In 2009 the Ryan report into child sexual abuse in state-funded, church-run institutions was published, costing the Irish taxpayer €82m. It uncovered decades of abuse endured by children in the ostensible care of Catholic organisations including the Sisters of Charity. This is the order of nuns that will be given ownership of the €300m state-of-the-art new National Maternity Hospital by the Irish government, They will be the “sole owners” of the taxpayer-funded facility.
The Sisters of Charity were once involved in the operation of five residential schools. I will tell you some of what happened at just one of them.
At St Joseph’s Industrial school in Kilkenny, little girls as young as eight who complained of molestation by male lay staff were ignored, disbelieved or blamed for their abuse. Children were told their mothers were prostitutes. Children were fostered out to paedophiles. On three occasions the nuns hired paedophile lay workers, then failed to act when informed by children and sometimes by concerned adults about what was happening. Children were subject to severe corporal punishment right up until the 1990s.
The Sisters of Charity never issued a general public apology for the abuse suffered by children in their care. They did, however, promise to contribute €5m to the government’s €1.25bn redress scheme for victims of child abuse.
Explaining this contribution, Sister Una O’Neill, then superior general of the congregation, told the Ryan Commission that they felt “the definition of abuse was so broad that it would invite many more cases against us,” and also that “if we didn’t contribute […] perhaps the redress scheme would give a partial payment to the children and then they would seek the rest from us through legal means.” A money-saving manoeuvre. They do not think they did anything wrong.
To date, the Sisters of Charity have paid only €2m of the €5m they promised in 2009, and have paid nothing of their share of the €128m Catholic institutions agreed to pay to abuse victims in 2002.
The Sisters of Charity also ran Magdalene Laundries, where unmarried mothers were incarcerated and forced to atone for their sins by working in punitive industrial conditions without pay. The McAleese report, published in 2013, aimed to determine the level of Irish state involvement in the Laundries. It found plenty. The inquiry cost the Irish taxpayer €11,000, and the government’s redress scheme up to €58m. The Sisters of Charity have refused to contribute anything to survivors.
In Ireland, religious ethos has historically affected women’s medical treatment
Just to recap: the state spends €82m on a report that uncovers heinous abuses perpetrated by Catholic orders against the children it paid them to care for; it pays out over €1bn to the victims, while the godly shirk financial and moral responsibility. It spends €11,000 on a report into state involvement in the Magdalene Laundries, and finds itself culpable. It commits another €58m compensating women, while the cassocked again decree themselves blameless.
And it learns what? That Ireland needs further integration of church and state? That Catholic nuns are simply stellar candidates to whom to entrust women and children? Sure, why not gift them the National Maternity Hospital?
The minister for health, Simon Harris, has insisted that Catholic ownership of the hospital will not influence the care it provides.
We can consider another hospital run by the Sisters of Charity to see how much credence to give that. At St Vincent’s, nuns sit on the board of directors and doctors must sign contracts promising adherence to the ethos of the hospital. The ethos stated on the hospital’s website is “to bring the healing love of Christ to all we serve.” The first stated core value is “respecting the sacredness of human life and the dignity and uniqueness of each person”, which, anyone fighting for reproductive rights in Ireland can tell you, is code for “every zygote has a soul”. If and when Irish women finally win abortion rights, will the National Maternity Hospital implement them?
Barrister Claire Hogan points out that in Ireland, where gruesome medical histories of symphysiotomy and “compassionate hysterectomy” stem from Catholic mores, religious ethos has historically affected women’s medical treatment. The Institute of Obstetricians has expressed concern that even Ireland’s extremely restrictive abortion law, which allows for termination only in the case of threat to the life of the mother, will be compromised in a Catholic-controlled institution.
John Kelly of Survivors of Child Abuse (Soca) Ireland cautioned against having “the religious involved in any way shape or form” in schools and hospitals, while Magdalene Survivors Together expressed “deep anger and absolute shock” at the decision.
At the time of writing, more than 60,000 people have signed a petition to prevent the Sisters of Charity becoming the sole owners of the National Maternity Hospital. I believe that Irish people – who have paid for the evils perpetrated by the church with tax money that should be enriching our public services, our schools, our hospitals – want a secular state. But if we won’t remember the past, then, as the poet wrote, we’re surely condemned to repeat it.