June 11, 2009
"What happened was shocking and horrible and beyond description. There are no excuses for it. But only one percent of all the religious in Ireland were abusers, and it's affected us all. Nobody in religious life is highly regarded anymore — but being highly regarded is not a reason for our vocation."
Sister M., long-time teacher in Los Angeles Catholic schools, was describing to me the mood of her native Ireland in the wake of the recent report documenting the abuse of children at orphanages and reform schools run by Catholic religious orders, which I wrote about in my last column.
"People out there are so angry. Nobody wants to be on the support side, even though hundreds of thousands had positive experiences in their own schooling."
I spoke with Sr. M. to get her perspective on the situation. Nuns of her congregation, all young and adventuresome, were sent from Dublin to the mission land of America beginning in 1953. They taught me in elementary school half a century ago, and I, along with most of my classmates, had come away not only with a solid education but with an enduring affection for them: Almost to a woman they were caring and even-tempered in their work, and contagiously joyful in their lives — a contrast not only to the tales of horror described in the report but to the well-worn tales of "the mean nuns" recounted by so many American Catholics of that period. They were sober and strict in the classroom — how could they afford not to be, with "seven rows of nine students each," as Sister M. calculated; you do the math — and liberally applied the ruler to the hands of the unruly. But during recess and after school they were out there playing dodgeball and shooting baskets with the same unrulies, no grudges all around. To this day, many of their first students remain in touch with them.
Sister M.'s congregation has faced no accusations in the scandal, and there are historical reasons for it. Their foundress deplored orphanages and gathered a group of like-minded women in the mid-nineteenth century to provide an alternative, placing orphans and unsupported children in what we now call foster homes and diligently monitoring their treatment and progress.
"Our foundress was a hundred years ahead of her time," Sister M. said. "She saw orphanages as dehumanizing and impersonal. She saw what they did to people, not just the children but their guardians too. Now all the orphanages are gone and what she pioneered is the norm."
Over time, the Sisters grew in number and expanded into general education, opening elementary and high schools.
Sister M. was educated in their system, and joined them at age 18. "The convents were absolutely happy places," she told me. "If that weren't there, I would never have stayed."
All was not perfect, of course: "I admit that some of our nuns were harsh to the children for whatever reason — they feared losing control of the class, or they disliked teaching, or they were dissatisfied with their lives. But you find that in every organization. All in all, I think we were and are a fairly well- balanced group."
I'd wanted to write about these nuns specifically, as examples of the seldom-told positive side, but Sister M. requested that I not put the name of her congregation in the column. "Things are in such a furor in Ireland now," she told me, "that people might be out there Googling us, find your article, and say, ‘These Sisters aren't sinless — some of them hit me and ridiculed me when I was in school.' Who knows what might become of it?"
I mentioned this to an acquaintance of mine here in New York, a middle-aged Irish woman. "Certain people are smelling blood," she remarked. "There's so much restitution money being doled out by the religious orders, and the unscrupulous are coming out of the woodwork for a piece of the action. My entire schooling in Ireland was under the nuns, and by today's standards we all could say we were ‘abused' in some way. But that was how it was done then. We see things differently now, but when we were children, it was expected. It was just a part of life.
"As for the real abusers," she continued, "they went unchecked because priests and religious were idolized. Most parents believed they could do no wrong, so any complaint was useless."
Sr. M. said much the same thing: "In those days, if children would complain of bad treatment by their teachers, parents would say, "Go back to school. The Brothers will take care of you."
"My father hated the priests," my acquaintance told me. "He thought they were hypocrites, toadies of the institution, Church and state. Our neighbors were scandalized by his attitude, and I was ashamed of it myself, but it turns out he was right, at least in part."
The Catholic Church, once the center-point of Irish cultural identity, is now an object of derision. The churches are empty, the seminaries and convents are imploding.
"God is sweeping the house clean," Sister M. told me. "Jesus is cleansing the temple. But this is not all bad. There's a new spirit of honesty and openness. Institutions are dying so that true faith may grow. God has God's own ways of dealing with things. Out of the ashes God is always bringing something new."