25 The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (Northern Ireland)

Reflections on power abuse

instituional abuse
Today marks the beginning of an inquiry in Northern Ireland of abuse against children over a seventy three year period between 1922 – 1995 in public and religious institutions.  The type of abuse being investigated covers not only sexual abuse but also gratuitous physical and mental cruelty.  The BBC news today reported children being scalded in their bath as well as other kinds of physical torments.  Worst of all was the statement that no affection of any kind was ever offered to some of the young children sent to these institutions.

The sexual abuse of children, which has been in the news for a number of years, has no doubt been studied at depth and involves a pathology that experts would understand and be able to some extent to explain.  Gratuitous violence towards children and the withholding of any kind of affection takes us, in some ways, into a still darker place.  The normal healthy instinctive response to a child, whether one’s own or that of a stranger, is a desire to protect and cherish as appropriate.  The human race has been hard-wired to see children as the vulnerable part of the species and also the custodians of the future of the race.  If they are not cared for, then the genes, whether our own or those of the group, do not flourish.  Without children doing well in our families and in our society, our own well-being is compromised.  We all know this at a gut level and to act against it in any way is deeply perverse.

The question why nuns or children’s homes workers should act cruelly against their charges is a deeply troubling one.  The same question could be asked of those who abuse the elderly or those sent to special hospitals for the mentally and physically handicapped.  The easiest answer to come up with is to point to a desire, even need, on the part of some to exercise total control over other human beings.  Looking at it from another direction, the abusing individual is unable to deal with others as a subject only as an object.  We may speculate that this kind of relating was the only one that the abuser had ever known.  All relationships had been ones where he or she had been used.  Any idea of mutuality in relationships is unknown to them.  Finally the chance is given them to exercise power over others weaker than themselves and treat them as objects for power gratification.  They have no other internal model for relating except as someone abused or as an abuser.

It is hard to imagine the family and church dynamics that caused ordinary Irish women to become nuns and then child abusers.  Clearly there was something profoundly unhealthy at work in both home and church that created individuals who could only treat others as objects for perverse gratification.  Speculations can be made but I would offer only one thought.    A domestic or religious culture where obedience is put very high on the agenda will work against the flourishing of mind and spirit.  Obedience to parents must always be balanced alongside the need of every child to find their own personality and creativity.  Conforming to the will of another at every point does little to allow the flowering of spirit or the nurturing of altruistic love and compassion.

What is the relevance of this discussion of the Northern Ireland Inquiry to our blog?  The relevance is that the Inquiry touches on something deeper than sex or even cruelty towards children, however horrific these may be.  At the heart of the Inquiry is an investigation of an epidemic of abuse of power, manifesting itself a variety of terrible ways.  The manifestation of the abuse of power is particularly horrible when directed against children, but we would claim that abuse of power is rampant in society at large.  To reflect on the Northern Irish situation helps us become a little more sensitised to abuses of power in our own situation.  We will not normally encounter such dramatic examples as child sexual abuse, but if we look carefully at the power abuse around us we will find the same fundamental ingredients at work.  Person A pulls rank over Person B and treats them badly.  The reason that Person A behaves in this way is because he or she has herself been treated badly by person G.  This may be a dramatic over-simplification of the causes of power-abuse in our society but it has enough truth about it to be useful to state.

When we come back to the church we find that it too is invaded by these same power dynamics.  People routinely work out their past humiliations by seeking to dominate others in petty power games.  If their position in a church is one of authority the temptation to abuse their power is greater and potentially more damaging.  The leader may subconsciously have sought this position of power precisely because their past traumas needed to be afforded some sort of palliative relief, that afforded by a gratuitous exercise of power.  I will be speaking further about this pattern of behaviour as it is covered in some reading I have recently done into what is known as ‘traumatic narcissism’.    Meanwhile I am asking my readers to reflect on power games, not only insofar as they are the victims of them, but also as they may contribute to them so that other people are affected.  While these are less severe by far than those revealed at work in Northern Ireland, let us at least recognise a functioning of similar human weaknesses and foibles.   All of us fit somewhere into the webs of power dynamics that go on around us.  Sometimes our participation is benign, sometimes less helpful.  Our conscience and capacity for self-reflection should guide us in the way we deal with these.  An imaginative identification with the victims in Northern Ireland may help to understand, albeit in an extreme form, the dynamics of power abuse.   In a lesser way these are manifested in the people and situations around us day by day.   Understanding and identifying them is the key to dealing with them successfully.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

