Abuse Has Deep Roots in the Past

By John Waters
One in Four [Ireland]
Dowloaded November 10, 2003

The continuing controversy about abuse in religious institutions has many roots in a misunderstood and misremembered history. How could it be otherwise? It would be miraculous if this debate were to achieve a maturity impossible without a remembering that has never occurred, writes John Waters

The discussion is characterised by a self- serving amnesia on all sides. Some of those making accusations of abuse are undoubtedly beset by a degree of misremembering. Their supporters, too, are guilty of the same condition, inspired in some cases by political animosity, in others by neurosis. It sometimes seems that the accused suffer from false memories also.

I received some negative responses to my recent column about corporal punishment in the Marist Brothers school I attended as a child, from people who saw this as a departure from what they perceived as my previous stance in support of the accused. It is possible that I, too, am misremembering, but I heard also from one of my fellow past pupils who dismissed my recollections as rose-tinted.

The majority of Irish males who attended one of the hundreds of CBS institutions run by the brothers have bracing stories to tell of the brutality they suffered at the hands of their teachers, although a number of ex-CBS pupils have contacted me to say that they seem to have had a softer time than we did. To the ears of my own generation, and others on either side of me, the very name of the Christian Brothers has become a byword for virtually all the reactionary phenomena associated with pre- 1960s Ireland.

Anger based on such baggage may be causing this society to engage in a degree of conflation in respect of the related accusations of sexual abuse. That anger, too, may be blocking us off from more complex truths, especially in our present cultural climate which elevates anyone qualifying as a victim to a status beyond suspicion or questioning.

But a deeper truth is there to be found. There is an interesting insight into the Christian Brothers that I wrote about some years ago, but had not recalled in the context of the present debate until the past week or so. I believe it provides an insight into the present controversy that may enable us to see the victimhood question in a broader light.

The Christian Brothers were founded in 1802 by a retired businessman, Edmund Ignatius Rice, whose philosophy of teaching was formed in reaction to what he perceived as the excessively violent nature of education at the time. That's right: he set up the Christian Brothers to provide education that would be free of physical punishment.

"Unless for some very serious fault, which rarely occurs", he wrote in 1810, "corporal punishment is not allowed." The Christian Brothers' Manual of School Government, published in 1832, laid great stress on the use of "mildness, affection and kindness", describing "blows" as "a servile form of punishment" which "degrade the soul . . . They ordinarily harden rather than correct . . . and blunt those fine feelings which render a rational creature sensible to shame.

"If a master be silent, vigilant, even and reserved in his manner and conduct, he need seldom have recourse to this sort of correction."

In 1825, the British Royal Commission on Education noted of the Christian Brothers-run schools that "the children are kept in good order and the masters seldom have recourse to corporal punishment".

One reading of what happened to Rice's vision relates to the change of policy in the immediate aftermath of his death in 1844. But another significant event was the Great Famine of the 1840s, or more accurately the reconstruction that followed it, in which the Catholic Church became a central agent. In this light, the introduction of systematic corporal punishment can be seen as an element in the "re-civilising" project initiated by the church as part of a strategy to restore national cohesion.

By 1851, the Christian Brothers' Manual had dropped most restrictions on corporal punishment. This change of emphasis was accelerated in the 1880s by the passing of the Intermediate Education (Ireland) Bill, providing for a connection between examination results and the payment of funding for schools. From then, as the Christian Brothers became markedly more successful in teaching boys who would otherwise have remained uneducated, they also became more notorious for the brutality of their teaching methods.

I'm not sure what this means. I'm not suggesting that, yet again, it's all the fault of the Terrible Brits, but I do believe it offers a more complex picture to the one we have been working with for some time. Ireland was, in a sense, subject to two forms of colonisation, one from London, the other from Rome, and the complex interworkings of these phenomena have left us with many inscrutable difficulties.

Matters such as abuse allegations against religious have many different facets - legal, psychological, political and cultural. But they also have a history, which cannot be divorced from our history in general.


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