For practising Catholics there is only one appropriate response to the report of the Irish Child Abuse Commission, and it is one of deep, unadulterated shame. How can this have happened? How can priests and religious, charged with upholding the Gospel, have so utterly betrayed that Gospel?
Let's not doubt that there have been thousands of priests, nuns and brothers down all the decades who have done heroic work helping the poor and the outcast. I think, for example, of Fr Thomas Carroll of St Andrew's church on Westland Row who died of cholera 150 years ago while ministering to victims of that same disease in inner city Dublin. Now the danger is that his work, and the work of all those others like him, will be overshadowed, perhaps even forgotten and expunged, as a result of the great evil perpetrated by other priests and religious.
To repeat, how can this have happened?
The overwhelming reason is that certain individuals, not fit to look after animals, were instead given the care of children. We now know that child abusers are attracted to institutions and professions where they can gain trusted and privileged access to children. In Ireland, until recently, no institution was more trusted or more privileged than the Catholic Church.
Why else did it happen?
It happened because no-one blew the whistle. Even when orders knew about sexual abuse, no-one in authority thought to tell the relevant authorities. The first instinct of all institutions confronted by a scandal is to cover it up. This is never excusable. It is doubly inexcusable when the organisation in question is a religious one.
Another factor at work was the ultra-authoritarian temper of the times. This does not explain the sex abuse but it does explain the physical abuse and the regimes of very harsh discipline that usually prevailed in the industrial schools and other children's homes.
The Ryan report throws its net wider than simply the Catholic Church. It looks at Marlborough House, for example. This was a detention centre run exclusively by the State and it was also infected by the terrible authoritarianism of the time. Physical abuse was widespread. Sexual abuse also occurred.
It looks at children's homes, most of which were run by the Catholic Church but some of which were run by other bodies. The children's homes were also terrible places and many of the abusers were lay people.
In fact, the Commission looks at 161 settings other than industrial schools, including hostels and foster care homes and finds instances of abuse throughout these settings, right down to the present day — no matter who ran them, or runs them.
The report engages in no systematic comparison of our industrial school system with Britain's industrial school system. We know abuses happened there too. But was ours worse? How much worse? Why? What was our system like compared with Sweden, Germany and Switzerland where the industrial schools originated?Was there a better response in the 19th century to the problem of thousands upon thousands of street children of the sort famously depicted in the novels of Charles Dickens?
What about the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children? A third of those who testified to the Investigation Committee of the Ryan Commission were placed in industrial schools as a result of a recommendation by the ISPCC. Were these recommendations justified? Was the ISPCC over zealous? An extremely bland press release by the ISPCC in response to the report throws no light on the issue.
Were Catholic-run institutions worse than institutions run by others organisations around the world, including the State? As a Catholic I would dearly love to know the answer to this. If they were worse, then we need to look into the state of the Catholic Church itself at the time to find an explanation.
A further question: were institutions run by Irish priests and religious — whether here or abroad — worse than similar institutions run by, say, Italian priests and religious?
Where do we go from here? We have already had apologies aplenty from both the State and the 18 orders that ran these institutions. A redress board has paid out more than €140m in compensation. Helplines have been established. Psychiatric care is paid for. Some of the perpetrators have been imprisoned.
Many of Ryan's recommendations actually deal with the present, not the past. Justice Ryan and his colleagues want to ensure that our childcare system is run to the highest possible standard. We know that it is not. We know that the State's child protection policy, Children First, is not properly implemented.
The best response to this report is to continue bringing justice, healing and reconciliation to the victims of past child abuse, but it is also to bring the present system up to the standard demanded by Sean Ryan in order to protect children currently in care.
This is the only way the words 'never again' can have any meaning.
David Quinn is a regular columnist for the Irish Independent, in which this article first appeared. It is reproduced, slightly edited, with permission. He is also the director of the Iona Institute for Religion and Society.