WE put on our hats on a Sunday morning and march off to church with faith in our hearts and smiles on our faces. We’re the Prods, you see. We don’t abuse children. We’re too busy making chutney and lemonade. But as for the Catholics? What do you expect when you put men in dresses and tell them they can’t marry? You’re bound to get child abuse, aren’t you? Of course you are. Me, born in the 1960s in Dublin, Church of Ireland — never saw a bit of child abuse. Children were respected in my tradition.
Cared for. Most of the time. Except for now and then. Now and then that I can’t help remembering, no matter how hard I try. I am haunted by the cheeky face of a young boy. He is wearing school trousers which look like they have been cut down once too often. His trousers shout that he is from an institution. Which is just as well. Because in the Protestant schools of the time, poor children mingle with rich children, but they know their place. Poor children are tolerated as one might tolerate a separate species — like horses tolerate donkeys in a field. One day the boy whose cheeky face haunts me didn’t come to school. I never saw him again. There was no announcement, there were no prayers at assembly. But the rumours started to circulate. He’d had a horrific accident on the train home from school. Some said he’d fallen out, some that he’d been pushed. The best information seems to be that the kids were messing and he put his head out.
I don’t know exactly what happened and the information is not forthcoming from CIE. But what I do know is that he was disfigured and incapacitated by the accident. Accidents happen to all kinds of kids. But they are far more likely to happen to a kid like that boy. A child with no parents to care for him and protect him. A kid from an institution like Westbank, Greystones.
That’s where the kid was from. When I saw RTE’s Would you Believe? programme on Westbank last month I got the shock of my life. The boy with the cheeky face that haunts me was one of the children who called Westbank’s Adeline Mathers “Auntie”. We do not know if he was beaten with electric cable or given bogus injections for wetting the bed, as some were. What’s sure is that the silence which descended about this child and his accident was possible because he had no home. There was even a sense that it was written in the stars for him. Adeline Mathers was a strict, “born-again” Christian. And I’ve seen enough of low church Protestantism to know its dark side. The proto-Presbyterian idea of the “predestined”, an elite which works hard, prospers and knows God, can foster stark class divisions.
The cheeky boy in the trousers might have access to heaven if he professed to be “saved” — but he’d be on trial until the day he died. With his betters sitting in judgement, including Adeline Mathers and the God-fearing Northern Protestants for whom some Westbank inmates worked for nothing. It’s pretty much the same vibe as you get from the Magdalene laundries, and this should surprise no-one. Magdalene laundries were a Protestant invention, not a Catholic one. But our Protestant abuse history is swept under the carpet. Day after day I listen to the litany of horrors of which the Catholic Church is rightly accused and no-one tells this plain truth: it was the same for us. Child abuse, sexual and otherwise, has nothing specifically to do with the Catholicism. The truth is harder to swallow: child abuse was the norm in our society until very recently. The norm. Now, suddenly, we’re waking up to it. This is because we are in the middle of a children’s rights revolution. You can argue that Jesus Christ was the first person to see the full humanity of children. He said, “Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”
But it took us mere mortals centuries of development before we came up with the concepts like the UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child. This revolution is happening all over the developed world, and we are no different, except that most of our institutions were Catholic. They could just as well have been Protestant or secular. It would have made no difference. Cardinal Brady was ridiculed for saying that in the 1970s there was not an awareness of the impact of abuse on children. But he was simply telling the truth. There wasn’t. In one of the Protestant schools I attended a teacher “interfered” with a student. The teacher left the school but promptly took up a job in another one, so he must have had a reference. A reference given in the full knowledge of why he was leaving. I knew all of this at the time and thought nothing of it. Neither did it concern me that I knew a fellow pupil was being abused by a swimming coach. Admitting our past ignorance of children’s feelings and children’s rights is way harder than blaming the Catholic Church for everything. The Catholic Church has no monopoly on evil. BUT Ian Paisley himself could not do a better job of caricaturing the Catholic Church than many of our media commentators.
They always hate the Catholic Church anyway. The child abuse scandals are just one big Guy Fawkes Day firework to throw at it. The kids are not the issue. What matters is working out some sort of personal grudge against an institution which represented authority when some of the commentators were children. But sure as hell no longer does. Didn’t even when I was a child, and I am middle-aged. It’s not about the abused kids at all. If it were, the focus on the Catholic Church would be seen as far too narrow. Of course it’s in families that nearly all abuse happens, but if you’re talking institutions, the Prods are serious contenders. The 219 babies and children who were buried in unmarked graves from the Protestant Bethany Home in Rathgar may be silent but their screams fill the air. There has been no redress for the former inmates of this — eh — “home” and they make the case that they have been excluded because they are not Catholics. I think this is quite possible. Over and over again I hear Protestants being sentimentalised and as a church-going member of the Church of Ireland, I find it insulting. It serves the purpose of allowing Irish Catholics to go on blaming Mammy Church for the abuse of children instead of growing up and facing their own complicity. You could sink the Catholic Church to the bottom of the sea in a concrete bunker The filth of child abuse would still wash up on the shore.
And the cheeky face of the boy in the too-big trousers would go right on haunting me.
We must also recognise the confusion between child abuse and vulnerable adults in this tradition. There is in the Protestant community a lack of awareness beyond childhood.
As a correction to the child abuse issue which this article demonstrates so well we tend to only now look at under age kids and not recognise the older age groups where these issues surface.