The week’s revelations about the scale of neglect, slavery, sadism and sexual abuse in Ireland’s church-run children’s institutions are shocking. Read Marie-Therese O’Loughlin’s account of the Goldenbridge rosary bead factory:
I remember clearly, at 6:30 in the mornings, when I was eleven years old or thereabouts having to go to St Joseph’s babies/infants dormitory. I had to dress the toddlers. It was normal for some of them to have slept in their own excrement. When I took them from their destroyed beds, I found it so upsetting as they were always covered from head to toe in excrement. They were shivering and were all colours of the rainbow as they stood there waiting to be cleaned. I had to use the clean corners of the destroyed sheets. The only place to get water was from a very small toilet bowl. I dipped the sheet in the bowl and then cleaned the children. The whole dormitory which was a dark dank cold place stank to high heaven. The head honcho of the Sisters of Mercy at this time of morning was up in the convent saying her prayers.
The Commission into Child Abuse report has triggered an outpouring of Christian sympathy from clerics and commentators - not for the survivors and victims, naturally, but for the priests. This is the new Archbishop of Westminster, the Most Rev Vincent Nichols:
I think of those in religious orders and some of the clergy in Dublin who have to face these facts from their past which instinctively and quite naturally they’d rather not look at. That takes courage, and also we shouldn’t forget that this account today will also overshadow all of the good that they also did.
The Christian Brothers, one of the main providers of this faith-based welfare, said that:
We acknowledge and regret that our responses to physical and sexual abuse failed to consider the long term psychological effects on children. As we have come to better understand the impact of such abuse, our goal and best endeavour has been to promote healing for complainants.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor did not address the crimes – perhaps wisely given his history of covering up child abuse. Instead he chose this week to identify ‘the greatest of evils’ as… a lack of faith.
The subtext appears to be: ‘Okay, some children were raped, but what about those poor old bishops?’ Doesn’t it take courage to own up to something under duress and after failed attempts to buy out the victims; to confess with little possibility of repercussions, with the public paying ninety per cent of your fines and under guarantee of anonymity? And also, erm, some priests are not paedophiles. Let’s not forget that, overall, faith makes you a better person. Can’t we talk about those nasty atheists instead? And they wonder why people have nothing good to say about religion!
At Nick Cohen’s blog, Paul Fauvet raises the point that if a secular organisation were found guilty of such systematic and sustained evil – say, St Helens Council or the NCH children’s charity – the consequences for those responsible would be far harsher. Contra the self-pitying talk about the decline of religion, it’s clear that we still hold religious institutions to lower moral and legal standards than those to which the average citizen abides. If they could not condemn the perpetrators and send their hopes and prayers to the survivors and victims, it could have occurred to the pro-faith apologists that they should just stay out of this one. That they have not, illustrates the depths to which they are capable of sinking in defence of religion.
I’m afraid I can’t summon up much sympathy for Vince Acors or Michelle Palmer, the British couple sentenced to three months in prison for having drunken sex on a Dubai beach. This isn’t because I have any objection to drunken sex, and it’s certainly not out of any misplaced ‘respect for local social mores’ – the corrupt, reactionary and racist sheikhdom and its hypocritical ‘mores’ have no right to claim the ‘respect’ of anyone.
No: it’s just that every Brit I’ve ever met who has visited Dubai through choice, in whatever capacity, has invariably been an asshole, an airhead, or (usually) both. This disgusting place embodies all that is worst about modern turbo-capitalism, combined with a semi-feudal Islamic code that, for instance, makes public displays of affection illegal. The Brit ex-pats and tourists who have descended upon the place for a millionaire lifestyle on the (relatively) cheap, deserve all they get when they fall foul of the barbaric laws that are usually reserved for those at the bottom of the pile in this authoritarian and racist state.
The people who really deserve our sympathy are the mass of migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Ethiopia and elsewhere, lured into a life of squalor and super-exploitation by the ruling class of the United Arab Emirates and corrupt employment agents in their countries of origin:
“Like the rest of the Gulf region, Dubai and Abu Dhabi are being built by expat workers. They are strictly segregated, and a hierarchy worthy of previous centuries prevails.
