Seanad debates

Thursday, 10 November 2005

1:00 pm

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)

We normally say we are glad to be hear to speak on a particular motion but I am not glad to be here. I thank the Minister of State and his officials for coming to the House but this is a dreadful day for Ireland. This is an issue we must face up to but the ritualistic comments we make do not have any meaning in a debate such as this.

The Minister of State, in his submission, outlined clearly the various items of legislation already in place since the 1990s, the appointment of the children's ombudsman and various other matters which will form the bedrock of more legislation, directives and intervention. However, at least we moved in the 1990s, not knowing the awfulness of what was going on in the Ferns area. I suppose we had an inkling but we certainly did not know the enormity of its awfulness.

I read the Ferns Report on the day it came out and it was shocking. If one set out to write a novel containing the miseries in the report, one could not do it because one's mind could not comprehend that people in responsible positions would behave in that awful way. They treated young people as play-things to be used and then discarded because they wanted to fulfil their pleasure at that time.

We all know there are very good priests, brothers and nuns but it is appropriate to repeat it. There are such very good people who are in utter pain as a result of these revelations. At the same time, there are many of them who are not. The Ferns inquiry is about the church, gardaí, the community and the public at large because in many cases there was a reluctance to push forward with the claims. There was a major reluctance to report the matter to gardaí. The judge and his team are to be commended but we must understand that this was a small area and people may have been related to or known the gardaí, but we have gone past all of that now. If there was to be one recital it would be bad enough but the report recites so many abuses over such a period.

While the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Department of Health and Children will act through legislation, there are many other ways to help. One is the Stay Safe programme for schools, which I instigated. I do not wish to boast, but to explain it. In 1991, as Minister, I had a thorough discussion with the INTO, the chief psychologist and the then Secretary of the Department of Education. I was vaguely aware that things were happening amiss. We created the Stay Safe programme but it is not taught in every primary school. In the Dáil this week the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Hanafin, in response to a question, said she would like parents to come to like and respect the programme, to which I say "fiddle-de-dee".

Stay Safe should be taught in all schools. It replaces what Senator Feighan said mothers used to teach their children about not talking to or going anywhere with strangers. It empowers primary school children to keep themselves safe. The curriculum was drawn up securely and I am astonished that it is not taught in every school. We should not wait until people come to like the programme. How silly.

When we introduced the programme there was uproar in many bishoprics. One Saturday afternoon two bus loads of people came from County Cork to my house where I was holding a clinic. They brought huge posters calling me all sorts of names. I received several letters from bishops and parents saying the programme should be cancelled and that I was on the road to sodomy. I was not on the road to sodomy but others were. Many of these people are still walking proud in society because of their importance.

The recent furore over the Mater Hospital cancer drug tests in which women taking the drug were advised not to become pregnant centred on the use of the word "contraceptive". Are we living in the real world? I wonder if the bishops think people do not understand the word "contraception" or do not use contraception. Thankfully, the Mater Hospital saw sense and the cancer trials are going ahead. That small issue showed the huge distance between the church and the people it represents. Surely the day is gone when one could not utter the word "contraception" in case one was damned forever.

There has been much talk about education. Many primary schools have opened up their boards of management and have a lay chairman. However, few people want the job, which is laden with responsibility, in-fighting over appointments and parental complaints. It is inaccurate to say that every school board has a priest as chairman. On the contrary, many priests do not want to be chairman of a school board.

In the past I have dealt closely and harmoniously with Educate Together, the multidenominational school organisation. Pupils of those schools receive religious instruction outside school hours but within the school environment. This is a good system and I call on the Minister to give decent funding to the multidenominational schools. Educate Together has told us it has insufficient funding to run as it hopes. It is clearly non-denominational, democratic, accountable and open. I give these examples to show how one Department could begin to put its own house in order in a non-legislative way rather than giving us platitudes. It should promptly compel every primary school to teach the Stay Safe programme and give proper funding to Educate Together.

The church must show a human face. People go to a priest when they are in trouble but the relationship often lacks warmth. I spoke in this House of the heinous way the church treats divorced people. A churchgoer who divorces and marries again cannot obtain a church blessing. According to the church one is living in sin, although one is living by the law of the land, if not that of Rome. The church treats a divorced couple as pariahs and outside the Pale, and there is no warmth. I repeat the awful story of a couple that was refused a marriage blessing by three churches. Father Brian D'Arcy of the Vincentians agreed to bless the couple's marriage after the civil marriage ceremony. If the order priests, who are subject to Canon Law but not the orders of the local bishop, can give such a blessing, why should all churches not do it? It is unforgiving for a church to refuse to bless a second marriage.

People find the pomp of the church off-putting. The priests march up and down, take their hats on and off, shift their vestments and blow incense. It is patriarchal and unwelcoming. The church is all-male. It allows female servers — how marvellous — because they are in an ancillary, subservient role. They trot up and down and hand items to the priest.


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