The name of Mavis Arnold, who died in July, will not be known to many people. Her obituary in The Times last Tuesday, however, brought to memory one of the most appalling child abuse scandals in the Church during the 20th-century. It was Arnold and her fellow journalist Heather Lasky who spent 10 years uncovering the scale of child abuse and neglect in church run schools in Ireland for many decades up till the 60s.
In 1943 35 girls were burnt to death in St Joseph’s industrial school in Co Cavan Ireland. The enquiry held at the time blamed the slow response of the emergency services for this tragedy. The full story that Arnold uncovered 30 years later was that many of the girls had been locked in their dormitories by the sisters so that they would not be seen by the public in their nightclothes.
This discovery led Arnold and her fellow researcher to look in more detail at the record of church run schools and orphanages in Ireland at that time. Although officialdom put many obstructions in her way, Arnold was able to listen to the testimonies of many former inmates of these institutions. They had experienced appalling neglect, starvation and emotional and physical abuse. Her book, The Children of the Poor Clares, was published in 1985. The reviews at the times were disbelieving and no doubt many wanted to ignore her research. It took another 14 years for the Irish government to apologise to the victims and only in 2009 did the Ryan Report chronicle lay bare the full horror of the abuse suffered at many church-run institutions by thousands of children.
This blog has not focused hitherto on the many examples of religious abuse in the Catholic Church. It would be easy to catalogue examples of Catholic priests around the world who have failed, especially in the abusing of children. This Irish saga raises a dimension of abuse which is way beyond individual failure. It is a story of abuse by religious institutions that no one wanted to see. For decades this was also ignored by the people of power in Ireland. The full story of how the church found itself looking after so many vulnerable children on behalf of the state is a complex one. When the Irish Free State came into being in the 1920s, it afforded the Catholic Church immense privileges and guaranteed these in the newly written Constitution. The Church took over many of the responsibilities of the State so that much education together with the care of orphaned children and unmarried mothers came under its control. All these were state-funded. Supervision by the State of how the money was spent was lacking. Also there does not seem to have any oversight of the care provision for countless vulnerable people in the church-run institutions.
To return to the awful events of 1943 in Co Cavan. St Joseph’s must have been a place of appalling suffering but not only for the unfortunate girls who died that night in their smoke-filled dormitories. Every one of the sisters who had responsibility for their welfare had, in different ways, bought into an appalling regime of repression, lies and abuse. Any individual who could dream up the thought that desperate children in their nightclothes were potential objects of sexual fantasy was herself corrupted in mind and imagination. The theology and formation these sisters had received from the Catholic Church had somehow sucked away the fundamental humanity which should have allowed them to succour their fellow human beings. Here we have an unholy mixture of obsessive and unhealthy attitude to sexuality mixed up with some religious teaching focussed on evil and depravity. It is a similar combination of unhealthy attitudes to sex with extremist teaching that we sometimes meet in Protestant settings. It has to be acknowledged that rarely do such ideas allow children to die. But we do regularly find in conservative Protestant thinking the same desire to control the sexuality of the people under their authority. Sometimes leaders will decide who will marry whom in the group, even if this involves breaking up existing relationships. It goes almost without saying that same-sex partnerships are completely outlawed. In many of these high-demand groups, sexual issues seem constantly to loom large. As a general observation I would hazard the guess that the more sexuality is discussed (and condemned) the more we find fundamentally unhealthy dynamics in a Christian community. An attempt to control the sexuality of other people whether in Catholic Ireland or Protestant America is all too frequently the accompaniment to some of the worst examples of spiritual abuses within these churches.
The recent Nashville statement https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement by a group of American evangelicals on the topic of sexuality, is the latest example of Christian people seemingly obsessed with this area of human life. So often do we hear Christian conservatives speaking about sex that we could be forgiven for thinking that ‘correct’ Christian views on sexual behaviour comes before any other belief. Thankfully we do not find obsessive fretting about sexual activity to be a feature of the New Testament. Jesus was of course concerned about the quality of relationships. But we never get the impression that he was constantly talking about this aspect of life to his disciples or making it part of the ‘good news’.
The tragic story of St Joseph’s industrial school in 1943 is a reminder to us that it is essential never to let sexuality become a dominant theme of teaching in a Christian community. When we hear the inhibitions about sex that come to us from strict versions of Catholicism or the teachings of conservative Protestant groups, we need to be on our guard. The Church’s standing in society is being steadily undermined because it cannot speak clearly and healthily about sex. The lonely suffering of the 35 St Joseph girls should help us to realise how important it is to get better communication about sex to the world than we do at present. Within the Anglican church the squabbling about sex is unhelpful and undignified. Still worse are stories of individuals whose faith seems to depend on the opinion they have on the ‘gay issue’. May the church successfully preach and live her real priorities. Unless what it teaches is truly good (and healthy) news, the world will rightly turn away.