“At the top, floating around in their black or white robes, are the locals with their oil money. Immaculate and pampered, they own everything. Outside the ‘free zones’, where the rules are looser, no one can start a business in the UAE without a partner from the emirates, who often does nothing apart from lending his name. No one can get a work permit without a local sponsor.
“Under the locals come the western foreigners, the experts and advisers, making double the salaries they make back home, all tax free. Beneath them are the Arabs – Lebanese and Palestinians, Egyptians and Syrians. What unites these groups is a mixture of pretention and racism…
“Down at the base of the pyramid are the labourers, waiters, hotel employees and unskilled workers from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, the Phillippines and beyond. They move deferentially around the huge malls, cafes, bars and restaurants, bowing down and calling people sir and madam. In the middle of the day, during the hottest hours, you can see them sleeping in public gardens or under trees, or on the marble floors of the Dubai Mosque, on benches or pieces of cardboard on side streets. These are the victims of the racism that is not only flourishing in the UAE but is increasingly being exported to the rest of the Middle East. Sometimes it reminds you of the American south in the 1930s.”
Read the rest of Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s report here.
The build-up to today’s bicentenary of the British parliament’s “abolition” of the slave trade (but not slavery itself) has been an overwhelmingly positive thing. The BBC has played a particularly good role, with a host of excellent TV and radio programmes portraying the horror and barbarism of the slave trade and explaining why black people still feel scarred by it to this day (a very good Radio 4 play on Saturday afternoon, featuring comedian Lenny Henry, drove this home in a powerful, non-didactic way). Simon Schama’s BBC 2 TV programme ‘Rough Crossings’, this Friday (about the slaves who fought for the British in the American war of independence, and how the Brits eventually betrayed them in Sierra Leone) , was also a convincing vindication of the licence fee.
Sure, we could have done with a little less emphasis on Christian do-gooders like William Wilberforce (a thoroughly reactionary figure, apart from his opposition to slavery), and rather more upon people like Toussaint L’Ouverture and the other slave rebels, who laid their lives on the line by confronting slavery in the only way left open to them as self-respecting human beings.
Certainly, right-wing shits like the Guardian‘s loathsome islolationist Simon Jenkins, bleating about how “This week Britain celebrates the feast of the empty gesture…the BBC has gone potty. Tony Blair will presumably find a black person and say ‘I feel your pain’”, should be treated with the contempt they deserve. But on one issue – and one issue only – the likes of Jenkins have a point: this solemn and massively important commemoration has very nearly been hijacked by the ridiculous posturings of those demanding an “apology”: predictably, the ever-opportunist Mayor of London has been at the forefront of those seeking to demean and divert this commemoration by raising this ultimate excercise in gesture politics. Livingstone (or rather, his scribe), says “Germany apologised for the Holocaust. We must for the slave trade”. That argument ignores one rather obvious fact: when Germany apologised for the Holocaust, adult Germans had participated in, or at least passively witnessed, what had happened. Their apology meant something real. To apologise for something that you are not personally responsible for, is to insult the intelligence of the person or persons you are “apologising” to. In the case of that arch-opportunist and poseur Livingstone, the suspicion is unaviodable that his “apology” on behalf of London, was in reality, mere pandering to ethnic and cultural constituencies that deliver him votes.
Amazingly, that buffoon Prescott struck a more appropriate and relevant note, when he told the Guardian (March 23 2007): “ We need to get the proper history told, including the good, the bad and (the) dreadful. For instance, we need to recall that parliament for the best part of a century facilitated slavery. It did not just have an overnight intellectual conversion. Public opinion made the change and forced the change on parliament. We have fed it into our minds that a Christian from Hull, William Wilberforce, came along and changed the law in 1807. It was remarkable, but the real change came from working people.
“It is one of the reasons why I would like us to pick a date every year. The legacy of this 200th anniversary should be a permanent date when we ask whether there is more we could do, so that every year, like Holocaust (Remebrance Day), we remind people of the horrors. Each year we should think about it and commemorate and rededicate ourselves to helping people on which such horrors were committed”. For once, I’m not going to take the piss out of Precott’s syntax.
But a real, meaningful tribute to the victims of the “other” holocaust would be to join the fight against modern-day slavery and super-exploitation, by joining No Sweat and/or Labour Behind the Label: campaigning against modern-day slavery is worth a million empty apologies.