The Sisters of Cruelty

Another pretty story from Ireland.

Kathleen, with her her sisters, Sarah Louise and Lydia, were taken from their mother in a dawn raid on their Dublin tenement home and found guilty in the children’s court of being “destitute” and “having a parent who does not exercise proper guardianship”…“The people who took us from Mummy were paid a bounty by the religious orders because the nuns in turn received half a man’s wage per week for every child they took. It was a business. They called us destitute and uncared for, but that’s what they condemned us to — we were loved and cared for, but they took us away”…The regime at Moate was unremittingly grim. “I learnt to be quiet and not draw attention, that’s how I survived. We were the O’Malleys from Dublin, dirty jackeens from the slums was how they described us…It was drummed into me that I was worthless. We had our own nice clothes taken away and we were put into rags and worked from dawn til dusk in the laundry. We never played, we were sterile, we were given nothing. There was a rusty tap in the yard where we were allowed out for half an hour a day. We got an egg a year, a sausage a year, the rest of our food was slop and bread. We were allowed one half-hour visit a year from our mother, who would make a three-hour journey to see us and they wouldn’t even give her a glass of water. The annual visit took place in what was called ‘the poor-man’s room’ and it was supervised, with a nun present, so nobody could say anything they really wanted to say. It was horrible; there were always tears.”

And even all that isn’t the worst thing. The worst thing was even worse than all that.

“The worst part of the whole experience was how they actually poisoned my mind against my mother. The unforgivable part is that they told me and my sisters that my mother had given us up, that she didn’t want us. And we believed that for years. I only discovered in later life how hard she fought to get us back. She suffered so much. They bad-mouthed her to us, calling her a ‘streetwalker’.” One of Kathleen’s greatest regrets is having torn up the only photograph of her with her mother, at a time in life when she really did believe all the nuns had told her.

Yet Karen Armstrong would have us believe that compassion is central to all religion, and she never wearies of ordering us to agree with her about this. On page 307 of The Case for God, for example, she asserts that

The new atheists show a disturbing lack of understanding or concern about the complexity and ambiguity of modern experience, and their polemic entirely fails to mention the concern for justice and compassion that, despite their undeniable failings, has been espoused by all three of the monotheisms.

We don’t mention it because we don’t believe in it. It’s that simple. We don’t believe it counts, because there is so much of the other thing. (Though there are exceptions. If Quakerism counts as one of the monotheisms, it’s an exception.) We don’t believe it’s good enough for religions to ‘espouse’ compassion while behaving like monsters of cruelty, and we also don’t believe that people should claim that religion stands for justice and compassion in the light of the history of Irish industrial schools, among other things. If it were really true that justice and compassion are central and important to religion, then the ‘Sisters of Mercy’ and the ‘Christian Brothers’ could not have acted the way they did. They would have recoiled and revolted. They didn’t recoil and revolt; they fell to the work with energy and dedication. Justice and compassion were foreign to the whole enterprise. It’s hard to come up with anything less just and less compassionate than tormenting children for the crime of being poor and born to a single mother – so the Irish catholic church on its own falsifies the whole idea that religion, of its essence, teaches compassion.

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