Saturday, May 23, 2009

Fight the real enemy

It's been almost eighteen years since Sinéad O'Connor's infamous appearance on Saturday Night Live. That was the acapella performance of the Bob Marley song War that she capped by holding up a picture of the pope saying 'Fight the real enemy.' and carefully tearing it to pieces live on camera.

People went crazy of course. She was vilified, condemned and there were organized campaigns to burn or crush her albums.

What her critics flat out refused to do was address her reasons for dong what she did. She was trying to draw attention to a long toxic history of horrific child abuse by church institutions and representatives. Specifically to the Irish experience of the various residence schools, reformatories and orphanages run by the church. Over the years O'Connor has vacillated between ruing an act she has described as adolescent rebellion and defiantly refusing to apologize for it.

Now a report has come out in Ireland detailing the systemic abuse she was protesting.

Irish people had some knowledge before this of the obscene depravity that permeated the industrial school system that existed in Ireland until the 1980s. The commission began gathering evidence in 2000 after a series on RTE (Irish national television), called "States of Fear," provided documentary evidence of the reign of terror in institutions for homeless, abandoned and delinquent children. And some victims of abuse, like the writer and actor Mannix Flynn, who "served time" in St. Josephs Industrial School in Letterfrack after he stole a bicycle, published compelling accounts of their mistreatment more than 10 years ago.

However the revelation this week of the full extent of the "savage reality" of life in these schools has come as a profound shock, and raised disturbing questions about the kind of society that existed in Ireland for most of the 20th century.

Violence in almost all Irish schools was once the norm. (De La Salle Brothers in the high school I attended in the 1950s used a hammer handle and straps to administer punishment.) But even by the standards of the time, the treatment meted out to the nation's most defenseless children was vicious and inhumane. The report of the commission, chaired by Judge Sean Ryan, undermines any defense that ill-treatment of children was the exception, or that the industrial schools were essentially benign institutions. It detailed abuse, much of it sexual, some of it physical, in 216 institutions and implicated 800 brothers, nuns and lay people.

In a typical victim testimony, a boy recounted how "one brother kept watch while the other abused me (sexually) ... then they changed over." He added, "Every time it ended with a beating. When I told the priest about it in confession, he called me a liar."

Ireland has a long record of "running away from the appalling truth of the physical and sexual torture experienced by so many children," commented Mary Raftery, producer of the "States of Fear" television series, in Thursday's Irish Times. No one could now plead that just a few "bad apples" were responsible or that it was all in the past, she wrote, nor could anyone make "snide suggestions" that those revealing their abuse were motivated by the prospect of financial compensation.

Locking up children and treating them cruelly was not unknown in other western European countries in the 20th century, but Ireland did it on an industrial scale. The numbers of children incarcerated in Irish institutions -- for truancy, begging, running away from home, or simply because they were put there by their parents -- was higher than in England, Scotland and Wales combined. The commission was especially critical of the Irish Department of Education for its "deferential" and "submissive" attitude toward the religious orders, especially the Christian Brothers, who received taxpayers' money to house the country's most inconvenient children.

Sinéad was responding to injustice on a scale that's hard to imagine. Even now the Catholic religious orders responsible for decades of horrific abuse had enough power in Ireland to force the commission to withhold names and protect the perpetrators of multiple rapes, torture and abuse.

In the US a retired ArchBishop, himself responsible for hiding and minimizing acts of abuse by himself and others says that the church representatives responsible for these acts just didn't know they were doing anything wrong.

Said Rembert G Weakland:

We all considered sexual abuse of minors as a moral evil, but had no understanding of its criminal nature.

Weakland, who retired in 2002 after it became known that he paid $450,000 in 1998 to a man who had accused him of date rape years earlier, said he initially:

Accepted naively the common view that it was not necessary to worry about the effects on the youngsters: either they would not remember or they would ‘grow out of it’.

Calling these people and the institution that protected and enabled them 'the real enemy' seems reasonable to me.

Lots of people addressing this in the blogosphere, here's some highlights:

Damnit Janet!: They hate children don't they?

Canadian Cynic: The Catholic Problem


deBeauxOs said...

Excellent post. I was hoping that someone, somewhere would honour what Sinéad did, and here it is.

Mike said...

I was one who applauded her when she did that. Still do.

I love Sinead.

Anonymous said...


Athena said...

I love what you said here!
I cant believe how cruel people were and still are to Sinead for this!

you talked about the institutes for runaway and delinquent children, I believe Sinead was in one too for awhile before her father got custody of her, I'm sure she endured physical abuse there as well.

A good movie to see that helps people to understand the kind of abuse that whent on in those instatues is called
"the magdalene sisters"

Cliff said...

I've heard its good. Thanks for visiting Athena, feel free to come back.

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