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Lessons from Ireland's sex abuse shock


Irish Independent The Irish child abuse report released last week attached secondary blame to government school inspectors. It said the system of inspection by the Department of Education was 'fundamentally flawed and incapable of being effective'. The report cited inspectors' reluctance to challenge the authority of the religious congregations running the institutions, and the lack of a state regulatory authority with the power to insist on changes being made.

'The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools,' the report said. 'The Reformatory and Industrial Schools Section of the Department was accorded a low status within the Department and generally saw itself as facilitating the congregations and the resident managers.'

When news of the Irish report broke in Australia, commentary pointed to the need to scrutinise Irish priests and religious who were reassigned to Australia, to check that they did not leave Ireland because they were sex offenders. But a more far-reaching implication for Australia is the urgent need to look at the state of regulations governing care in our entire not-for-profit sector.

Professor Mark Lyons of the Centre for Social Impact at the University of New South Wales told ABC Radio National's Stephen Crittenden that Australia is a long way behind its international peers.

'There were some quite significant transformations and adjustments made in the UK after the election of the Blair government in 1997, [including] important recognitions of the diverse role of the not-for-profit sector, and levels of support within government, and not just financial support, but actually policy understanding.'

Research data reveals that Australia has 40,000 staffed not-for-profit organisations. The sector employs almost 900,000 people. Its huge turnover makes it larger than the Australian communications sector and roughly equivalent to agriculture. But regulation is either lacking, or riddled with inconsistencies. Most significantly, there is little discussion of what kind of regulation should prevail — economic or human.

In Australia, the Rudd Government says it is determined to improve regulation of the sector. It has asked the Productivity Commission to look into how to measure the sector's contribution to society, and eliminate obstacles that are holding it back. Initial submissions are due this Friday.

Previous studies have focused on the sector's contribution to the economy as the key to its sustainability. But giving priority to a business case would surely undermine the mission of organisations that are supposedly dedicated to care. Elizabeth Cham of Philanthropy Australia criticises the neo-liberal philosophy of the past 25 years that does not even attempt to measure human endeavour.

She admits it is quite a challenge to work out how to do it, and that it 'takes much longer than anything that happens in business'. But she stresses its crucial importance. Economic regulation can be done without too much difficulty. But who knows how to construct a regime of 'human regulation', or whatever you might want to call it?

Not to attempt the challenge would be to risk the mistakes of the Irish inspection regime, which allowed itself to lose sight of the challenge of care, in the face of intimidation from Ireland's prevailing ecclesiastical culture. Giving priority to economic imperatives over human need, in shaping the regulation of our not-for-profits could prove just as insidious.

Michael MullinsMichael Mullins is editor of Eureka Street.


Topic tags: michael mullins, ireland, child abuse, report, irish priests, not-for-profit, regulation



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Existing comments

What puzzles me is, "Where was their theology?" How could the perpetrators of this abuse have possibly believed their actions to have been Christian and Christ-like?

How could religious orders whose vocation teaching possibly have supposed that their abusive behaviour was a fulfilment of their calling. Or were they knowingly hypocritical?

The need for change is spiritual, not only in government oversight.

Brian McKinlay | 25 May 2009  

Well, certainly, inspection systems should be fearlessly independent. But it seems to me that to make the back-stop rather than the wicket keeper the main focus of Eureka Street's reaction to the Irish report is an attempt to deflect attention from where it should be.

Richard Olive | 25 May 2009  

Two points: 1. The article is in bad taste. to deal with this subsiduary issue so soon after the report is released without full recognition of the key issue, that of clerical abuse, wrong, wrong.

2. Mullins is wrong about regulation in the NFP sector. it may be uncoordinated and all over the shop but it is independent and vigorous and far too large to describe in these 200 words.

peter crew | 25 May 2009  

Michael, should the last word have been invidious?

Michael Grounds | 25 May 2009  

My experience as a catholic boy under the care of the Jesuits was wonderful - loved my school life. But I'm now embarrassed as a Catholic that the CHURCH wasn't regulating in Ireland (and elsewhere) the way they SHOULD have. Your article only refers to govt/state regulating. I think our Church, we as (good) Catholics, have failed in this area and we need to admit it not hide behind what the State has not done.

Jack Bowen | 25 May 2009  

No matter how much we wish to regulate, human behaviour will win out, hence the need for police etc. If something is not enforced, what is the point of regulation?

Also, was it deference to religion or the fact that the religious congregations were a cheap source of labour for the State? That has certainly been the case from my experience. Brothers, Priest and Sisters were treated very badly from within the Church and subjected to archaic and often cruel training methods. Is it any wonder some of them lost focus. They were told to hate their bodies, their feelings, and anything vaguely connected with intimacy or human contact (one male Order would not allow its trainees to sleep with their arms under the covers???). Try using the term "particular friendship" on some of the older religious and see what happens!

