abuses by a minority of its members were allowed to go unchecked,” the 2009 report said.
Despite the church’s long entanglement with the Irish government, Pope Benedict’s so-called apology takes no responsibility for the transgressions of Irish priests. His letter states that “the Church in Ireland must first acknowledge before the Lord and before others the serious sins committed against defenceless children.” What about the Vatican’s complicity in those sins?
Benedict’s apology gives the impression that he heard about abuse only recently, and it presents him as a fellow victim: “I can only share in the dismay and the sense of betrayal that so many of you have experienced on learning of these sinful and criminal acts and the way Church authorities in Ireland dealt with them.” But Benedict’sinfamous 2001 letter to bishops around the world ordered them to keep sexual abuse allegations secret under threat of excommunication — updating a noxious church policy, expressed in a 1962 document, that both priests accused of sex crimes and their victims “observe the strictest secret” and be “restrained by a perpetual silence.”
Benedict, then known as Joseph Ratzinger, was a cardinal when he wrote that letter. Now that he sits in Saint Peter’s chair, are we to believe that his position has changed? And are we to take comfort in last week’s revelations that, in 1996, he declined to defrock a priest who may have molested as many as 200 deaf boys in Wisconsin?
Benedict’s apology states that his concern is “above all, to bring healing to the victims.” Yet he denies them the one thing that might bring them healing — a full confession from the Vatican that it has covered up abuse and is now trying to cover up the cover up. Astonishingly, he invites Catholics “to offer up your fasting, your prayer, your reading of Scripture and your works of mercy in order to obtain the grace of healing and renewal for the Church in Ireland.” Even more astonishing, he suggests that Ireland’s victims can find healing by getting closer to the church — the same church that has demanded oaths of silence from molested children, as occurred in 1975 in the case of Father Brendan Smyth, an Irish priest later jailed for repeated sexual offenses. After we stopped laughing, many of us in Ireland recognized the idea that we needed the church to get closer to Jesus as blasphemy.
To Irish Catholics, Benedict’s implication — Irish sexual abuse is an Irish problem — is both arrogant and blasphemous. The Vatican is acting as though it doesn’t believe in a God who watches. The very people who say they are the keepers of the Holy Spirit are stamping all over everything the Holy Spirit truly is. Benedict criminally misrepresents the God we adore. We all know in our bones that the Holy Spirit is truth. That’s how we can tell that Christ is not with these people who so frequently invoke Him.
Irish Catholics are in a dysfunctional relationship with an abusive organization. The pope must take responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. If Catholic priests are abusing children, it is Rome, not Dublin, that must answer for it with a full confession and in a criminal investigation. Until it does, all good Catholics — even little old ladies who go to church every Sunday, not just protest singers like me whom the Vatican can easily ignore — should avoid Mass. In Ireland, it is time we separated our God from our religion, and our faith from its alleged leaders.
Almost 18 years ago, I tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II on an episode of “Saturday Night Live.” Many people did not understand the protest — the next week, the show’s guest host, actor Joe Pesci, commented that, had he been there, “I would have gave her such a smack.” I knew my action would cause trouble, but I wanted to force a conversation where there was a need for one; that is part of being an artist. All I regretted was that people assumed I didn’t believe in God. That’s not the case at all. I’m Catholic by birth and culture and would be the first at the church door if the Vatican offered sincere reconciliation.
As Ireland withstands Rome’s offensive apology while an Irish bishop resigns, I ask Americans to understand why an Irish Catholic woman who survived child abuse would want to rip up the pope’s picture. And whether Irish Catholics, because we daren’t say “we deserve better,” should be treated as though we deserve less.
Sinead O’Connor is a musician and mother of four. She lives in Dublin.