The New York Times reported: "Tens of thousands of Irish children were sexually, physically and emotionally abused by nuns, priests and others over 60 years in a network of church-run residential schools meant to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unwanted, according to a report released in Dublin on Wednesday."
In that very disturbing report, a systemic pattern of child abuse was revealed. From a documented period beginning in 1936 children placed in the care of the Congregation of Christian Brothers and other religious orders were subject to some of the worst possible abuses. Priests, nuns and brothers participated in thousands of rapes of boys and girls; allowed stronger boys and custodial staff to sexually abuse weaker or younger boys; sadistically punish children for the slightest offense, as well as engaging in the ritualized beating of girls.
Some of the actions could be easily considered torture. For example, one victim described how he and other boys were gotten out of bed and "made to walk around naked with other boys whilst brothers used their canes and flicked at their penis." Beyond that, the children were consistently subject prison-like living conditions, and other psychologically damaging humiliations.
Donohue responded to the Times story in a letter to the editor, printed in the May 22, 2009 edition, by splitting hairs and diverting attention from the seriousness of the crimes committed and the utter betrayal of the children in the care of Church-run schools and orphanages.
The news article about the Irish clergy abuse says "girls were routinely sexually abused," yet the report explicitly says on Page 11 that "in general, girls' schools were not as physically harsh as boys' schools and there was no persistent problem of sexual abuse."
More important, the report labels four types of abuse: physical, sexual, neglect and emotional. This includes things like "kissing," "inappropriate sexual talk," "being kicked," "inadequate heating," "lack of attachment and affection" and so on; regarding sexual abuse, the most common form was fondling, not rape.
To conflate serious abuse with punitive measures that were not uncommon at the time (82 percent of the incidents took place before 1970) is manifestly unfair.
The audacity of his letter was only matched by a Catholic League press release issued two days earlier, in which Donohue claimed:
The Irish report suffers from conflating minor instances of abuse with serious ones, thus demeaning the latter. When most people hear of the term abuse, they do not think about being slapped, being chilly, being ignored or, for that matter, having someone stare at you in the shower. They think about rape.
Donohue concluded by trying to negate the severity of the report by trivializing it, callously declaring, "By cheapening rape, the report demeans the big victims. But, of course, there is a huge market for such distortions, especially when the accused is the Catholic Church."
Such statements are outrageous. Does Bill Donohue truly believe that there is anything normal about an older man watching children shower ready to beat them with a strap if they rinsed off too slowly?
And obviously Donohue failed to read a key paragraph in the report's Executive Summary that unequivocally stated, "This Report should give rise to debate and reflection. Although institutional care belongs to a different era, many of the lessons to be learned from what happened have contemporary applications for the protection of vulnerable people in our society."
The commission's report found that rape and sexual abuse of young male students inflicted by the Christian Brothers order, "was a chronic problem." But Donohue just ignored that part.
But Donohue's letter contradicts his earlier statements on the general issue of child sex abuse in the Church. Donohue has been one of several on the Catholic Right who have maintained that the pedophilia scandal was the result of the liberalizing effects of Vatican II. Instead of looking at the pre-Pope John XXIII authoritarian mindset, Donohue all-too-conveniently places the blame on modernity.
As a Catholic I am angry at my church for first letting such abuses take place, and then trying to cover them up. I am even more incensed when Donohue and others try to defend the indefensible. A National Catholic Reporter article on the issue by Father Thomas Doyle was recently reposted at the web site Enlightened Catholicism. Unlike Donohue, Doyle speaks truth to power:
The Church cannot and will not fix itself. The very reality of the systemic abuse in the Irish institutions (and elsewhere as well) reveals a deep disdain for people by those charged with leading the Church. There has been an abandonment of the fundamental values that are supposed to vivify the Church if indeed these values were ever really internalized by many in positions of power. There is something radically wrong with the institutional Catholic Church. This is painfully obvious because it allows systemic abuse and radical dishonesty to coexist with its self-proclaimed identity as the Kingdom of God on earth....
The institutional Church is defensively changing its approach to the systematic abuse all too slowly and only because it is forced to do so by external forces it cannot control. The Irish government commission is one and the U.S. legal system is another.
Father Doyle's clear-eyed assessment of the condition of the Church, illustrates for us the necessity keeping church and state separate. Only a government that is not intertwined with a given religious hierarchy can properly effect such necessary change. He speaks with the honesty and decency millions of Catholics like me expect from our Church. Bill Donohue, de factor hatchet man for the hierarchy, does not. We wish he would just shut up and go away.