The need for a total separation of the church from the state has long been argued for by socialists and the Socialist Party. Recent developments, both in Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland but also internationally, have put this issue centre stage in political debate. Socialistparty.net argues that the separation of church and state is long overdue.
Society has dramatically changed in the last 20 or 30 years and organised religion no longer has the same control over people.
The scandals that have rocked the Roman Catholic Church around the world have undermined the power and control of that institution. Religion no longer plays as dominant a role in society as in the past. Many people who are believers tend to make their own choices on private matters, such as divorce, contraception and so on.
However it would be a mistake to underestimate the control that the organised churches have on this island. Religion and the state are still intertwined and the influence of the church is strong.
The child abuse scandals and the way in which the victims have been treated has shaken the Roman Catholic Church worldwide. The publication of the Murphy Report into child sex abuse in the Dublin Catholic Diocese laid bare the collusion and cover up by the clergy. The anger and frustration people felt was increased when it became clear that the establishment of the Catholic Church, instead of reporting the perpetrators of this horrific abuse to the appropriate authorities, chose to put the interests of the church itself ahead of the victims.
However this was not confined to one diocese. It has come to light that this was the approach the Catholic Church took right across Northern Ireland and all over the South. The church establishment showed no sympathy with the victims. In most cases they refused to believe the children. If they did they chose to silence them.
Cardinal Sean Brady forced two teenage boys, aged 14 and 15, who had been abused by the notorious paedophile Brendan Smyth, to swear an oath of secrecy. The hiereachy, on a consistant basis, moved offenders from parish to parish. This allowed them unhindered access to more children, which they subsequently went on to abuse, sometimes for decades. Due to this practice, the church authorities were in fact facilitating the abuse and rape of children. The practice of not reporting to the state authorities and citing cannon law was not confined to one bishop or one parish – it is the common thread through all of these scandals worldwide.
Conspiracy & cover-up
Reading reports of how the diocese in Boston in the US handled the abuse of children by the Roman Catholic clergy is almost like reading a carbon copy of the Murphy report on how abuse was dealt with by the Dublin Diocese. This was clearly the preferred method of the Vatican. The interest of the church came before the interest of the child victims. Indeed the current pope, Pope Benedict when he was the archbishop of Munich wrote a letter in Latin instructing that the first cases of child sex abuse should not be reported to the state authorities or to child welfare services. This is what happened on an international scale as the church authorites believed they were above the law of the state where the crimes occurred and were only answerable to god, via the Vatican.
For 10 years Derry priest John McCullagh abused a young girl who was a member of a family he had befriended. By simply moving paedophile priests to other areas, the Catholic Church hierarchy facilitated the abuse of even more children. In one case, in Cardinal Sean Brady’s own diocese of Armagh, Fr Joseph Quinn raped a woman in 1997. The case was settled out of court with no admission of guilt and with the victim bound to silence. Under canon law, Quinn was stripped of the ministry – an obvious indication that the hierarchy were fully aware that he was guilty. Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness called on Cardinal Brady to “consider his position”. Considering that Sinn Fein also were involved in the cover up of sexual abuse, these remarks are hypocritical.
The Murphy report shows clearly that even when cases of abuse were reported to the Gardai by family members the state allowed the church to deal with it as if it was an internal matter. The Roman Catholic Church authorities were seen as above the state by both themselves and the Gardai. They were totally unaccountable. Up to now, there has only been inquires into two dioceses, Ferns and Dublin. There should be a full inquiry with full co-operation by the church authorities. Criminal charges should be brought against the perpetrators and also anyone who has facilitated abuse by failing to act or covering up reports or evidence.
This lack of accountablitiy and a collusion by the State in covering up abuses by the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland was shown again by the Ryan Report from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse which was released in May 2009. This report by Judge Ryan detailed the abuse and neglect of children over decades in orphanages and industrial schools run by religious orders. The harrowing and heartbreaking account of what these children endured makes for difficult reading. The district courts in effect gave children as young as seven what was a life sentence for petty crimes such as stealing or skipping off school. Children were taken from the family home and put into orphanages if the family was deemed dysfunctional, if the marriage broke down or if the family was in extreme poverty. Unmarried women who had children were encouraged to send the baby away to be “cared for” by the nuns.
These children were emotionally and physically abused by the religious orders, there was no accountability or control by the state over these institutions, in spite of the fact that they were publicly funded. The Commission interviewed 1,090 former residents of 216 schools. 90% said they had been physically abused and more than 500 said they had been sexually abused. The lack of co-operation with the inquiry by both the Department of Education and the religious orders as well as the sweetheart deal done for them by the government regarding the compensation for victims, enraged the survivors of abuse and the public alike.
Criminal charges should be brought against individuals where possible. The religious orders should be held accountable as an institution and the state must also be held accountable. It was the state who had a duty of care to these vulnerable young children. They were handed over to be used as slave labour in many cases to what was in fact a private childcare business run by a religious order.
