Irish actor and “In Treatment” star Gabriel Byrne has revealed was physically abused by Catholic priests as a child, but he doesn’t blame them – he blames their celibacy.
The Golden Globe winner and star of the HBO hit series recently told Terry Gross, the host of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” about his school days with the Christian Brothers, a teaching order “known for their strictness, rigidity and Victorian approach to discipline,” he said.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child was their, was their kind of philosophy,” said Byrne. “And sometimes that resulted in inhumane and cruel treatment of people who were in their charge. I say that not with any anger but just as a fact.”
Byrne went on to tell about the Christian Brothers’ daily cruelty towards children, which was “just the status quo” at the time.
“I was just looking at…a diary that I had kept, like a kind of child’s diary at the time, and I confided to this diary that I didn’t know why I was being hit because I didn’t understand, you know - if Jack has three stones in his pocket, and Tom has four stones in his pocket, how many stones does the Bishop of Cork have if he lives in Paris, or something meaningless like that, you’d say I have no idea what that means, and they’d hit you anyway,” he said.
Byrne vividly remembers specific instances of the physical abuse he received.
The Irish actor said: “I do remember winter mornings with one of these men, you know, who’d had a brain operation and now read everything upside-down. So we all had to learn to read things upside-down on the blackboard so that we wouldn’t, you know, rise his anger.
“And this guy would just give you what he called 12 of the best on each frozen hand, I remember, in wintertime. That may sound a little, you know, Dickensian and dramatic, but it was the truth.”
Byrne attributes the Catholic priests’ cruel behavior – from the hitting to more serious allegations of physical abuse – to their trying and hard-to-keep vow of celibacy.
He said: “When you have men who have taken a life oath of celibacy and they are denied the basic comfort of human connection and warmth, and celibacy is something that I absolutely detest within the Catholic Church, I think it’s an appalling outrage against humanity…I’m not really a religious person, but it’s not like Christ came down from heaven and said, look, okay, you’ve all got to be celibate. It was something that was introduced in the 11th century so the church wouldn’t have to pay the dependents of priests who died.
“So celibacy is a man-made thing. And so you had these people who give up the possibility of human contact and warmth, and you have them in front of 50 kids, and they’re told that they can hit with impunity and that discipline is to be meted out for any transgression or perceived transgression. So the stage was set for all kinds of abuse, both physical and sometimes more than that.”
Byrne is referring to the more severe abuse he suffered when he was 11-years-old, which he first revealed last year in a gripping interview with Ireland’s RTE Radio.
"I was taken advantage of in a very vulnerable situation where I was being told the facts of life," Byrne said. "Physical boundaries were crossed, let's say."
The inappropriate contact involved "touching and closeness rather than anything more overt than that," added Byrne, who was far too frightened at the time to reveal the treachery to his parents.
The horribleness Byrne experienced, he said, didn't inflict long term damage, but it stayed with him to the point where he actually looked up and called the criminal cleric some years ago in a retirement home.
"I asked if he remembered me and he said no. Then I said to him, 'Do you remember a kid from Dublin who was really good at Latin?'
"He said, 'Did you have black hair?' I said yes and gave him my name again. He said, 'The only person I know of that name is a film star,' and I said, 'Well, that's me.' Then there was silence on the other end of the phone."
Byrne never chose to pursue any kind of action against the abuser. "I thought, should I do anything about this? I decided no. What is the point?"
The one thing Byrne does credit the Catholic church for is their high regard for theater, his passion.
“One thing that the Catholic Church did give me was a tremendous sense of appreciation of the theater, because they truly understand theater,” he said.
“I mean if you’ve ever stood in St. Peter’s Square and watched the Pope come out onto that balcony, or if you watched the funeral of the last Pope, he was himself a former actor in Warsaw, in Poland, you know, dressed like that, with that hat on him, going out surrounded by thousands of extras on the set designed by Michelangelo and Bellini - I mean he had the greatest gig of all time. And the church truly understands what theater is and what it is to control and manipulate - sometimes for good, sometimes not - vast crowds.”
You can catch the talented Irish actor as therapist Paul Weston in HBO’s “In Treatment” Sunday and Monday nights.