The Boston Progressive - Under The Fold

Recycled news and (hopefully) original commentary from a New England Progressive perspective -- the full text of items shown on the main page

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Redress Act background

This is background for another post in the blog (see here)
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The legal deadline` for application to the Residential Institutions Redress Board
approaching, but many in US may be unaware of the Board at all.

The Boston Globe recently ran a piece in their "Local News" section about the upcoming deadline of December 15, 2005, for applications for financial compensation from the Residential Institutions Redress Board in Ireland. The Redress Board is a commission that was established in 2002 to take compensation applications and determine the relative severity of, physical, emotional and sexual abuse inflicted on inmates of over 120 "institutions" that housed children in Ireland and that were mostly run by the Roman Catholic Church, with funding by the Irish government.

The deadline is quickly approaching for these applications, and there has been no advertising, by the Redress Board, in the United States, despite assurances given, to the Boston Globe in 2002, that there would be advertising in this country about the Boards and it’s purpose, even though the American cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Chicago hold large numbers of Irish immigrants.

Sometimes we all think of ourselves as being in a part of a universe where most of the troubles outside our immediate vicinity are "someone else’s troubles" and not really like what we go through.

In a way that is a correct perception. No matter where we are, our own neighborhood/city/state/country are unique, with unique conditions and problems. Or perhaps not.

One of the dogged issues that has been plaguing us in the U.S. over the last several years that has been that of abuse of children by caregivers or others we thought that we could trust. Some of it in a faith-based background, others in a strictly secular setting.

Not many of us have paid attention to these abuses outside of the U.S., especially in the nations that our immigrant forebears hailed from. Including Ireland.. This perception, for Irish-Americans, was changed with the 2003 release of the Miramax film "The Magdalene Sisters."
Although the film focused on the Magdalene laundries, there was an entire network of "services" that the Church ran on the behalf of the government: the aforementioned Laundries, hospitals, reform schools, orphanages and so-called "industrial schools" (residential schools that "took in" children of indigent parents).

All run with the compliance of the government of Ireland, both pre- and post-partition.

Somewhat obviously, the major news that comes out now that makes headlines are accounts of abuses. I’m not a scholar of these Irish institutions, but the specter of these "faith-based" enterprises should be a warning to those in our own society who keep calling for greater involvement of religious organizations supported by government funds.

By their nature these organizations command greater respect and deference, earned or not, and we presume that the "sins of the flesh" will not be present. As we have seen in this country, with the widening gyre of accusation and vindication in regards to the scandals involving abuse by Roman Catholic priests, sometimes this deference is neither earned nor the respect returned. Bear in mind that, in the United States, we hear about this abuse being centered on the Roman Catholic Church clergy for a couple of reasons.

First, "Catholic Bashing" is an old and (dis)honorable sport here, based in prejudices carried across on the Mayflower and nurtured by the "identity" politics in such tactics as the "joke" about Al Smith’s phone number ("Write this down - 5909 - now turn the paper over and hold it to the light"), not so quite "whispering campaigns" that, if elected, John Kennedy would "take his orders from the Vatican." It also manifested in anti-immigrant activities as "peaceful" as "No Irish Need Apply" and as violent as riots against Irish and Italian immigrants.
Another reason for the visibility is that the Roman Catholic faith is the single largest denomination, among those who profess a religion to census takers, in the United States, with the extra visibility that this entails.

Third, because of the perceived, if not actual, complicity of the R.C. Hierarchy in suppressing any public airing of complaints, and refusal to publicly deal with the issues involved, even to threatening the faithful who might pursue legal redress with excommunication, allowed the problems to grow completely out of control. Given the absolute number of R.C. clergy in the U.S., the actual percentage of offenders is small, but it is shocking to those who have always afforded the clergy the automatic respect and deference the Church demanded.

