My response to the Tuam Babies scandal from three years ago

This is what I wrote in the Irish Times back in June 2014 after the Tuam babies scandal first broke. I was on sabbatical in the USA at the time. The pain, shame and sadness feel far worse now.

Even though I am currently in Indianapolis on sabbatical 4,000 miles from home, it’s impossible not to feel people’s shock at reports of what may be a mass grave of children and infants in the grounds of a home run by nuns in Tuam, Co Galway, up to the 1960s.
The story has reverberated around the world, including to Indiana. Hopefully, the investigations that are promised will proceed quickly, because the full truth needs to emerge, about this and other similar homes.
When a story like this breaks, it’s like deja vu all over again for the Irish church. One had hoped that after all the inquiries of recent years, the church’s dirty linen had been exposed, and it could begin the process of recovery.
Then another storm erupts, and it’s as if we’re plunged back to the beginning – except it’s worse now. The cumulative effect of all the scandals means that each new one has a more devastating impact than the one that went before.
Anger is the predominant emotion. People are angry at the church. They wonder how these things could have been allowed to happen; how such a culture could develop in the church and nobody said stop.
Church people are angry too. It’s easy to say that was then and this is now, that society was different 50 years ago, but one expects the church to operate to a higher moral standard, irrespective of time or place.
Church people are also angry that this story has been spun in a sensationalist way that presents the church in the worst possible light.
There is also the gleeful anger of those presented with another opportunity to crucify the church. They are genuinely outraged by the Tuam revelations, but they are thrilled that the church is on the defensive again. Comments on social media reveal the depth of their antipathy.
No one doubts that a growing anti-Catholic element exists in Irish society. But the church has provided its opponents with weapons of mass destruction. It has no one to blame but itself.
For church people like myself, there is also a tremendous feeling of shame.
It’s the shame of being an official representative of the institution caught up in yet another storm. The shame of seeing church leaders once more having to express regret; of outside agencies once again stepping in to uncover truths about the church’s past.
There is also self-pity. The home in Tuam closed before I was born. The scandals of the last two decades had nothing to do with me. The abuse and cover-up were not my fault. The culture of moral rectitude and dark secrets that facilitated such behaviour can’t be blamed on anything I did or said.
Self-pity is pointless. Still, I can’t avoid feeling a little self-pity right now.
Tempting though it is to put on my Liverpool jersey and walk away, I still stick with the church. I stick with it because when it comes to safeguarding children and the vulnerable, the church, like the rest of society, is different from 30 years ago.
Though some critics will never believe it, and no institution can ever be perfect, the church is a far safer environment now for the vulnerable than ever before.
I stick with it because it’s a humbler church. A humble church is an authentic church. You don’t need to read the letters of John Charles McQuaid to know there was too much fear, arrogance and control in the Irish church in the time of Tuam.
A poor church for the poor is what Pope Francis advocates. A church not interested in power or privilege, but that is out on the streets, in the margins, where its founder was to be found.
I stick with it because of so many in the church who show me the true meaning of Christianity. Clergy who are there for people in their despair, whose doors are open all hours. Religious who live in difficult housing estates, present to those in most need. Advocates, like Peter McVerry, who point to the importance of economic fairness. Groups like the St Vincent de Paul who demonstrate practical Christianity at its best.
I stick with it because of so many ordinary Catholics who have stuck with it despite all the times the church has let them down. Like those in parishes in Leixlip and Rathgar, where I have served.
They have been disappointed in the church enough times, but still they stay, because they do not confuse belief in God with faith in the church, and they know that every institution is made up of broken people, and they find nourishment and support in gathering as part of a believing community to worship and pray.
These are the people who keep me going when I begin to waver, as I have this past while.

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Things that give my joy

A short list of things that give me joy (in no particular order):

• A Liverpool win

• A piece of chocolate of any kind

• Seeing my mother

• The end of another day, when I can fall asleep and escape from pain for a while

• A Munster or Ireland rugby victory

• A good homily well preached (or article well written)

• Any sign of renewal or reform of the church

• Family members doing well

• Receiving a thoughtful message or kind word

• A day when pain doesn’t spoil things

Another crushing hospital stay

After 12 days in hospital, I returned home on Saturday. Twelve days of disappointment, hope and, ultimately, despair. I am back in Limerick more broken than before I left it.

I had a reaction to the first drug they tried on me. It was being funnelled in through a little tube in the stomach area, but that area became inflamed and sore. They switched to an oral form of the drug. The pain eased slightly. I thought there was light at the end of the tunnel but after a couple of more days it became clear that this new drug was failing too. So, ever the optimist, the doc change me to another medicine, again to be taken orally. As they increased the strength of the drug every day, they reduced and finally eliminated the pills I was on. This new drug seemed only to be making me groggy, but I was hopeful that once I returned home, to my own environment, I would notice its positive effects.

Then I started being physically sick, throwing up the meds I had just taken. I was sleepy and nauseous, and all the time the back pain continued to burn me up as before. So, following a discussion with the doc yesterday, it was decided to abandon the new drug and return to my old one – the same ineffective one I was using before my fruitless hospital stay.

To say that I am disappointed is an understatement. I am crushed. The final option open to me is the spinal cord stimulator, but it could take a month before this happens. I want to have it because I will try anything to reduce my pain. And yet I am scared, because if it fails, there is nothing left. It will be the end of the road.

The doctor, like all the others I have dealt with in the past, started off full of easy optimism. “Eighty or 90 percent of people respond very well to such and such medication. We’ll get you sorted.” Then, when that med fails, he shrugs his shoulders and says, “Well, we’ll try this other one so. Up to 90% of people get great results from it, etc, etc.” And when that in turn fails, and I ask why it hasn’t worked for me, he says that I fit into that difficult tiny percentile of people who are unresponsive to various interventions. Which is so devastating to hear. The disappointment as much as the pain is killing me, literally. I’d rather docs didn’t offer false assurances but I suppose they have to be positive for the sake of their patients.

Two years ago I would not have believed that there were people in the so-called First World who had to live with chronic pain. I thought medicine had advanced enough to ensure that people did not have to suffer 24/7. But now I know that there is a vast community out there living with chronic pain, whose best hope is a few hours of relief every few months, if even that. I have increased empathy for people I see who are bent over or in clear physical distress. It is a lonely place to be.

I am 54, and I can’t imagine going on into pension or old age like this. I can’t remember what it is like to have no physical pain, to go to bed looking forward to the next day and not dreading it. The disappointment and the despair are killing me, even if the physical pain on its own won’t finish me off.