True Confession

God Save Ireland From… the Catholic Church

The Irish are increasingly secular and progressive, but their church-dominated institutions have not kept up.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

DUBLIN—Every couple of years a major scandal in the Catholic Church erupts like a dormant volcano in the Irish media.

In early March, a government-appointed investigator in the country confirmed what a local amateur historian, Catherine Corless, had already revealed three years earlier: A mass grave was discovered at a so called Catholic Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Galway, containing the remains of up to 800 babies and children.

Back in November 2014, meanwhile, it emerged that a 31-year-old Indian woman working in Ireland, Savita Halappanavar, died in a Galway hospital after being refused an abortion by the Irish health authorities.

Halappanavar was told just hours before her death that an abortion—which would have almost certainly saved her life— could not be carried out because Ireland was a “Catholic country.”

At present, Ireland is one of last countries in the developed world with a near-total ban on abortion. Women there are forced to travel abroad for a termination. An estimated 3,500 make the annual journey, mainly to Britain.

Others who can't afford this costly trip, have to break the law by taking abortion pills, effectively becoming criminals as they seek to take basic control of their own reproductive systems.

Last April, I broke a story documenting how Hasbro, a U.S. global entertainment corporation worth $8 billion, an Irish charity, Rehab, and a group of nuns from the Good Shepherd Sisters, exploited women who once worked in the infamous Magdalene laundries.

The women packaged popular games like Monopoly and MouseTrap, often receiving no pay in the process.This exploitation went on until 2012.

A month later, Mary Lou McDonald,the deputy leader of the populist socialist party, Sinn Féin, raised in Dáil Éireann (the Irish Parliament) a news article that I published in the Sunday Times about this same issue

Frances Fitzgerald , theTánaiste (the Irish deputy Prime Minister), who is also the Minister for Justice and Equality, responded to McDonald's questions by claiming that the Magdalene Laundries were “private institutions run by the Religious Orders.”

In other words: this matter is of no concern to the Irish State.

This response, however, meanders around the truth: evading any semblance of civic responsibility.

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In 2013 Justice For Magdalenes (JFM) published a report called “State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries,” which was given out to many members of parliament in the Dáil .

The report pointed out that the Irish State was not only aware of the business interests of the Magdalene Laundries, but that it actually did business with the laundries for many years, too.

The laundries, for example, had a cleaning contract with the Irish defense forces for a prolonged period. This meant women, in many instances, worked for free, while the Irish State paid the religious order for labor, who then kept the money for themselves. Nobody asked any questions.

When these stories randomly pop up in the media from time to time, they bring sharply into focus horrific memories of Ireland's dark past; when the state, and an extremist-totalitarian brand of Catholicism, were inextricably linked by an invisible umbilical cord.

* * *

The relationship between Church and State in Ireland is historical, and deeply ingrained in the country's national consciousness.

In 1922 the Irish Free State was formed. It was seeking to realize, under extremely difficult circumstances, the promise of equality that those in the Irish Revolution of 1916 fought and died for as they sought to break away from the chains of British imperialism.

Following Irish Independence, Irish citizens pretty quickly became coerced into social obedience by religious authorities, who ran every facet of Irish society, from schooling, to health care, to the policing of sexual mores, to the censorship of arts and culture.

As the Free State evolved into what became Éire, and then eventually the Republic of Ireland, the separation of Church and State was supposed to become legally defined. In principle, it did. Separation of Church and State in Ireland is enshrined in Ireland's 1937 constitution.

But the distinct lines have remained murky ever since. And that separation has always remained more theoretical than practical, especially when it comes to religious freedom and denominational autonomy.

The way in which the Irish Constitution protects religious activity from the state is underdeveloped to say the least, and it has never been decisively resolved.

Today, the ramifications of that are still being felt across Ireland.

Take, for instance, the role that the Catholic Church plays in Irish primary schools.

A recent article on Ireland's state broadcaster, RTÉ, showed how Catholic primary schools in the greater Dublin area refused at least 96 applications for a school place as recently as last September.

The reason?

The children in question did not have a Catholic baptismal certification.

This form of religious discrimination is more popularly known in Ireland as the “baptism barrier.” It means people with almost no religious affiliation are baptizing their children into the Catholic Church, fearing that if they don't, their child could potentially miss out on the opportunity of a decent education.

After all, the religious orders still control 96 percent of primary schools across Ireland.

But the grip of power the Catholic Church still holds in Ireland isn't just confined to education.

It controls much of Ireland's healthcare, too.