The Socialist Party believes that there should be a total separation of the church from state run services. Childcare, education and the health service should be provided by the state on a secular basis. While the Socialist Party stands for a total separation of church and state we are also opposed to any form of religious persecution and defend the right of people to practice religion if they chose to do so.
Church out of education!
In southern Ireland 61% of people in a recent poll indicated that the Roman Catholic church should play no role in primary education. Currently 90% of primary schools are run by the Roman Catholic church. These schools are fully funded by the State. The teachers salaries are paid by the Department of Education and the running costs and maintenance are met from the capitation grant per child also paid by the taxpayer. The schools are then handed over to the church to run. The Bishop is the patron. He appoints two out of the eight member board of management including the chairperson. He has the right in some circumstances to stand down the board of management. He also has control over all appointments.
The enrolment policy that has been agreed in most Catholic schools is that Catholic children have priority for places. This system has led to an almost apartheid system at primary level in some areas of Dublin. In suburban areas where there has been a lot of development but no investment in infrastructure, there is a shortage of school places. Two years ago, five year olds in Blanchardstown and Balbriggan had no school place simply because they were not Catholic. This led to segregation in some areas as the Irish children can get into the local Catholic school. In recent years there has been an increase in Educate Together schools which are multi denominational. In some areas the Educate Together school and the Catholic School are beside each other. The non-Catholic children who are more likely to be the children of non Irish parents, many of African origin, go to the Educate Together school while the Irish children go to the Catholic school. The Department of Education have launched some pilot projects in certain areas where the Patron of the school would be the Vocational Education Committee (VEC). However there is still a distinct religious ethos and children as young as four years old are divided up at religion class according to what their parents’ beliefs.
The Socialist Party believe that religion is a private matter and that the church should not have any control over education at any level. Schools should be run by the state with religion dealt with through the individual churches or in the home.
Churches’ role in healthcare
The case for a separation of the church from medicine and the health service is clear. The role of the health service is to help people when they are sick, dying or in need of medical care. The nature and the type of care they receive should not be influenced by the religious beliefs of the person administering that care on behalf of the state. Right throughout the world the interference of religion into medicine is negative. A doctor can refuse to carry out certain procedures or prescribe certain treatment due to their own religious beliefs without any consideration for the the religious belief or lack thereof of the patient. In 2005 the board of the Mater Hospital in Dublin stopped a trial for a new cancer drug. Women who wished to take part in the trial could not get pregnant which obviously meant they had to use contraception or not have sex. This was deemed not to be in keeping with the Catholic ethos of the hospital so the trial was stopped. In reality three members of the board, two who were members of a Catholic religious order and one who was a wealthy Catholic businessman were able to deny desperately ill women the chance of prolonging their lives due to their own personal religious beliefs, regardless of the opinions, religious or otherwise, of the women involved. This is in a publicly funded hospital that should serve the medical needs of all in society whatever their religious beliefs.
The question of abortion rights and the rights of women to choose if and when to have children is a decision for the individual, not for the state. In Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland the Socialist Party stands for full abortion rights. Abortion should be provided free through the public health service. We also stand for full, secular counselling services in order for women to make the most informed choice possible. We do not believe that any woman should be denied their rights due to the religious beliefs of others. In the South, we believe there should be immediate implementation of legislation from the referendum following on from the X Case. While this is not full abortion rights or anything close, it would be a small step forward from what exists. Government after government have not shown the politicial will to face down organised religion on this issue and legislate. Apart from the added trauma this means for women with crisis pregnancies, it has left medical staff in a legal quagmire.
Historically, in Southern Ireland, hospitals were set up along religious lines and in some cases they were charitable institution, substituting religious establishments where the state failed to provide services such as health. This reflected the weakness of Irish capitalism. Rather that establish an national health service, the state handed over responsibility for the provision of many services to the Catholic Church. This was also a reflection of the extremely close connections between the country’s political leaders and the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church. In reality for a whole period the Catholic Church acted as a “wing” of the state. The state provides and runs the health service from the exchequer. There is no place for the church in hospitals. The Socialist Party stand for a free fully comprehensive public health service run by the State with no involvement whatsoever from any religious institution.
While overall there has been a weakening of the control of the Catholic Church on peoples’ day to day lives it would be a mistake to think that the church plays no role or only a minor role. Organised religions are powerful institutions, and religion is used by the establishment as a means of control. In Northern Ireland the various organised religions, Catholic and Protestant contribute through their activities and control over many schools towards the sectarian divisions that exist in society. At times that have and will directly intervene into politics in a way that consciously aims to stoke up and ferment sectarian division.
Resignations of clergy involved in covering up abuse are not enough. Religious institutions should be kept separate from all public services and the state. While guaranteeing peoples’ right to religious freedom, services such as education and health should be run democratically by staff, and the community, free from the control or interference of religious institutions.