Bishop Eamon Casey disappointed me. I had no reason to respect him: as a secular Protestant the Catholic priesthood should be nothing special to me. I had reason to dislike him personally: at my school’s leaving mass he called me a pagan and meant it in a nasty sort of way. In fact, I did dislike Eamon Casey and, like anyone in Galway, I’d heard rumours, still just rumours, of, whisper it, misbehavior in London. I was still shocked though, disappointed, when I learned about his secret child, his theft and his shoddy behavior towards his family. For a while I even mythologized his story, described it in tragic terms, the public man warring with the private secret; all nonsense, it was nothing more than everyday venality.
I often think of this time before the story broke, the way dislike and the suspicion lived side-by-side with an unthinking respect. In hindsight Eamon Casey’s sins and failings seem minor compared to the other horrors and, perhaps, thinking about his tawdry behavior was a useful gateway towards thinking about what we now know. However, most of all, what I think about is the knowing and unknowing, the special magic of unthinking respect that made us mute.
This is something our attitude to Eamon Casey had in common with our silence about the horrible crimes the church committed. We knew but never thought about what we knew, we knew but never thought about what we knew in the right way, we knew but never thought about what we knew with the part of our brain that makes judgements and identifies and condemns wrongs rather than the part of our brain that gossips and tells jokes. We treated the church with unthinking respect when deep down we knew it deserved investigation and condemnation.
The fact is that we knew; in dark jokes, whispers and gossip, we knew or at least half-knew that the priests were raping children and that the church was protecting paedophile priests, we knew that the brothers were torturing vulnerable people and that the nuns were killing babies through neglect. We didn’t know the details and we could never have imagined, even in part, the extent of the horror, but we knew that we were talking around horrible half-secrets. This is terrible, not the same sort of terrible as the crimes themselves, but terrible nonetheless.
I tried to explain my feeling of communal guilty at the time of the Magdalen Laundry report and people gave out to me; I get that, part of the cynical media strategy of extreme Catholic groups is to diffuse blame away from the church, in their version the church’s crimes are communal crimes or crimes committed by a few bad people: this is simply not right, there were good priests and awful priests and the church was abetted by its client state, but the blame lies with the church and its institutions. Sometimes you have to fight the battle, sometimes to plan the war and, day-by-day it is important not to accidentally collude with Irish Catholicism vocal band of apologists and confuse the charge sheet against the church: it is astonishing that at the end of this grisly litany they seem likely to retain control of their wealth, of their land, of the schools and hospitals and that their heartless views on issues like abortion and equal marriage still hold a sway disproportionate to their support.
But, the fact is that we knew, or half-knew, we permitted the magic of unthinking respect and we sustained a habit of mind, a habit of discourse, that forgot for half our brain what the other half knew. We never thought or spoke properly about what was going on, an internal aphasia that’s the sibling, or perhaps the parent, or perhaps the child, of our inability then to think or speak properly about the Troubles, that other horror. Out of this past mistake comes an obligation, an obligation to remember the church’s monstrous crimes, to ignore everything the church and its apologists say and to err on the side of accusation in contemplating the church’s actions.