Micheál Martin, the leader of the main political party in opposition, Fianna Fáil, recently told the Irish Times that it's time for the Catholic Church to hand over the hospitals it runs to the Irish State.

Many of Ireland's hospitals, because they are owned by the Catholic Church, and registered as charities, are not required to produce the same level of documentation regarding their financial affairs as, say, a secular organization would.

The hospitals owned by the Irish religious orders are listed by Revenue Commissioners as organizations that have been granted Charitable Tax Exemption.

John Bowen Walsh, a technical executive at the Institute of Chartered Accountants told me when I was investigating the story about Hasbro and religious orders last year that: “There is no law in the Republic of Ireland] that says: here is what you do for accountability and administration if you are a religious organization.”

This, in effect, means religious orders are above and beyond the law in Ireland.

A report published this past January by the Euro Health Consumer ranks the Irish health system as diabolical: displaying how Irish patients spend longer waiting for emergency treatment in hospital than in any other country in Europe. And, that the access to the Irish healthcare system is the worst of the 36 countries included in the survey.

So, is there a correlation between an extremely poor Irish health system, and an invisible army of Catholic nuns and priests, who effectively own most of it, but are answerable to nobody, least of all the Irish State? The answer most certainly is yes.

Then there is the policing of sexual morality in contemporary Ireland by religious organizations. Take the issue of, say, prostitution.

The Good Shepherd Sisters and the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity— who both previously ran the Magdalene Laundries— now run Ruhama, a Dublin-based NGO which works on a national level with women affected by prostitution and other forms of what they call “commercial sexual exploitation.”

When you begin to delve further and further into what one might call the deep-Catholic-Irish-hierarchy, this is a common pattern. It's an insular, closed world, where certain names keep cropping up ubiquitously across several institutions: gently pulling the levers of power, making decisions on public policy, while simultaneously holding on tightly to the purse strings.

On February 22, Ireland passed a law stating that the buying of sex is now a criminal offense in the country. The main premise of this law tries to portray those engaged in sex work as exploited women.

Eilis Ward, a lecturer in Political Science and Sociology in NUI Galway, told the University Times believes the current discussion on this matter is about a narrative where all sex workers must be “rescued.”

In 2015 Amnesty International claimed the most effective way to seek attainment of the highest possible protection of the human rights of sex workers, is through measures that include the decriminalisation of sex work.

* * *

Thankfully, Ireland actually enjoys a freer press than most countries in the world. Last year it was ranked 9th globally in a press freedom index survey.

But again, the Catholic Church holds some level of influence here. For example, blasphemy is currently a criminal act in Ireland. And in 2009, the Defamation Act established blasphemy as an offense punishable with fines of up to €25,000.

The reporting of religious news in Ireland, by comparison with any other western nation, is quite unique.

Religious correspondents are given an extraordinary amount of air time on the state broadcaster, RTÉ , and given an unusual amount of coverage in the national newspapers, too.

The main news bulletin at six o’clock, for instance, begins with a reflective minute's silence, and a call to pray, accompanied by a myriad of Catholic imagery.

* * *

To really understand the full extent of why all these civil institutions in Ireland are saturated by members of the clergy, and the Catholic hierarchy, one has to understand a key moment in Irish history.

While drafting the Irish constitution in 1936, the President of the Executive Council (which was then the name for the Irish Prime Minister), Éamon de Valera, consulted and liaised closely with the most powerful member of the Catholic hierarchy at the time, a notoriously tyrannical figure: the former Archbishop of Dublin, John Charles McQuaid.

This seismic event, where men of the cloth held secret meetings with prominent legislators and statesmen, had dramatic consequences as the Irish State was subtly molded into a theocracy in everything but name: and where Catholic morality was always put above equality and individual liberty.

None of these matters, of course, were of much concern in the Ireland of yesteryear, in a nation of predominately conservative practicing Catholics who were happy to have their schools, hospitals, and other public institutions run by the church, which became de facto moral and spiritual guardian of the state.

But over the last couple of decades the zeitgeist in Ireland has shifted rapidly toward a more secular ethos, while neither the archaic laws, nor the anachronistic institutions have moved with the times.

* * *

During the 1990s, a host of stories exploded about pedophilia within the Irish Catholic Church. Over time, it became apparent that scores of priests were molesting boys and girls over a period of decades.

This knowledge went all the way to the top of the Catholic hierarchy, who knew all the depraved details, but chose to stay silent so they could protect their fellow clerics. Even top members of the hierarchy stand accused of serial child sex abuse accusations.

