May 29, 2009

Commentary:

Will the Catholic Church Renounce Its Violent Past?

By Patrick Rice

Editor’s Note: Patrick Rice is a long time observer of violence in the Catholic Church, of which he is still an active member. Born in Ireland, Rice attended schools taught by the Irish Christian Brothers.

Later he became a priest of the Divine Word Missionary order and was sent to Argentina in 1970 where he worked as an organizer in the shantytowns of Buenos Aires. In 1976 he was arrested and tortured by the Argentine military in a secret detention center and subsequently deported.

Rice later took a law degree and married Fatima, also a victim of torture. The couple returned to Argentina in 1982.

In this piece Rice reacts to the explosive Ryan Report, which recently exposed violence in Irish Catholic Schools during the twentieth century.

The recently published report on child abuse by religious orders in schools run by Christian Brothers in Ireland in the twentieth century can best be compared to the truth commissions which have now become a feature in many countries coming to grips with such tragedies as civil wars, genocide and dictatorships.

The Ryan Report, chaired by Mr. Justice Sean Ryan, formally called the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in Ireland, took 10 years to complete. Ireland has welcomed it as one of the most liberating statements to come out of an official body in recent years.

In summary, the report reveals situations which dishonor us as a people and exposes the Irish Catholic Church as having betrayed its founding principles.

Even though its primary focus was on residential institutions for children run by the Christian Brothers and the Mercy Sisters, it comes as a special relief to all of us who did our primary and secondary education in a Christian Brothers School.

Only now with its findings public, can we put the most disturbing aspects of that educational experience behind us. Inhuman and cruel practices were tolerated, and it became absolutely necessary for an official body to investigate and publicly denounce the abuses.

The fact that the investigation took so long shows how sensitive the whole issue was especially on the matter of sexual abuse and the involvement of the Catholic Church.

Corporal punishment, with the “strap” which each Christian Brother had in his cassock pocket, was the order of the day in those times and every boy was introduced at a very early age to the traumatic experience of getting “slapped” for almost any reason whatsoever.

But that kind of punishment was only the tip of the iceberg. Lay teachers had a free scope for head beating, ear pulling, slapping with canes, kicking in the back with the knee and all other forms of punishment which on occasions were aggravated when the teacher was under the influence of alcohol.

However the most destructive practice of all was the verbal abuse we received, since teachers had a free license to get angry with us . We were insulted for our clothes, our mistakes, our way of talking, our lack of hygiene, our names were mocked, and we suffered with those students who had more serious mental handicaps.

It was true that classes were big, that the times were bad and Ireland was in economic depression, but those kind of “Gestapo” methods were uncalled for and should never have been tolerated in Ireland. I can only imagine the regime of terror kids must have experienced in industrial schools or reformatories staffed by some of the same Brothers.

The Catholic faith which guided the Brothers was of course the pivot of the system. It created a world of fear and violence but also of generosity and indeed heroism. I vividly recall when one student, 11 years old, struck back at the teacher who was bullying him.

Those few teachers who did not resort to violence became the paradigm of sanctity to us. Already in our first years of primary school we began to distinguish between those who were violent with us and others who were encouraging and gave us confidence.

I have no doubt that my own strong emotional reaction to discrimination comes from having been exposed to such situations during those early formative years in the classroom.

Nevertheless I freely confess that, like many of my classmates, I decided to enter religious life and the missionary priesthood because of the example of some of the Brothers whom I got to know during my school years.

I discovered the human side to religion in that same school where I had experienced its sinister evil side. In the seminary during the sixties I discovered that Church teaching gives no justification whatsoever for the violence we had experienced.

The Catholic Church was about life, justice, truth and love. Coming to Latin America as a missionary priest in 1970 only confirmed me in that commitment. However I soon discovered that the violent Church I had experienced in my childhood was very much alive and well here in Argentina.

During the military dictatorships we saw the official hierarchy in many Latin American countries align themselves with the torturers and the assassins in uniform who proclaimed themselves to be exemplary Catholics.

Consequently the other Church of the poor, of liberation theology, suffered persecution, martyrdom and imprisonment because of its commitment to the Gospel values of justice, truth and love.

Moreover, the official church hierarchy campaigned against all church renewal including the Vatican Council—especially the man we call Pope Benedict XVI. As Cardinal Josef Ratzinger in the Congregation of Doctrine for the Faith, he introduced Inquisition-type practices to silence Latin American theologians.

This is the leadership of the Church which during the last 30 years has zealously maintained a curtain of silence on all kinds of sexual abuses by the clergy.

The Ryan Report will certainly reignite the “aggiornamiento” movement begun by Pope John XXIII . I believe a spiritual revolution is finally happening in the church from the bottom up. That is where lay folk have a key role to play.

Believing in the God of love and peace, working for justice and truth, being creative and responsible in what we do, joining in the community, reading and praying together, getting priests and bishops to come and join us.

Thank you, Mr. Justice Ryan.

Attorney Patrick Rice is a member of the Charles de Foucauld Lay Fraternity, Buenos Aires, Argentina.patriciorice@yahoo.com.

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