Fionnuala O Connor: HIA report shows politicians must hold institutions to account

By Fionnuala O Connor
Irish News
January 24, 2017

Marty Adams and Margaret McGuckin of campaign group Savis after the publication of the HIA report.
Photo by Hugh Russell

Hearts and minds are already being appealed to; the battle for immortal souls cannot be far behind.

In the election campaign effectively under way already, the DUP will try desperately to stop the handling of public money being issue Number One. Politicians competing to represent the other main community will be quizzed not only on the point of having a Stormont, but also about their personal faith and morals.

Nationalist parties need to rethink positions and strategies – post-Martin McGuinness, post-Brexit, and maybe post that imaginary, unreal ‘power-sharing’ Stormont. For now Sinn Féin and the SDLP must just do the best they can with a messy set of circumstances. Perhaps the majority of their possible voters want another Stormont executive. Maybe they couldn’t care less.

But at meetings organised by passionate lay-people, and in letters from bishops read at Mass, carried in parish newsletters, Sinn Féin and the SDLP will be asked where they stand on abortion, criticised for supporting gay marriage. The doorsteps will ask if they’re about to defy the Church, or are they good Catholics.

The parties may find this an awkward election, but so should the institutional Catholic Church. One of the most unchanging voices against any and all moves towards safe and legal provision of abortion, north and south, it has been adamant that females of whatever age must never be allowed to choose abortion, under any circumstances. A phalanx of celibate males, they know best for all women at all times. Like other anti-choice campaigners, the unborn are their first concern.

But when it comes to abuse of living children the Church’s first concern for centuries has been for its own reputation, and resources. Last Friday’s report from the Historical Institutional Abuse (HIA) inquiry is all the backing any campaigner needs to remind questioners that a politician’s duty is to make policy and laws and hold institutions to account.

If chair of the HIA inquiry Sir Anthony Hart and his team wanted thoughtful consideration of their findings by the public, and cool analysis, they could not have hit on a less favourable moment to launch their report. Non-stop recent news has left public and media frazzled. Archbishop Eamon Martin has said he is ashamed and truly sorry. But as this paper said yesterday regret only goes so far. The archbishop’s remorse comes after an inquiry during which the Church tried to challenge some evidence from people abused as children.

Hart made strong criticism of other bodies than the Catholic Church, like the RUC for their ‘inept and inadequate’ investigation into the notorious Kincora. But the largest number of complaints related to four Nazareth Sisters homes, where there was also sexual abuse by priests and lay people. Margaret McGuckin, tireless advocate for institutional abuse sufferers, spoke after the report to the BBC with her brother Kevin, repeatedly raped by the religious brothers who ran Rubane Home and by older boys. The inquiry began in more adversarial form than she would have liked, McGuckin said, ‘grown men and women being grilled at the behest of the religious orders.’

Hart found, like other inquiries, that the institutional church’s dereliction of duty and care for itself enabled abuse and exposed further children to it – as the RUC’s inadequacy enabled abuse in Kincora.

The Sisters of Nazareth congregation ‘knew many of the failings but did nothing to stop them.’ In the diocese of Kilmore, an investigation (carried out in part by Father, later Cardinal Brady) effectively silenced victims of Father Brendan Smyth early in his rampage. Down and Connor failed to even conduct an investigation into the allegations against him.

Reporters who covered the two years of the inquiry, as Allison Morris writes so vividly, have seen the wreckage of lives, and relayed it week after week. As always with long-running hearings, Hart’s report will be dismissed by some as ‘we’ve heard all that already.’ Others will point to the agencies other than the Church, including the old Stormont, who failed to investigate.

Some will fasten on Hart’s careful setting of context; how the Troubles devastated families, how religious-run homes housed children society called ‘illegitimate’. Churches encouraged and enforced that definition.

Friday’s report provides what any campaigner might need to insist that politicians should answer to no church, that religious beliefs are private business. Today’s republicans and nationalists have an advantage few of their predecessors enjoyed. The Catholic Church is in no position to lecture them.


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