Church can no longer remain untouchable

It is almost a month since the publication of the Ryan Commission report outlining the extent of child abuse in religious-run industrial schools for half a century. The outpouring of anger and grief that followed has set the political agenda in a most surprising way. The heads of religious orders have been summoned to Government Buildings, ordered to produce an inventory of their assets, and can now expect a bill of up to ¤500m to atone for the sins and crimes of their sisters, brothers and priests.

But we detect a mood in favour of more profound changes. Almost since its foundation in 1922, the Irish state has genuflected deeply before the altar of the Catholic church. Politicians have literally and metaphorically kissed the rings of bishops. Church and state were so closely intertwined that the republic could feasibly have been defined as a “theocracy” at one point.

It was the state’s deference towards the church that allowed the abuse in industrial schools to continue for so long. As Justice Ryan said in his report, the Department of Education’s “submissive” attitude towards the religious congregations “compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools”.

That deference, combined with the sclerotic slothfulness that generally characterises the Irish public service, had another effect: it allowed the Catholic church to take control of the Irish education and health systems. State laziness and indifference has allowed that regime to continue, despite the huge decline in the number of priests and nuns since the 1970s.

Pat Rabbitte, a Labour TD, probably went too far in the Dail last week when he said that “for the first time in our history, public opinion wants an end to the deference and a separation of church and state”. A majority of the public — 95% of whom are believers — may be happy enough with the status quo. But Mr Rabbitte’s party is correct to say this scandal should not go unpunished.

There are 3,200 primary schools in the country, but fewer than 100 of them are owned by the state, according to Labour, with the rest in the hands of the church. Many of these schools are owned by the 18 religious orders which have been indicted in the Ryan report. This is now clearly unacceptable. Those orders were not just guilty of physical, mental and sexual abuse of children for decades — they were also guilty of minimising and denying their crimes right up until this year.

They adopted an aggressive line with the state in the matter of compensation, securing a soft deal, and then didn’t even keep their side of a very lopsided bargain. Up to half the properties that were supposed to be given to the state as part of the infamous ¤128m indemnity deal struck in 2002 still haven’t been handed over. Contrition and atonement are key concepts in the Catholic catechism — we’ve seen precious little of either from most of the 18 religious orders involved.

The Department of Education has refused to answer questions about the precise ownership of the primary school system, even though it is funded by taxpayers. This is unacceptable. Batt O’Keeffe, the education minister, should now order his officials to draw up a full register of ownership and publish it. When that task is complete, the state will be better able to decide what steps it might take to end this decades-old relationship. In the meantime, justice dictates that those schools owned by the religious orders named in the Ryan report be handed over as a matter of urgency.

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