Former priest speaks out over abuse report
Long Island novelist recalls life in the priesthood
LAST week the world shockingly learned that tens of thousands of Irish children were physically and emotionally abused, beaten, raped and even, survivors say, killed in Catholic Church-run reform schools throughout Ireland from the 1920s right through to the 1990s.
After a nine-year investigation, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in church-run institutions produced its final 2006 page report last week. The report makes it clear that hundreds of priests and nuns terrorized and humiliated tens of thousands of Irish children over six decades with the tacit support of the Irish state.
For New York-based Irish novelist Tom Phelan; formerly Father Tom Phelan, the report came as no surprise. Phelan’s own research for his new novel, "Nailer," first alerted him to the decades of abuse that blighted the lives of thousands of Irish children.
In "Nailer" Phelan examines what he calls the collusion between church and state that allowed the cruelty of the industrial school system to flourish. The Irish authorities’ cowardly refusal to ever question the actions of the religious orders created the conditions for decades of abuse, Phelan says.
Dragging a boy down canal
“I remember hearing about how two Christian Brothers in Daingean, Co. Offaly were seen dragging a boy to Mass with a rope around him,” Phelan told the Irish Voice during an interview from his home on Long Island.
“The kid was actually in the canal and they were on either bank pulling. This was in broad daylight. No one ever challenged them for their cruelty.
“There are so many stories like this. It took years to emerge, but once one little leak about a priest came out it lead finally to a total dam burst.”
At 68, Phelan is himself a typical product of the church-dominated society that Ireland became after the War of Independence. And in many ways his own life journey reflects the gradual disenchantment that has led so many Catholics to reluctantly walk away from the church.
'Don't put your trust in the clergy'
Phelan, who hails from Mountmellick, Co. Laois, vividly remembers the awe that most Irish people held the church in when he was growing up. It was because the people were so fearful of criticizing it in any way that the Irish church retained its power for decades, he says.
But now Phelan has a message for believer and unbeliever alike: “Do not put all of your trust into the hands of the clergy,” he tells the Irish Voice.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re a priest, a nun, a rabbi or an imam. It’s a disaster. It’s bad for the church, it’s bad for the country. Never surrender your own power to an institution.”
Back in the early 1960s Phelan had felt a personal calling to become a priest, he says. “I studied five years in high school and six in the seminary getting ready for the priesthood. I was completely inspired by the reforms of Vatican II and I left the seminary in Maynooth full of fire and brimstone, an idealist ready to do God’s work.”
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