Public life and private morals took an Ibsenesque turn on Wednesday, when Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach of Ireland, made a passionate and unprecedented speech in the Dáil, attacking the Vatican’s culture, even as recently as 2005, of defending its priests and obstructing Irish justice when confronted with instances of clerical child abuse. He spoke as a lifelong Catholic, and his decision to do so must have taken some soul searching and courage. His speech was greeted with a collective sigh of relief; a mighty boil had been lanced and now we can all talk about the poison.
The Irish state has committed itself to making the reporting of child abuse mandatory, instead of the voluntary guidelines enshrined in the ‘Children First’ child protection document.
I am not a Catholic, but I know what it is like to be an abused child, and what it is like to be a well-behaved, polite and good little girl. I always did what I was told. I did not make a fuss or cry when I was upset. I didn’t tell tales.
My abuser was older, stronger and had more power in our family than me, and he managed to implant the idea in my head that what was happening to me happened to everyone, but it was never to be talked about. When you’re five, as I was when it began, you have a belief that your parents know everything that happens to you, and if they accept it, it has to be okay – or that maybe you have somehow made it happen and are partly to blame. And when abuse happens in your home, and in your bedroom, there is nowhere in your life that is safe.
The little boys and girls locked away in institutions for no crime except poverty, being orphaned or finding school difficult, had nowhere to go where they could be safe. And they were, like the Artane Industrial School children when they appeared in public, clean, tidy, polite and well-behaved. Even today, decades later, they are going against their own natures by speaking out, risking their present security and happiness and reliving the pain of their childhood experiences – traumas that should never have happened to any child.
If only we had listened to children then. If only those children had had some heavyweights on their side. If only someone had said, there is a law that says what you are suffering is illegal.
If only, when people today know of children who are being abused, they would screw up their courage and speak out.