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Avoid Scapegoating The Christian Brothers

Irish Times, November 05, 2003 by Patsy McGarry

That some brothers are not being treated fairly is now beyond doubt, writes Patsy McGarry,  Religious Affairs Correspondent

Rarely in the history of public discourse in this country can 12 sentences have elicited such outraged and voluminous response as did the 135-word statement from the Christian Brothers released on October 22nd.

Apparently at the instigation of the group Let Our Voices Emerge (LOVE) - or "pets" as they have been described by less enamoured former residents of institutions run by religious - the brothers pointed out that the vast majority of their members "strenuously refute the allegations made against them and strongly proclaim their innocence".

The brothers did not accept "the now established perception that there was widespread systematic sexual abuse in their residential institutions", while at the same time they "have openly acknowledged that some abuse did take place".

They noted "that many complaints (against brothers) name people who do not correspond with any person who worked in the residential institutions or had been a member of the Christian Brothers", and that "over 95 per cent of these men worked in ordinary day schools for anything up to 40 years without any allegation or hint of complaint against them".

Looked at dispassionately, it is difficult to understand how such assertions of simple fact could elicit such a bitter squall. But there is little detachment in this awful business, and not least among those who purport to represent (legally and otherwise) people allegedly sexually abused as children in residential institutions.

There appears little concern either that in the heat generated as this tragedy unfolds further innocents are being violated, albeit the vulnerable elderly in cases now as opposed to vulnerable children then.

That some brothers or former brothers are not being treated fairly is now beyond doubt, as allegations in so many cases collapse before Garda investigation only to be resurrected again before the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and the Residential Institutions Redress Board.

It is a travesty that repetition of those same allegations sets in train a process which may lead to compensation for some, but guarantees further humiliation for the innocent accused.

"That Justice be Done though the Heavens may Fall" is the worthy inscription over the Bridewell Garda Station in Dublin. It is the aspiration of our justice system. But where is the justice in all of this?

We are in danger of precipitating among us an injustice on the scale of the Maguire Seven, the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four in Britain. All arose from blanket suspicion generated by IRA bombs in the 1970s.

In Britain then to be Irish was to be full of sorrow and leaden-eyed despair. Especially if you were young and male. The very chill in response to your accent alone was a constant reminder of the crime that was our nationality. We were all guilty because of a few murderers among us. Or such was the then "established perception" of us across the Irish Sea.

So it is now with the Christian Brothers here. Because, as they acknowledge, "some abuse did take place" all are perceived as guilty without charge, without proof, until proved innocent. Just as with the Maguires, the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and Nicky Kelly in our own jurisdiction.

It is so often a conundrum of human experience that those who have suffered horribly can yet go on to inflict great pain without reflection. You have only to consider what Israel has done to the Palestinians, despite the appalling history of the Jewish people.

It has been little different where the reaction of some institutions' support groups to the fate of the innocent accused among Christian Brothers is concerned.

Here is what Mr John Kelly of Irish SOCA had to say in response to the brothers' recent statement, which he felt "beggars belief". The brothers "may not have been found guilty yet, but they certainly haven't been found innocent either", he said.

Ms Therese Gaynor, clinical director with the One in Four charity, described the statement as "a highly regrettable backward step" and "hugely unhelpful at this sensitive point." It represented "a return to the mindset of blanket denial which characterised the Christian Brothers' approach to the issue of abuse prior to 1999". But where is that "blanket denial" in the statement?

She continued: "In both content and tone, the statement will cause further deep hurt to the men and women supported by One in Four, who experienced widespread sexual, physical and emotional abuse in institutions and day schools run by the Christian Brothers." Her words prove that, as with beauty, so often "content and tone" are also often in the "eye" of the beholder.

There is something unequivocally knee-jerk about both reactions. This may be understandable on one level, but can hardly be acceptable to anyone with a sense of justice. And whereas there may be some excuse for former residents of the institutions and their support groups who reacted in this way, what of politicians?

What of Mr Paul Gogarty, education spokesman for the Green Party? He interpreted the brothers' statement as an attempt to "downplay" the scale of sex abuse involving members. The brothers "should be concentrating on the victims", he said, forgetting it would appear that 'victims' in the context would now include the innocent accused among the brothers themselves.

For many, he said, the statement "gives the impression that the brothers are prepared to create a smokescreen". Only if you find what you are looking for, one might say.

Then there was the British lawyer who told the Irish Independent on October 29th she found the brothers' denial of widespread systematic sexual abuse in their institutions "misleading and insulting." London-based Eileen McMahon, who has been dealing with former residents for 15 years, clearly knows more than most of us this side of the Irish Sea, as it is a view that is not shared here.

She feared the brothers' statement would lead to "more suicide" among former residents of the institutions and that it had "put the process back by at least five years". It had "shown a lack of insight into how traumatic it is for a survivor to talk about the abuse they have suffered". She might try talking to survivors of false allegations for further such insight.

Justice, we are told, is blind. It is not partial. It is not swayed by anything other than the truth. Perhaps in dealing with the Christian Brothers we in this mortal world might all be more 'blind'.