Irish Times [Dublin, Ireland]
November 21, 2022
By Una Mullally
Social class is only relevant insofar as how it showed how untouchable these members of the clergy felt they were
I came home from a couple of months away to an old Ireland. An Ireland where the Catholic Church’s brutality is being announced afresh. Men who have been holding pain for years, who were abused in the pipelines for the upper echelons of Irish society, fee-paying schools, are heralding yet another reckoning.
Inevitably, because of where this abuse occurred, there is commentary about class and privilege, but I’ve been confused by some of it, and I wonder what’s relevant to progressing the conversation, rather than segmenting it. I suppose the point is, Catholic clergymen abusing children happened everywhere. What we don’t know is why. Everyone knows fee-paying schools are places where privilege is both served and created. But a young middle-class boy is probably not very aware of his standing in the social strata, even if others around him are. These are children we are talking about, children who went to learn their lessons in places where they should have been protected and encouraged, and instead they were preyed upon and violated.
I think where class is relevant is in terms of how untouchable these members of the clergy felt they were. Their abuse was not limited to a cynicism directed towards those they suspected wouldn’t dare utter a peep. It goes to show the impunity with which they operated, that they believed they could abuse whomever they wanted without consequence or repercussion, even if some of the children they were abusing were children of the powerful. The ugly thing is, they were right. Whether you were a politician, a judge, a surgeon or a professor, your standing in Ireland was still trumped by the unaccountable Catholic clergymen who brutalised countless people on this island, and wielded – and still wield – power from our Constitution to our courts, from our classrooms to our communities, from our playing fields to our parliament.
It also must be an extremely conflicting feeling for boys who were victimised, who became men, who were instilled with and fed the internal propaganda that all fee-paying schools have about how special they are, and how they came from a setting that’s of a self-appointed higher standard. How do people then square that assertion with their experience of abuse, bullying, homophobia or violence? If there’s one characteristic that defines the middle classes, it’s an obsession with privacy. When that framework is so rigid how does one be vulnerable? Declare oneself to have been victimised? Break a narrative about everything being white-picket-fence perfect? This is a different kind of stepping out of line. It is a different kind of reveal. It takes incredible bravery to disrupt the fictions we have about how we are socialised, to say: guess what, things weren’t so great, I was tormented in that apparently good place.
We know this culture is so embedded, because it’s only now we’re hearing these stories en masse in the broader public, about horrors in places that are held in high esteem by many. There are many levers of shame that abusers – particularly abusers within the Catholic Church – pull: gender, bodies, sex and sexuality, made-up sins. Now we know that class was used in diverse ways across the board by paedophile members of the clergy to silence, shame and stigmatise. It was used against women and girls, the poor and marginalised who didn’t have a voice in society. It was also used against those who came from privilege, or sought to achieve it through education, for whom to speak out would distort preconceptions of perfection, success and happiness.
I think a lot of people have done a lot of thinking during the pandemic years, about the trajectory of their lives, about their childhoods, about how they were socialised, about things that happened to them that led them to certain places. Over the past decade, Ireland has created an empathetic framework of social discourse rooted in breaking silences, being vulnerable, sharing painful experiences, and trying to make things right. The greatest legacy of the marriage equality and Repeal the 8th movements is not merely changing the Constitution, it has been changing the conversation, and changing ourselves. We have grown from a society that didn’t want to hear any of it, to a society that wants to listen.
These men who are delving into their past are searching for healing. We are all responsible for participating in their healing. For listening with kindness. For defusing shame and fear. For opening our hearts, whatever the context is, and saying: what happened to you was wrong. It’s not your fault, you didn’t deserve it. It was not only a scandal but also a crime.
If there’s one thing we know, no matter who you are, where you came from, how much money you had, what kind of head start you got, or who your parents were, you were not immune from the torment abusive Catholic clergymen wreaked on this land.
I also know that it’s harder for men to open up. It just is. And that’s because of how we’re socialised, which gender-segregated schools play a huge role in. Our reckoning with being a nation built on abuse is not over. But the more pain we let out, the more that pain diffuses, if we’re brave enough to listen, not to judge, and, most importantly, to seek accountability.