State-Sanctioned Cover-Ups and the Legacy of Church-State Oppression in Ireland

Towards the end of August, Ireland became the subject of much media attention. The reason was quite simple: Pope Francis was scheduled to make a two-day visit to the country, leading many in the media to ask whether “his Holiness” would acknowledge and apologize for the never-ending list of sexual, physical, and psychological abuses the Catholic Church has inflicted upon Irish men, women and children.

To his credit, the Pope did one of those two things. He did acknowledge that the Church had covered up decades of abuses both in Ireland and elsewhere. He did not issue an apology however, instead asking the Irish people to ‘forgive’ the Church for its sins. Aside from this being a rather pathetic cop-out on his part, the visit and the lack of clear apology from the Church also raises questions (at least in my mind) about the state’s role in a myriad of cover-ups.

Since Ireland gained full independence in 1937, the relationship between Church and state in Ireland has always been a close one. Eamon De Valera, the country’s first post-1937 Taoiseach, built strong and lasting links with the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for decades before full independence. These strong links between church and state in Ireland were epitomised by Article 44 of Ireland’s first post-1937 constitution. Article 44 was initially worded in a way that recognised the Catholic Church as the only legitimate religious body in the nation. Following a series of later re-drafts, the constitution recognised all religious bodies, Catholic or otherwise. However, whilst such a redraft aimed at being inclusive of all faiths, the initial purpose of state-sanctioned and protected privilege for the Catholic Church remained for all to see. The final version recognised and protected other denominations and faiths, but it was to be the Catholic Church that would guide Irish law and serve as the “guardian” of the faithful.

Many at that time would’ve been forgiven for thinking that this so-called ‘special position’ of the Church was one in name only. However, the litany of sexual, physical, and psychological abuse inflicted upon successive generations of Irish citizens shows that Article 44 placed the Church above the law, with state agencies like the Gardaí and many government officials helping turn what started as an internal Church cover-up into a state-sanctioned one. A report written in 2009 on the issue found that over a period of 30 years, the Gardaí and state, in collaboration with various Catholic parishes, wilfully and knowingly mocked, repressed, and ignored calls from abuse victims.

The Taoiseach – Leo Varadkar – was right to note during Pope Francis’ visit that the Church has to do better, reform further, and face up to the fact that it has inflicted pain not just upon Irish citizens but also others throughout Europe, the USA, and the developing world who lack the ability or courage to speak out. The previous Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was right to condemn the joint workings of the Church and state that led to the tragedy of the Magdalene Laundries, institutions where single mothers and ‘unwanted women’ were shipped off and subjected to psychological torment. However, neither of them, nor the state-at-large, have been willing to fully sever the now ever more frayed and pointless link between church and state. Calls for the removal of church control of schools have been growing ever louder, and whilst some progress has been made, the government and the state’s two largest political parties are unwilling to fully wrestle control of education from the churches, Catholic or otherwise.

Until this is done, the Church shall still retain some form of state-sanctioned privilege in Ireland. Until this is done, it’s legacy of abuse and oppression shall continue to live on.

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