Colette Sheridan: Abusive nuns and complicit State coldly wrecked so many lives

Young women today have no idea what life was like in Ireland as recently as the 1970s, so says Colette Sheridan in her weekly column
Colette Sheridan: Abusive nuns and complicit State coldly wrecked so many lives

Flowers left at the gates of Bessborough Mother and Child Home in Cork after the report on activities in the homes was published.

IN town last Wednesday, with half an hour to kill while my new phone was being synched up, I decided to pop into St Peter and Paul’s Church to light a candle for my late parents.

Although not religious, I’ve taken to calling into churches for this purpose. And besides, Cork city is a ghost town these days with most retail outlets shut. So, with no opportunity to browse through rails of clothes, I was taking the spiritual route.

But then I backtracked because the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes had just been published. How could I darken the door of a Catholic church given the appalling litany of abuse meted out by nuns (in cahoots with priests) on vulnerable young women whose ‘crime’ was to become pregnant ‘outside of wedlock.’ (The State was complicit too, beholden to well-heeled bishops who wielded enormous power.)

It has always rankled with me that while priests promoted the conjugal rights of husbands and encouraged big families (all the better to keep the church in new generations), sex was always the big sin.

But it was a wife’s duty to have sex whenever her husband wanted it, with no regard for her wellbeing, health and bodily autonomy.

You might think a Catholic couple with ten children only had sex ten times (because sex is solely for procreation in church teaching) but in reality, husbands did what they wanted and sometimes raped their wives.

They would never be held up for this because marital rape wasn’t considered a crime in the (recent) bad old days.

And so, under this Taliban-like organisation (because that’s what the Catholic church was in the last century), women were collateral damage.

The misogyny was breathtaking. It still exists. But the church is a busted flush. Its power has waned.

In 2011, 84.2% of people here described themselves as Catholic whereas five years later, in 2016, that figure dropped to 78.3%.

That’s still a lot of people identifying with what started out as an idealistic movement under Jesus Christ. But it transmogrified, in this country, into a narrow-minded, wealth-accumulating organisation that treats women badly.

Young women today have no idea what life was like in Ireland as recently as the 1970s, when contraception was illegal. They should ask their mothers about those dark days.

It took a mother of four children, who was told that another pregnancy would endanger her life, to change the law.

Mary McGee attempted to import a spermicidal jelly for her personal use. However, the package was stopped by customs and a letter was sent to her, stating this.

On the grounds of her right to marital privacy, Mary took a case that went to the Supreme Court. As she said decades later, she had to do something. “People wanted children but they also wanted a life,” she told the Irish Times.

The Supreme Court ruled that the McGees had a constitutional right to marital privacy. This led to the legislation to allow the sale of contraceptives.

But it took years of acrimonious debate before the Health and Family Act of 1979, which allowed married couples to purchase birth control on prescription from a doctor. You had to be married.

And it wasn’t until 1992 that the sale of condoms was fully allowed. How dare the church — or any organisation — try to dictate what goes on in bedrooms between consenting adults.

But ironically, sex was what brought the church down, with the revelations of sexual abuse of children and women by priests.

While the nuns largely were not sexual abusers, many of them abused pregnant girls and women, emotionally and physically, in the mother and baby homes.

We’ve heard the horrendous stories of nuns refusing pain relief to women going through childbirth. All the better to punish them for their ‘immoral ways’ was the way the thinking went.

Unmarried mothers were forced into having their infants adopted and birth certificates were forged to hide the real identity of children. Some children were trafficked to the U.S. Grubby money played a role in this scandal.

The church in Ireland has always been good at acquiring money with a vastly valuable land and property portfolio. It should be made to relinquish it for a financial redress scheme for the survivors of the mother and baby homes following the Government’s commitment to compensate those abused.

It’s all too much for me to go into a church, even to just light a candle in memory of my parents. How do the devout feel? Talk about being conned by a behemoth whose tentacles seeped into so many areas of Irish life.

The church is supposed to be about the people. But it became about the powerful. Too much power leads to corruption. Thankfully, the church’s sins have been uncovered.

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