I’m absolutely convinced that the same abuse happens in other congregations, whether Protestant ("mainstream," "evangelical" and "Fundamentalist"), Jewish or Muslim, but it simply is not reported as much because of the "codes of silence" that surround such accusations, whether the accused be a family member or clergy. The victims face their own shame in the matter, believing that what happened was somehow their "own fault," those surrounding the victim either disbelieve them entirely or reinforce the victim’s perceived self-guilt by presuming that the victim somehow was "at fault." And, of course, the perpetrator wants no scrutiny.

However, in most of Ireland the deference given to the Church was wholehearted, in public at least, and the Church appeared only too happy to take advantage of this deference and respect, when they accepted guardianship over boys and girls, into institutions as wide ranging as orphanages and the "Laundries" showcased in Peter Mullin’s movie, to the "industrial schools" and residential hospitals for the deaf and physically impaired.

Run, effectively, without oversight by the civil authorities, "inmates" could be kept, in many cases, indefinitely, and they could often be committed without formal trial or representation by counsel. The civil requirements for commitment to one of the schools or other institutions were absurdly broad (author Paddy Doyle, legally an orphan, was brought before a magistrate, at the age of four, and was charged with "not being in possession of a proper guardian." (According to Doyle’s website, because this was a "conviction," under Irish law Doyle can neither hold political office nor sit on a jury.). Apparently, for the Magdalene laundries, the requirements were even less stringent, just a signed "request" from the parents or guardians.

For many of the "industrial schools" there was no real effort made to actually prepare the inmates for emergence into society at large, and the modern industrialized society has very little use for unskilled labor, so those released into the wilds of the modern world were truly cast adrift with scant chances of being able to integrate into that Brave New World.

For many in the United States the only awareness of these institutions is what was seen in Mullin’s movie "The Magdalene Sisters," and they may think that the "laundries" was an institution unique to Ireland and the Catholic Church. The Magdalene Movement was actually an outgrowth of the "rescue movement" in the U.K. in the late 19th century, whose initial goal was to provide a refuge and a path away from the "life" of prostitution. The Magdalene Asylums were to provide a short-term stay and a way to be reintroduced into "society" as gainfully employed in a legal manner, and where, for the most part, women could enter and leave the asylums of their own accord.

Many women resorted to the asylums as a respite from prostitution, an unmarried pregnancy, an escape from debtor’s houses, poverty after the death of a spouse or an escape from an abusive partner or spouse.

Because the initial impetus was to provide a way for working prostitutes to escape the "life," the inmates of the asylums were considered to be "sinners" and "in need of penance and reform." As noted above, in Ireland most of the "laundries" were run under the administration and control of the Roman Catholic Church, where the short term, voluntary, nature changed to a long-term, mandatory sojourn, similar to the practivce in many "mental health facilities" where the patient may check in, but it can sometimes be extremely difficult for the patient to get out again. (nterestingly, the "psychiatric" standards of the day often associated prostitution with "feeble-mindedness.").

After partition, some of the willingness to give more deference to the R.C. Church, and to allow more freedom from supervision in church-run institutions, may have been a reaction against both the start of the British reform movement to secularize social welfare institutions, rather than leaving the job of reform to the religious, and because the English rulers has sporadically tried to "Anglicize" the island (sometimes through actions such as the resettlement of Scotch Protestants, mainly Presbyterians, into Ireland during the Plantation of Ulster during the early 17th Century)

The "industrial schools" combined the purposes of orphanages and reformatories for minors.

Because of the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, and the deference granted as a matter of course, efforts to either investigate the "industrial schools" or "laundries" were stymied, often with the statement that to investigate complaints and document abuses "would serve no useful purpose."

The history of these state-funded, and Church-run institutions, that were without effective secular oversight, should serve as a useful backdrop to the current inititives, by the so-called "family values" conservatives, to entrust more and more of the social welfare "safety net" to "faith-based" initiatives.

This pattern of deference to churches, as institutions, will suggest to members of those churches that oversight would not be needed ("*Our* clergy members wouldn’t do anything *wrong!*"). Indeed, the pluralistic tradition and the willingness (usually) to keep our collective noses out of other peoples churches would make many of *other* congregations wary of accusations of any kinds of improprieties, for fear of appearing "anti-."

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