Perhaps politicians should check their own houses are in order before attacking the church?

On Saturday, I remember reading Noel Whelan’s sage, but ultimately hopeless, advice to politicians to steer clear of beating up on Cardinal Sean Brady, and shaking my head thinking, why would he think they could ever resist the temptation to get in on the act? As a former FF politico he knows the creature better than most. Yet, there’s no doubt it was worth saying.

For one, the Catholic church is not the only organisation that has played an ignominious role in its past dealings with children. The church was for many years a proxy for the state in childcare, health and education. Many of these things went on, apparently unregarded for generations.

It’s also clear that the Catholic church is not the only offending religious institution in either jurisdiction, though the very centralised nature of its bureaucracy has functioned to spread the mess more widely and more deeply than most.

So are politicians really to remain silent on the secret life of a church that was so integral to the construction and maintenance of the social institutions of an emergent Ireland?

Well, no. But they might do well to recognise the fact that the Catholic church is not the only institution on these islands with such an abysmal record of silence on the nature and character of child abuse. Jenny McCartney in the Sunday Telegraph puts hammer squarely to nail, with regard to at least one crucial aspect of the problem:

The younger Father Brady was instrumental in turning Brendan Smyth’s abuse into the Church’s little secret. The children’s parents, who would have been a source of both outrage and protection, were deliberately not informed, and nor were the police. The Church saw a choice between protecting its own reputation, and shielding young children from ferocious abuse, and it unhesitatingly chose to protect itself. Quite unbelievably, it did not even take definitive steps, within its own clandestine terms, to arrest the foul behaviour of Smyth.

This is the most damaging aspect of this case. The secret keeping aids the abuser and acts as a licence to continue the behaviour.

It might be tempting to think that, right now, the Catholic church may actually be the safest place to put children in care.  Though this side of this crisis, I doubt many would willingly take the risk. Yet the truth is that it is not alone in keeping it’s own secrets.

Indeed, child abuse has been widely accepted as part of the landscape in Northern Ireland, where the terms ‘scum’, or ‘scumbags’ are still used to justify the mutilation of children as a preferred means of social control.

For one churchman, the auxiliary bishop of Down and Connor, the hypocrisy of some northern Irish politicians in this regard was too much to resist a little ‘Whataboutery’ of his own:

“It’s hard to take criticism of Cardinal Brady from many people who during the Troubles were involved in state bodies, paramilitary bodies or who shared platforms with those organisations, who did huge damage to children and their families. What I’m trying to say is, have we anyone who can help us see the big picture rather than just be driven by what’s a comparatively narrow question on Cardinal Brady?”

Whataboutery it may be, but this is more than a passing defensive point. The state has huge responsibility in its oversight of the welfare of children whether they are at home or in the care of other institutions.

And we even have the case of the leader of one of the island’s major political parties apparently keeping the secret of his own brother’s alleged abuse of a daughter for more than twenty years.

Read Ms McCartney, with some of those broader references in mind:

We are all aware now that paedophiles may seek to conceal their abuse by presenting it to the victim as “our little secret”. The younger Father Brady was instrumental in turning Brendan Smyth’s abuse into the Church’s little secret. The children’s parents, who would have been a source of both outrage and protection, were deliberately not informed, and nor were the police. The Church saw a choice between protecting its own reputation, and shielding young children from ferocious abuse, and it unhesitatingly chose to protect itself. Quite unbelievably, it did not even take definitive steps, within its own clandestine terms, to arrest the foul behaviour of Smyth.

What we know about child abuse, sexual or otherwise, is that it thrives in the dark.  And we also know that Ireland has acquired more than its fair share dark places. In common with other societies however, we also suffer from a fatalism that tells us that there is nothing we can do.

The thought of such disgrace emerging in such a highly socialised society is so deeply shaming for those closest that there is a tendency to close ranks and keep it secret, which is almost overwhelming. For all the understandable reaction to this issue, its full extent goes way beyond just one church.

Politicians might be well advised to check their own bailiwick before jumping thoughtlessly on to the anti church bandwagon and consider not just what’s to be done with adults who’ve had the best of their lives stolen not just by the abuse but the Omertà they’ve endured for twenty, thirty or forty years for the sake of other people’s reputations.

But to consider what they might do prevent it happening to those children who will otherwise have to endure such hateful experiences, both now and in the future.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty