How to say sorry?

After all the controversy over the numerous Catholic Church sex scandals across the island of Ireland involving members of the religious community and particularly impacting on children/young victims, a move is on to find a suitable way to create a memorial to focus the pain suffered by so many innocents. I would like to propose an idea that might find favour by helping those most affected.

The topic was aired on RTE’s late show last night (Mon 10th Oct) and the panel included  past victim Colm O Gorman of Amnesty International Ireland, Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald and renowned author, Colm Toibin. Several ideas were proposed, including using a former Magdelan laundry as a type of museum, creating robust legislation and structures to prevent future recurrances and creating literary and artistic works to highlight the abuse. Also, the panel suggested designing a suitable monument as a focal point for victims to have as a reminder for all of the physical and mental anguish they suffered.

All of the ideas had currency and deserve to be promoted in the opinion of the panel and in my own also. The overwhelming view was that there should be a suitable monument to remind all Irish people of the disgraceful behaviour of members of the religious, both perpetrators and their superiors who covered up their evilness time after time, even when public opinion was firmly turned against their secretive ways.

From my walk on the Camino (see blog), which is still a “religious” pilgrimage, the idea occurred to me that some sort of a walk of reconciliation and cleansing might work for the victims. If it had a focal point where a dedicated centre for counselling and forgiveness could be put in place to allow those suffering to have somewhere to allow them an opportunity to vent their pain, it might work. Doubtless, many victims are no longer in touch with or will have anything to do with the Catholic Church. Therefore, there should only be a token religious presence but it should be an essential element, as the religious community have to make their recalcitrant colleagues answerable to their innocent victims.

South Africa proved to the world that they could put decades of brutal degrading behaviour from its white dominated Apartheid regime behind them in their Peace and Reconciliation process. Others have followed suit, including our own Peace Process in Northern Ireland, so my suggestion is on similar lines but with a more permanent and ongoing element to it.

Every diocese in Ireland has been affected to a greater or lesser degree by these scandals – some never aired as victims could not bring themselves to go public with their pain. In prime position, Dublin, Cloyne and Ferns dioceses created most headlines but many others had their share of clerical abusers creating private and public havoc in quiet parishes all around our island.

As my suggestion is based on the concept of the Camino de Santiago de Campostela (Way of St James), which has several different walks starting at remote locations both across Europe and in Spain itself, an established Irish walk will help to kick start it. Irish walking enthusiasts have established the Wicklow Way over the last 100 years or so, stretching from Rathfarnham in Dublin, to Clonegal on the Wexford/ Carlow border. As the Ferns and Dublin dioceses are two of the principal sources of clerical sex abuse of children, this walk links both. Why not extend it another few miles along the Slaney to the seat of the Ferns diocese in Enniscorthy and create an appropriate centre there for reconciliation purposes?

Enniscorthy, apart from being my home town, has a long history as a focal point. It was an early fortified Norman settlement, it is world renowned as the main centre of the 1798 United Irishmens Rebellion, it was the last rebel outpost to surrender in the 1916 Rising, it has been the Cathedral town of the Ferns diocese for centuries and it is at the end of the tidal rise on the Slaney river, a former trade route.  It has a large Psychiatric Hospital, St Senans, which is currently being wound down and could likely be available in the short term as a reconciliation and accommodation centre.

To create a visual focal point, a suitable monument could possibly be built on somewhere like Vinegar Hiil, where c.1,200 Irishmen gaves their lives in a heroic but doomed stand for freedom in 1798. A suitable monument could stand out on the skyline above Enniscorthy, announcing to all who see it that it signifies the shame brought to all Irish men, women and children by a perverted minority who hid behind their clerical garb and were protected by the Church they “served”.

In addition to the Wicklow Way, walks could eventually be developed to originate in all Cathedral towns across Ireland, and UK routes could be focussed to the ports of Liverpool, Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke, as well as via the airports. Victims, their friends, family, society at large and, of course, religious pilgrims could all partake in these walks. A depository could be created at journey’s end where tokens such as a toy, to signify loss of innocense, and a stick or stone, to signify anger at the abuse inflicted by the priest, monk, brother or sister perpetrator, could be left. These tokens might be carried on the walk to signify the pilgrim’s pain and leaving it in Enniscorthy might help to lessen some of the mental and physical anguish suffered both in their childhood and through their lives into adulthood. 

Society at large is horrified at the pain and suffering foisted on the innocent members of our community by a perverted minority and will support such an initiative. When we see thousands doing the annual Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, also Lough Derg and growing numbers of Irish pilgrims doing the Spanish Camino, surely there is potential support for this idea to take off. Very little in the way of new walking routes have to be put in place to kick start it, a ready made building with space for a centre and possibly basic accommodation exists, so it is only the will to make it happen that needs to be girded. A suitable monument on sacred Vinegar Hill might prove a more difficult obstacle, but where better than the scene of one of our bloodiest and bitterest defeats in our slow march to nationhood, to be possibly used as a similar symbol for victims of clerical abuse.

Let us not forget the pain many have suffered behind closed doors and clerical garb while we, the majority, were in blissful ignorance of it all. It is time for us all to demonstably share some of their anguish. Let us walk together, talk together and grow together from Dublin to Enniscorthy and may many other routes converge there in time to come.

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