7 thoughts on “25 The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (Northern Ireland)

  1. Firstly, in any institution there needs to be a robust reporting system. Human beings are not going to change this side of eternity. Failure to have a system to deal with the abuse that is inevitably going to happen is as foolish as having a photocopier that you can’t get into to untangle the paper!
    I think the causes include thoughtlessnes, low intelligence and lack of training. I used to nurse as an auxilliary in a mental home. The children there were not always treated as they should have been. I once saw a very young member of staff hit a child over the head with the wooden sole of a Scholl sandal for not doing as he was told. In fact the child was deaf and simply hadn’t heard. Many of those children were there because they had been born to mothers incarcerated as “moral delinquents”. Things were different then.

  2. Level of incompetence

    After experiencing the ‘education system’ during the 1950’s, my classmates and I were left helpless and abandoned in a terrifying world. At that time there was no understanding of ‘learning difficulties’. When I later got a very basic education I was able to see just how disempowered I was.

    The mentality of ‘educators’ was to beat it into you. You were ‘Thick’ and therefore lazy!
    These people had long since reached a level of incompetence. Today as we look back down those long years we see the inhumanities finally coming to light.

    However, we still have ‘Educated elites’ in places like the C.Q.C. totally out of touch with the hands on Care Assistant or auxiliary. I see a great problem for the Church with its hierarchal system, sending out into the world human vending machines with a set of reactions 1 2 3 4 5 that are often cosmically ridiculous and laughable.

    How could they deal with a Care Assistant working in a geriatric nursing home that is witnessing neglect and abuse and is told by their superiors ‘If you speak out we will engineer a allegation of abuse against you!’

    This is happening today! Where we can do something about it. If a disempowered poorly educated care assistant with no union or advocacy support is being bullied to keep quiet how will they ever trust a representative of the Care quality commission. I hope that this example can inspire the people contributing to this blog to realize that this is more than relevant to the above discussion.

    Chris Pitts

    1. Couldn’t agree more. Sometimes the level of fear in these feudal societies is such that the threats do not have to be spoken.

  3. Chris mentions disempowerment – that is a very significant word. Can any system ultimately do anything else. Christians speak of the “priesthood of all believers” – in other words – no heirarchy – each of us alone before God, yet all of us sharing that. Would that it were so….

    1. Yes I think every system and institution can and does disempower people in various ways. Yet that’s only a partial truth. Systems both empower and disempower, and the ramifications can be very complex. So education disempowered Chris, but the same system empowered those who thrived in it. Chris was further disempowered by an abusive congregation, yet others have been empowered by discovering the gospel in a church context. Unfortunately it is often those who have been abused or victims in one area who are most vulnerable and at risk of abuse elsewhere too – or of becoming abusers themselves when the opportunity arises.

      Perhaps its helps to consider that systems (which can be social ideas) and institutions both 1. tend to favour some types of people more than others, and 2. can vary on specific indicators of functionality and culture. Systems can be much better or worse, but we can’t envisage a world with no structure at all.

      In my view part of what Jesus intended as the good news was that all people are equally loved and significant to God. This has radical social implications in his attitudes to the poor and outcast, and breaking down barriers. He became the victim not the oppressor, taking our abuse rather than handing it back to us. The theology of the priesthood of all believers is an important expression of this. However this has always and will always live in tension with necessity for varying roles in substantial organisations, which will always incur some hierarchy. Jesus too appointed the 12 to special status. We need to understand how to manage that best, rather than simply accuse the fact.

      I think a very important point is that people should not face being engulfed by one all-consuming system running their life. Whether it is the family, a church, a care home, or whatever. Having different parts to your life gives people a means of escape, and the possibility of being supported, being able to be critical or becoming more empowered through another arena.

      For example, having had a mental health condition since early adulthood, I found the social norms or system of stigma attached to this unbelievably disempowering. The mental health services were also at least as unhelpful as mediators of disempowerment as they were helpful. There is not much more disempowering than being locked in a cell, made to feel worthless and told to follow lifelong uncomprehending obedience to the control of experts. Like the church, psychiatry has the particular problem that it proclaims itself as helping those in need, but often it does the opposite.

      My experience was that the gospel, made alive to me through the mediation of the church, was saving. This included specifically enabling me to understand myself as a beloved child of God rather than probably sub-human. It also offered me glimpses of a reality that was worth living in and for. But there are always all kinds of twists, turns and problems. In later years I discovered parts of the mental health community which actively work to challenge stigma and promote empowerment. When I faced unacceptable situations in either mental health or the church, my networks in the other field were there to help me. Another aspect of this is, that I am involved in the church in a variety of ways. If there’s a problem in one area, I can get help from or even retreat to another one. As I’m employed by the church now and a lay reader, this is rather important. Then there are other networks too, the most important one for me being the family.

      The main point I’m suggesting is that people need to have multiple strands to their life, and if a church undermines that, there’s something wrong. I think this includes being alive to different cultural and intellectual streams in society. A positive example of this for me has been the stimulation of comparing and contrasting the “recovery” movement in mental health with Christian understandings of healing. It’s been challenging and worthwhile trying to talk to people who do not share my faith and do not have access to the riches of Christian spirituality, yet have many shared goals.

      1. Thank you haikusinenomine for the long contribution. Various things struck me. One was your mention of being part of various hierarchies and how that helps one. My author, Peter Herriot, the social psychologist about whom I have written already, would talk about that in terms of multiple identities. An individual experiences him or herself as part of a ‘we’ in lots of different contexts. That can only be good and helpful as well as healthy. The problem is when one group, like a church or political party demands that one surrender one’s other identities in favour of a single one. That will result in something very unhealthy indeed. The tragedy of N Ireland institutions was that those children had no choice about what they belonged to. They were defined by their membership of the particular home or orphanage.

        The second issue you mention that I would like to comment on is mental health. While I have had some experience in the healing world, this does not extend to the world of mental health. But I can perfectly understand some of what you are saying. There is an important book by one Stephen Pattison, someone I know slightly, about the issue of mental health illness and how it can disempower you totally. Helping the mentally ill according to Pattison requires a liberation theology, a bit like Christians who sought to liberate the poor in South America. The book contains some harrowing detail of a particular hospital in the 1980s in Kent when a report was made after things went badly wrong. I don’t have the book now as it was a review copy that passed through my hands. It is very important on this theme and it is particularly good on describing powerlessness in an institution.
        Incidentally I am going to be writing more about Peter Herriot shortly.

        1. Hello Stephen
          In reply to your mention of liberation theology, it reminds me of a statement from a prospectus of the South London and Maudsley chaplaincy programme a number of years back, where those with mental health problems were described as “who are the best equivalent in our contemporary societies to the notion of the biblical poor”, which is a very strong statement within a liberation theology context. I actually think this has a lot of truth in it, but I’m not sure how widespread that awareness is in the church. Even though I think a good many people are aware one way or another of the difficulties, even if not really fully appreciative. And in some ways of course such a blanket claim could end up needing endless qualifications. But it is true for example that those with mental health problems have the worst employment statistics of any group in society.

          I’m not sure which book of Stephen Pattison’s you mean, but I did read one of his called “Shame” which I found very interesting. He included a focus from a personal angle that he experienced the inculcation of sexual shame through Christianity. But shame is such a large and to some extent submerged topic – he makes the point that it is neglected in Christianity compared to the focus on guilt. Even though to those of us who are sensitive to it, there is hardly a line in the bible more resonant than Jesus “who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame” (Hebrews 12.2).

          Anyone who has a stigmatised identity by definition is massively subject to being the target of shame and shaming, and I found the book useful at the time in making me more conscious of the issue. Unfortunately I seem to remember that he partly concludes that the psychology of shame is very difficult to be rid of, but still, one lives in hope.

          This is one of the vital functions of self-help and campaigning groups, where people can help each other discover their real value, see through the socially inculcated lies and shake off the overplus of shame that has been heaped onto them. All a very necessary part of moving from disempowerment to new life, but not as easily done as described.

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