This then subsequently led to the publishing in 2009 of the Murphy and Ryan Reports: two government led inquires that showed, more generally, how sexual abuse, sadism, and cruelty, was secretly embedded into the bedrock of the Irish Catholic Church for decades.

Specifically, it documented the way members of the Irish police colluded with the Catholic Church to cover up clerical child abuse on a monumental scale. And that four former archbishops in Dublin failed to report their knowledge of child sexual abuse to the Irish police from the 1960s to the1980s.

These revelations had a huge impact on shifting attitudes to Catholicism within Ireland itself.

* * *

Today, Ireland is by and large a secular country, but official figures can be misleading. According to the 2011 census, 84 percent of the Irish population declared themselves to be “Roman Catholic.” But the census form makes no distinction between religious belief or practice and a sense of cultural belonging. Catholicism has been extremely powerful in shaping the identity of Irish citizens for hundreds of years, particularly as it stands in binary opposition to the state's old enemy: Protestant England. But cultural Catholics and practicing ones are two very different beasts.

Census figures from 2016, released just this past week show that 3.7 million people identified as Catholic (78%), 132,220 fewer than in 2011.

Furthermore, one in 10 Irish people from these latest findings now say they have no religion (468,421 people), a staggering 73.6% increase since 2011. This makes “no religion” the second largest group in this category behind Roman Catholics.

Another survey from 2011revealed mass attendances in the nation's capital had fallen to as low as 14 percent a figure the Archbishop of Dublin, and Primate of Ireland, Diarmuid Martin, described at the time as the “biggest crisis since [Catholic] emancipation in 1829.”

* * *

As the prestige and popularity of the church decline, in many respects Ireland is becoming one of the most tolerant and liberal countries in Europe, if not the world. It's leading globally in many areas of progressive legislation.

Two years ago, Ireland became the first country on the planet to pass a referendum where citizens democratically decided to guarantee same-sex marriage in the constitution.

In March 2004, Ireland became the first country in the world to introduce comprehensive legislation banning smoking. A radical move at the time that many countries soon copied.

Last year, Ireland featured in the top 20 countries in the world happiness index.

In general, things are looking optimistic for Ireland in the near to medium future: wages in the country are high; the economy is growing exponentially ; the workforce is highly educated and outspoken, and the level of debate in public discourse is one where a healthy press flourishes, and voices are listened to with reason and respect.

Moreover, the rise of toxic far right politics that has taken hold of the U.K., the U.S., and other European countries, simply has not found favor in Ireland.

* * *

If you casually take a walk around Dublin's city center on any given week, you'll most likely find yourself confronted with thousands of women— and men supporting them, too— holding placards outside Dáil Éireann, or in its surrounding streets, demanding the repeal of the Eighth Amendment , an add-on clause in the Irish Constitution which guarantees the right to life of the unborn.

This is a real sour spot for liberal Ireland at present, where people are fighting passionately for a change to the current legislation so that Irish women can be given the right to an abortion in their own land, without having to feel ostracized, expelled, or criminalized. And it's only a matter of time, it appears, before that change occurs.

Those on the Catholic right in Ireland—an ideological group that once ruled the country with an iron fist and had utter contempt for the average Irish man or woman—are now in the minority. So they exaggerate their numbers.

An article I wrote for The Sunday Times in 2015, backed up with a host of statistics from social media experts, revealed that Youth Defence, a pro-life-militantly-Catholic-grassroots organization, which boasts of having a huge following across Ireland, actually gets two thirds of its Twitter followers from the United States, the same country that predominantly funds the organization.

* * *

So why, then, given these mass shifts in demographics, and changed ideological belief systems, does the Catholic Church still hold so much power in Ireland?

To paraphrase, rather clumsily, an old Clintonian catchphrase: it's the institutions, stupid.

As the political scientist Francis Fukuyama has noted in his book Political Order and Political Decay, political development always goes hand in glove with change, over time, in political institutions. Because, crucially, the institutions of the state are where the concentrations of power lie.

In Ireland, these state institutions such as schools, hospitals, and charities run by the religious orders were supposed to, under difficult circumstances, and with little money, serve public purposes.

But instead, they were captured by selfish private interests. The net result is that these institutions proceeded to rot from within from the very beginning of their existence.

And those institutions were neither reformed, or destroyed, at any moment in their history.

Today, they still control a great portion of Irish society, even if they have decayed into old age— rather squalidly— over the last number of decades.

If Ireland is to finally become the progressive, worldly, forward, outward looking, secular modern European nation it seeks to be, its citizens must dissolve those institutions— once and for all— from the backward, poisonous and tyrannical forces of Roman Catholicism which has held the country back for so many years.