Religion has dominated the history of Ireland for hundreds of years, and the influence of the Church has been immense. From the smallest village up to the central government, power has lain with the priests over any lay body however democratically elected it may have been. Where power is unchecked, the potential for abuse of that power arises, and recent years have seen shocking evidence of how far many of the spiritual guardians of Irish communities have used their position to violate the children in their pastoral care.
Nuns as well as priests were involved, and it was largely nuns who inflicted great cruelty on the young girls, some only 12, who were forced to live and work in the Magdalene Laundries for no money in harsh, inhumane conditions because they were judged too lively or pretty, or immoral, to be safe to live in their own communities, in case they corrupted someone. We know now that successive Irish governments knew about and condoned these practices, which went on for 200 years, until 1996, probably because the politicians did not dare argue with the Church.
All over the world, wherever Catholicism is well established, evidence has been found of gross abuse by its representatives of the vulnerable, and so the Irish story is not unique. And, of course, sexual misconduct and child abuse occurs, sadly, in many walks of life. The difference, perhaps, is that in Ireland we see graphically exposed blatant and endemic abuse of power and people, and a culture of religious prejudice, and pleasure in making judgment and meting out punishment in the name of God. We are reminded that organised religion can be narrow-minded and dangerous, attracting not visionaries but misfits, and that power corrupts if allowed to go unchecked.
The Catholic Church has known greatness and has achieved much, but is tainted by its dark past, and present; despite this men and women still are called to serve within it who have a sincere desire to do the work of God in this way. Against the background murmur of scandal it is not easy. As we reflect on the role of the Church in Ireland, we must remember those who quietly do the best they can to guide their flocks, as well as the men and women who have suffered at its hands and, indeed, have caused the pain, all of whom remind us well what the love of God really means.]]>