With the pending visit to Ireland of Pope Francis in August, it may be a good opportunity for us all to re-examine our religious beliefs and look at how Irish society has been formed and influenced by the Church. It may also be right to realise that even if the church don’t admit and take responsibility for the many children in Ireland who suffered sexual abuse, we all need to acknowledge that due to their oppression and dominance their teachings created the environment that enabled child sexual abuse to grow to levels we are still not even touching the sides of.
I recently joined a Zumba dance class and although it was very enjoyable, I couldn’t help but notice the vast difference between the instructor and the Irish women present. The instructor looked so free and comfortable with her body while the Irish women looked stiff and prohibited whenever the movements could be perceived any way sexual in nature.
It is so long since I had taken part in anything like this that I was more than a little shocked at how self-conscious I was about how I looked doing these movements. I thought it must be a cultural thing, my body is never going to be able to gyrate like that.
Later when I returned home and thought about it, I realised that yes it was cultural. I had been taught a long time ago that my body and all its sexual functions were shameful. I was taught by a system that set me up as a sexual target, to be used and abused.
The Dominance of the Church
The system I refer to is the catholic church which aligned themselves with the government. Together they took up the mantle of oppression after English colonisation ended. The Irish nation were still recovering and seeking hope for a brighter future. The church promised heaven if you followed the commandments and Irish people were hurting, poor and with little or no education and so followed like sheep to the slaughter house. The church took advantage of Ireland’s time of need and instead of providing leadership, the church, together with the government took control over everyone.
Keepers of Our Souls
When I was a child, the church was responsible for our moral conduct and the keepers of our souls. Everyone believed they had a direct line to God and so whatever they said must be true.
In my opinion, the church did the ground work and prepared all of us, albeit unintentionally, to be sexually abused. The sermons in the pulpit sent out the message that sex was a bad thing unless you were married, it was not meant to be enjoyed but rather it was meant purely for procreation purposes.
In case that message wasn’t strong enough the church prohibited contraception to ensure no one had autonomy over their own bodies or the opportunity to have a free and healthy sex life that they themselves could control. And according to the church, masturbation was also bad. This sent out the clear message that your body was something to be ashamed of.
Intentionally or not, this left everyone feeling ashamed and overly self-critical of their bodies. They became frightened of any sexual drive, and like the forbidden fruit, this led to an unhealthy interest in sex. What is, and should have always been a perfectly natural and healthy part of the human experience was deliberately destroyed and used as a weapon of control against lay people.
How to Control the Masses
The church set the tone for how women were to be viewed and treated. They dominated women’s lives completely and seemed to take a special interest in controlling their sexuality. In 1944 the church opposed the introduction of Tampons, claiming they might arouse women.
The mother and child scheme in 1950 was also opposed by the church which would have provided mothers and their children up to age 16 free health care. Up to then the church dictated on a woman’s ability to reproduce and feared that this scheme would open the door to contraception and abortion. As they owned and ruled over the hospitals and schools, they held a lot of power. However, it wasn’t till 1985 when women fought together, that the church finally lost their battle to stop women accessing contraception.
For the longest time a woman couldn’t refuse to have sex with her husband. If a couple were having problems in their relationship, the husband went to see the priest who would then inform the woman, that she should honour her ‘wifely duties’. This sent a clear and powerful message to everyone that men were superior, and women were nothing but their property, to do with as they pleased.
How Education was Manipulated
To maintain their control the church needed to keep everyone subservient and ignorant. Education was and remains a powerful tool to keep the masses under control.
For women education was considered a waste of time and money. Women had a role to play that did not require them to think for themselves, they were only ever going to run a home and raise a family.
For men in the 1960’s the church made it a mortal sin to even attend Trinity College and regarded it as an unsafe environment for “the fateful.” This was endorsed by the Vatican and if you wanted to go to trinity, you had to get special dispensation from the pope, a letter of tolerance. This ban was in fact not lifted until 1971.
State & Church Rule Together
The government ruled on the few aspects of women’s lives that the church couldn’t reach. Everywhere in society women were given the strong message that men’s need’s and lives were more important than theirs.
Men were given all the control in and outside the home. In 1973-Married women had to leave their jobs in the civil service, as it was considered that they were occupying jobs that men should be holding. A woman had to get signed permission from their husband to collect children’s allowance. A woman couldn’t earn the same rate for a job as a man, she couldn’t even order a pint unless she had a man with her and even then, she was asked to pour it into two half pint glasses and sit in the snug out of sight.
As you had to be a homeowner woman were excluded from sitting on a jury. If a woman was being beaten by her husband, she had to put up with it as she was not allowed to apply for a barring order against her husband.
The list goes on and on.
Our History Influences our Present & Future
It is not about placing blame and responsibility on the state and church for the past. It is however, about acknowledging the reality of what happened here in Ireland, with particular reference to women. Examining how the church’s actions alongside the governments support created an environment for sexual crimes to happen is necessary. Understanding that not only did they breed a cultural of acceptance of women being objects, but throughout history when an attitude exists where anyone feels more entitled, valuable or important than another person or group of people, appalling, sometimes unthinkable things happen.
No one is ‘less than’ anyone else. That is the Ireland we are striving for. The beliefs held and culture of non-accountability that allows child sexual abuse to continue has to stop. I firmly believe that the time is right, and it can happen when we all stand together and say ‘enough is enough.’
You cannot stifle human nature or the human spirit.
June Kavanagh – 6th August 2018