(by Dave Cortesi)
Tales of decades of child abuse in Irish orphanages and schools have some people on an atheist mailing list all atwitter, supposing this an example of the evils created by religion. To me, the story is one of group dynamics gone bad.
The Report was issued by a Child Abuse Commission formed by an act of the Irish Parliament in response to years of lobbying by a few victims. The Commision's web site has an account of the formation including links to the various parliamentary acts. The Report in full is available online but at 2,000 pages or so, most of us will be content to read the Executive Summary (and I recommend that; it is several thousand words long but readable and in parts, gripping).
I want to talk about how such things can come about, not because of religion per se, but because of rotten group dynamics.
Some atheists have commented on the "coverup" of abuse by Catholic clergy. The Irish report is very much the opposite of a coverup. It's a full-blown, "truth and reconciliation" style exposure. I think the Irish parliament deserves props for creating this commission; such openness has to be seen as pretty gutsy, in a country still sufficiently dominated by religion that it recently passed an infamous "blasphemy law."
The Report is hugely damaging to specific Catholic orders. That's clear just skimming the Executive Summary, which sketches a picture of schools that were sheer Dickensian horrors. Here are some representative samples:
... Mr John Brander, who taught children in the primary and secondary school sector in Ireland for 40 years. He was eventually convicted of sexual abuse in the 1980s... He began his career as a Christian Brother and after three separate incidents of sexual abuse of boys, he was granted dispensation from his vows. This chapter goes on to describe this man's progress through six different schools where he physically terrorised and sexually abused children in his classroom. At various times during his career, parents attempted to challenge his behaviour but he was persistently protected by diocesan and school authorities and moved from school to school.... [this] illustrates the ease with which sexual predators could operate within the educational system of the State without fear of disclosure or sanction.
...The physical abuse of boys in Daingean was extreme. Floggings which were ritualised beatings ... were inflicted even for minor transgressions.... Daingean was an anarchic Institution. It was run by gangs of boys who imposed their rules on the others and the supervision by the religious Brothers and Priests was minimal and ineffectual... The gangland culture fostered the development of protective relationships between the boys and these relationships sometimes developed a sexual aspect. The boy seeking the protection had little option but to comply with the demands of the older boy and the authorities were dismissive of any complaints....
The significant element in the account of Lota was the deeply disturbing accounts of sexual abuse of vulnerable children by religious staff. In addition, the indifference of the Congregational Authorities in addressing the issue facilitated the abuse... a Brother who was known by the Congregation to have abused in England... was brought back to Ireland and assigned a teaching position in Lota, where he worked for over 30 years. This Brother admitted to multiple sexual assaults of boys in the school. ... The Brothers have admitted that abuse took place but, as in the case of other Orders, they have not accepted Congregational responsibility for it.
And so on and on. The report casts a harsh light on specific Orders, notably the Christian Brothers, the Brothers of Charity, and the Sisters of Mercy (oh, the irony of those names!). They are indicted as much for the way they continue to minimize and deny responsibility for these problems, as for the problems themselves.
Groups Gone Bad
One person posted the angry question to an atheist list, "One has to ask why? What is it in christianity and its beliefs allows christians to engage in such horrors?"
In my opinion the source lies not in christian doctrine but in group psychology, specifically the group dynamics of these Orders. A closed group like the Christian Brothers, or the smaller group of one school's administration, always tends to protect its existence and to defend its members against "outside" threats. When an accusation is made, the group closes ranks. This happens in all kinds of groups, including government departments, the military, and the police. If some member of the group is accused of wrong-doing, the group takes it as a threat.
In all these cases, when you join the group you give up something in exchange for a share in the group identity. If you join the military, you give up personal autonomy and sometimes personal safety in exchange for the uniform and the pride of service. Join the police, and you give up regular working hours and some personal safety, in exchange for a uniform and the pride of being a special person designated to "serve and protect."
If you join a Catholic order you give up much more of normal life than a military person does. The exchange, again, is for a special uniform and a special status. The Christian Brother or the Sister of Mercy has given up a great deal, and has been set even further apart from normal life.
Such bargains are very serious, almost life-and-death matters for those who make them. If you have made such a choice, and your group's special identity is called into question, it calls into question the value of your entire life! The self-image of the group is your own self-image, and we all will do almost anything to protect our self-image. And that is why, when one member of a group is accused of misbehaving, the whole group is likely to close ranks in defense. Every group member wants to protect the group because the group's identity is their own.
A healthy group has ways of dealing with members gone wrong -- ways that prioritize the group's end-purpose above the group's image. A good police department, for example, holds the public's good at a higher priority than an officer's wrong action.
An unhealthy group, whether it is a local police department, a military command (think: Abu Ghraib), or a bunch of nuns running an orphanage, lets group defense take precedence over the group's real purpose for existence. It holds the group's self-image as more important than the people the group ostensibly serves. Then the police condone and cover up beatings or concealment of evidence; the military condone or cover up war crimes; and the brothers find ways to quietly dispose of sexual abusers.
That's what happened in these Irish abuses, and in the sex abuses that were revealed in the United States a few years ago. Each small division of the Catholic Church, each bishopric or Order, acted like a sick group. It refused to believe evil of itself, and when it couldn't do that, it covered it up, always placing the defense of the group's identity at a far higher priority than the good of the people the group ostensibly served.
This isn't a specifically "christian" nor "catholic" crime; it's an entirely typical and predictable crime of a group gone rotten, a group whose group dynamic has turned sour.
That said, it remains true that the special mantle of spiritual authority given religious people makes it easier for a dysfunctional group to get away with a coverup. And probably makes it easier to rationalize the acts within the minds of the group leaders.