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Not Every Complaint Against Religious is True

Irish Times, May 27, 2006 by Breda O'Brien

Getting annoyed at Vincent Browne is a bit pointless. It is like reacting to a schoolboy who keeps on aggravating you until you blow up, and who then sits back with a satisfied smirk, mission accomplished.

Yet the other night, when he ranted on his radio programme about the unique hypocrisy of the Catholic Church on sexual abuse of children, it was difficult to dismiss it as predictable posturing.

Vincent has made countless programmes on child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Yet at the time of the publication of the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland Report (SAVI) he seemed genuinely shocked at the scale of sexual abuse in the general population.

He is aware that only 3 per cent of sexual abuse is carried out by religious or clergy.

Yet how many programmes have focused on the other 97 per cent?

Maybe it is because religious orders are nice, squelchy targets - easy to kick because they are so ashamed of what some of their members have done. Targeting other sectors of society might not be quite so easy.

Commentators, including Mary Raftery, have been particularly incensed that the Christian Brothers have had the temerity to query the enormous jump in complaints in relation to Letterfrack, from 12 to 449, after the Taoiseach's apology and the setting up of the redress board scheme. She was also savagely indignant that the Christian Brothers would have pleaded naivety as a reason as to why they did not report offences to the Garda.

Perhaps it is about time that someone queried the naivety of commentators who believe that every single complaint made against religious orders will be truthful and accurate. In no other instance where money is perceived to be on offer would a journalist accept unquestioningly that every single claim will be above board.

Where does the famed scepticism of journalists go when it comes to victims of abuse? Have we seamlessly transferred to alleged victims the deference and the belief in infallibility that we once had in relation to the Catholic Church? Have we transferred the opprobrium and social disapproval that used to fall on the heads of those who dared question an all-powerful church, to those who dare question the veracity of any allegation of abuse, no matter how outlandish?

Personally, aside altogether from the heinous crime of child abuse, I feel shame that Irish society dumped so many children in industrial schools and could not have cared less what happened to them.

I think it is good that the redress board is essentially a welfare scheme. I have met some extraordinary people who were in these institutions, and I am humbled by how understanding and forgiving many of them are.

However, there are other seriously damaged people who make incredible claims such as that there are 30 bodies buried under the chicken farm in Artane, or who alter their claim every time they make it.

I don't stand in judgment of such people, from the exalted heights of the privileged life I have led in comparison to what they have been through, but neither would I say that they are reliable witnesses.

It also drives commentators insane when religious orders say that at the time, abuse was treated as a moral lapse and its serious nature was downplayed. Why do people find that so hard to understand? We use the very same excuses today when it comes to other forms of exploitation. I did not see the RTÉ Prime Time  programme on prostitution and trafficking, but have heard from many directions how excellent it was.

We are rightly outraged at the idea of a 14-year-old being trafficked and used for prostitution, and talk about tightening the laws. But prostitution would not exist without clients, and from research with women working in prostitution, it is clear their clients come from every walk of life.

Yet if it is suggested that we need to tackle the demand for prostitution, we are told that it is the world's oldest profession and impossible to stamp out.

We absolutely refuse to see "mainstream" lap-dancing clubs are often a gateway into even more sordid and degrading activities, despite documented links between trafficking and the acceptable face of the sex industry.

We buy into the Pretty Woman  mythology, instead of listening to the voices of women whose real experiences are far from a glossy fantasy.

Irony of ironies, it is often the Left who declare that having sex with hundreds of men for money to be a legitimate form of work, which should be protected in the same way as, say, factory work.

In short, we are hypocrites, and we treat men who buy the services of women in prostitution as if at worst they are suffering from a regrettable if understandable moral lapse.

Janice C Raymond, of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, has said the sex industry thrives on the distinctions made between free and coerced, or adult and child prostitution.

We frame it as a legitimate choice, if no coercion is involved. It is a distinction not unlike the Victorian division between the deserving and undeserving poor.

If "freely chosen" work in prostitution is legitimate, it becomes increasingly difficult for women to prove they have been forced. She also asks how the mere exchange of money can transform what in any other workplace would be termed sexual harassment, sexual abuse and sexual violence into a "job", one performed primarily by racially and economically disadvantaged women, and by overwhelming numbers of women and children themselves victims of sexual abuse.

It will be interesting to see how many Irish men avail of the "services" of the legal prostitutes available at the World Cup in Germany. The Guardian newspaper reported this week that UK police are urging fans not to visit women in prostitution, because many may have been forced into sex slavery. Media have reported that up to 40,000 women are at risk of enforced prostitution during the championship.

Hypocrisy in people claiming to uphold religious standards is sickening, especially when it concerns harm to children. As our soft attitude to prostitution demonstrates, however, hypocrisy about harm to human beings is hardly confined to religious people.