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Was Catholicism worse than Communism?

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John Banville
If you are looking for a good anti-Catholic rant, you can listen to certain Evangelical Protestants or rigid atheists.

But why bother? Many Catholics these days are as reliably anti-Catholic as the Vatican’s oldest enemies.

This is understandable, given the revelations of the last decade or so.

Living as a devout Catholic requires a tremendous amount of dedication and sacrifice. That was especially true in a largely Protestant nation such as America, where Irish Catholics were a distinct minority for the century or so following the Famine.

But these days, it seems as if Catholics are the ones who want to throw stones at the stained glass windows.

This was made crystal clear by two recent developments in the ongoing tension between the Irish and Rome.

First came the announcement that members of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) have filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in The Hague, outlining how Vatican officials tolerated and enabled “the systematic and widespread concealing of rape and child sex crimes,” as Irish American SNAP leader David Clohessy has written.

Clohessy added, “After many years of effort in the United States and around the world, the (abuse) problem became too big to ignore. … We finally began to feel heard. And now we want these crimes investigated and prosecuted.”

Clohessy knows this move may not be popular.

“Some may be shocked that we are accusing the world leader of a church, a man considered by many people of faith to be a holy leader. But one cannot be the head of an institution and escape accountability for that institution’s continuing criminal cover-ups,” he writes.

Clohessy then quoted Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny, who said, “The rape and torture of children were downplayed, or ‘managed,’ to uphold instead the primacy of the institution — its power, its standing and its reputation.”

Most observers feel that SNAP’s ploy is not likely to be successful -- unless, of course, by successful they mean drawing more attention to an urgent problem.

Still, whatever the technical outcome, trying to haul the Vatican before a human rights tribunal means that at least some people want to equate priestly crimes with systematic atrocities committed under brutal dictatorships in places such as Haiti and China and Chile. Or, for that matter, old Communist regimes.

Which is why I was taken aback when I heard a recent interview with acclaimed Irish writer John Banville, a widely admired writer who has won the Booker Prize (for his novel The Sea) and is now gaining a larger following for his mystery novels, written under the pen name Benjamin Black.

Banville told the editor of The New York Times Book Review that Ireland in the fifties “was a time of great secrecy. We were in the clutch of the Catholic Church. The church for us was what the Communist party was for Eastern Europe.

“We only discovered this when we got older, how unfree we were. And everything was hidden, as we have discovered, to our horror, in the past five or 10 years.”

Are SNAP and Banville right? Do the church’s transgressions rise to the level of the 20th century’s worst dictatorial regimes?

We probably do need to make distinctions between Ireland and America, though Catholicism did pervade big-city parishes in the U.S. nearly as thoroughly as it did elsewhere.

Indeed, Banville’s comparison is particularly jolting for Irish Americans. They often flaunted their anti-Communism to prove to native WASPs just how patriotic they could be.

And now it is being said they themselves were no better off than the victims of Communism?

I’d say SNAP may be on to something, but I will respectfully disagree with Banville.

Moreso in Ireland, but also in America, parish institutions pervaded every aspect of life. To say they were as negatively pervasive as Communism’s rigged elections and secret police is simply too strong a case to make.

The saddest thing, of course, is that the case can actually be made at all.

(Contact tomdeignan@earthlink.net or facebook.com/tomdeignan)

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