The venue for Tuesday evening’s dinner was in a room that had once accommodated a school chapel in times past.
Attending the dinner on a previous occasion, an old boy of the school recalled memories of being in the chapel and unpleasant memories of a member of the staff. ‘He would be in prison now’, he commented
The story had been about a member of staff at the boys’ boarding school, a clergyman who preferred the classroom to the church. He was known for the attention he paid to young boys as he went around to tuck them in at bedtime.
If he would be in prison now, what was it in the mind of people in the 1950s that allowed a pederast to interfere with boys at a fee-paying school? Was it regarded as somehow a harmless perversion for him to prey on children? Did anyone ask them how they felt about it at the time, or since then?
Some attitudes seem astonishing in retrospect.
In 1985 seminars were held in the Church of Ireland Theological College on preventing child abuse. It was a pioneering move at the time; people were loathe enough to admit that the problem existed, to include it in the training programme for clergy was radical. The person leading the seminars believed clergy would have access to homes and information that might be denied to others and needed to have some idea of how to recognise situations where children were in danger.
At a question and answer session, one of the students who had come from an urban working-class area said that what surprised him was that there was abuse in the homes of better off people. He said that when he was growing up everyone knew that there were homes where things went on, but they thought that such things only happened in poor areas.
If everyone knew that things went on in some homes, why did no-one do anything, or at least say something?
Child abuse seemed to be in a category with domestic violence as something that was common knowledge, but about which little was done. Domestic violence seemed to be accepted: call the police and they preferred not to get involved. Perhaps it was the difficulty in securing a prosecution, perhaps it was more the influence of the church which insisted that the State should not interfere in family life.
The questions that arise from the publication of the Ryan and the Murphy Reports in recent months run much deeper than the responsibility of the church for heinous crimes, they are questions about the nature of the society that allowed the churches to occupy such a position of power in Irish life, that allowed crime to be considered a private matter.
A true republic, a true res publica, a true public thing, would be an open society; there would be equality before the law and no special treatment for any interest group. An open society might not be perfect, but the culture of secrecy and legal privilege would not have been possible. The idea that someone responsible for the shielding of alleged paedophiles would have his future determined in a foreign state would be repugnant to republican principles. The subsidising of church activities with taxpayers’ money would be thought ridiculous.
A true Irish republic is only possible through a complete separation of church and state.