This is not meant as a defense for the deplorable actions of those involved, but rather suggesting that Mr Mullins do more homework on the topic and see what he finds. Try looking at the dysfunctionality of the way Religious were trained; the way they were treated by Bishops and Superiors etc. I think I alluded to it above. I'd like to see what you find, Michael. Another article in the making I hope!

paul | 25 May 2009  

Michael, you can't blame the Irish Government for the abuse that staff in Catholic institutions perpetrated any more than Matthew Johns can blame the young woman for the abuse that he and his mates perpetrated.

Tom Jones | 25 May 2009  

I note from your article that the report attached SECONDARY blame for the sexual abuse of children in Ireland to Government School Inspectors. The article I read in The Age stated that: 'The investigation uncovered previously secret Vatican records demonstrating church knowledge of pedophiles in their ranks back to the 1930s. But while complaints were made, many government and church officials failed to act.'

Am I correct in presuming the PRIMARY blame was attached to Catholic Church Authorities?

Bernadette Duffy | 25 May 2009  

What price a child's life? I am a daughter of a mother who was treated dismally at the hands of the Magdalen Sisters in a laundry, where, by no fault of her own she was raped by her stepfather at 11 and became pregnant. She was made to suffer because of him, but this does not excuse the treatment she was given by the so called Brides of Christ. Jesus would weep at the treatment given to children in those places, and now, after all their suffering, all it comes down to is money seems to outweigh the importance of a childs life. We have not gone very far have we from the dark days of workhouses and laundries.

Philippa Jayne Boyington | 25 May 2009  

Regulation is critical but can also provide false security. Abusers like those described in the Irish report can abuse many children before they come to the attention of law enforcement and then it's so hard to gain a conviction. Reliance on police checks and other regulation is illusory. The real challenge is how to breed resilience, to provide the right environment to encourage children to 'out' such predatory behaviours and for checks and balances to be in the system so that abusers don't have free rein to target those who are vulnerable.

I like your overall point Michael that the entire not-for-profit sector should be scrutinised but am disappointed that motherhood statements follow. It's hard in a short article to say anything profound but not impossible!

Carol | 26 May 2009  

An earlier contributor quoted a newspaper saying "Where complaints were made many government and church officials failed to act." There is evidence that the heirarchy and religious officials did act. They ignored the problem, swept it under the carpet, avoided victims and remained silent.

The whole church, the People of God and the clerical heirarchy, should act to make the heirarchy and other clergy accountable to the People for the abuses which they commit against them. Coersive action should be available to victims to enable them to pursue in their own right redress through church tribunals consisting of a number of their peers and clerics. At present no such right is accorded to any one of the People whatever the nature or circumstances of abuse. Should this not be done then governments should be lobbied to regulate in such a fashion, as it does with laws concerning human rights and fundamental freedoms for citizens.

The Australian Government Committee on Community Consultations for Protecting and Promoting Human Rights is an avenue where this could be considered. The question that will be raised with it is: should private organisations be allowed to continue to operate systems that allow abuse of rights and freedoms of their people without processes available for redress by and for those abused?

George Wyer | 26 May 2009  

Western churches have inherited a latent Manichaeism that degrades our physical being. Since the body is seen as worthless in itself physical abuse will not effect the soul. We see this in 19th century institutional care and in football stars behaving badly. We have confused St Paul's teaching about the Body (Soma) being the "Temple of the Holy Spirit" and the Flesh (Sarx) which is the body corrupted by Sin.

We must get back to the spirit of the New Testament where the whole person is transformed in Christ by the Resurrection. We have a lot to learn from the revival of tactile therapies that respect human integrity and are a universal application of the Biblical concept of the "Laying on of Hands"

john ozanne | 27 May 2009  

So long as priests are not allowed to marry and the Catholic Church refuses to let openly gay clergy serve, the Church will remain a haven for those with predatory and perverse natures. Celibacy is what attracts them to the priesthood because it allows them to hide. Let clergy marry, and let gay clergy declare themselves and serve openly, and the remaining pedophiles will stick out like a sore thumb.

Andrew M. Potts | 29 May 2009  

The sexual abuse in the Dublin archdiocese was said to be 'endemic'. How can this be? How would such abuse spread to this extent and yet be virtually unknown? I know priests play golf together and have a drink, etc, but I cannot imagine there would be one conversation of one priest telling another about this activity. I wonder if the word could have spread, and the activity thereby become 'endemic', by virtue of the confessional?
Celibacy must be done away with. If priests could marry, they would, presumably, not only have sexual satisfaction, but would have their own children whom they would adore, and thereby learn what cannot be done to children.(I am aware this would not eliminate all abuse).

Margaret | 01 June 2009  

Have only just read Michael Mullins' commentary on the Irish sex abuse report, so apologies for the delay.

In media reports after the release Cardinal Pell was quoted as stating: 'Australia is not Ireland.' By that I assume he was referring to the fact that protocols to handle such claims were put into place by the Australian Church a decade ago.

However his statement could also infer that the Australian experience is dissimilar. This is simply not true. When researching material for my 1997 book on the child migration schemes (reviewed at the time in Eureka Street) I was appalled, not so much by the case histories exposed, but by the casual attitudes of authority figures to the care of children generally.

Let us hope that in this respect, as in others, we have left a black past behind.

Alan Gill | 04 June 2009  

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