In many cultures in which the sexual abuse of children is only now coming to the fore as an issue for public discussion, authority figures repeatedly engage in a game I think of as the Judas game: when Jesus speaks to his disciples of his betrayal at the Last Supper, Judas responds with feigned, insincere shock as he asks, "Is it I, Lord?" Is it I who will betray you?
Authority figures who have had every reason to know that children were being abused, and who did little or nothing to protect children, routinely claim--long after the fact and when their inaction has been exposed--that they just didn't know anything much at all. Not back then. Not in the old days when we weren't aware that children could be abused . . . .
We weren't responsible. It was somebody else's fault. If we'd only known then what we know now, we might have behaved more admirably . . . .
As the New York Times notes in an editorial on Ireland and child abuse several days ago, the European Court of Human Rights has just rejected the longstanding argument of the Irish government that the government cannot be held responsible for the abuse of children in state schools run by the Catholic church. The court finds the Irish government "responsible for failing to act against inhuman and degrading treatment of citizens that is specifically barred under Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights." Though the church runs state schools in Ireland, the government itself is responsible for the well-being of the children in those schools every bit as much as the church is.
The editorial states,
It is particularly telling that the human rights court found the government, based on "a significant rate" of child-abuse prosecutions prior to the 1970s, was familiar with the problem and "had to have been aware of" the need to protect children even as it denied responsibility. Effective state mechanisms for parents to raise alarms should have been enacted well before the Dunderrow school scandal, the court noted. In contrast, the Irish Supreme Court dismissed liability claims in the last decade by saying the primary school system had to be viewed in its "specific context" of Irish history and the Catholic Church's privileged position in Irish society.
What do we know now that we didn't know back then? As Father Tom Doyle says in response to Cardinal Francis George's claim that if we'd only known now what we knew then, we'd have done things differently (see the first link above): what we know now is that many of those abused as children, while we stood by in indifference, won't stop telling their stories until the truth is known.
The Irish government has long had full knowledge that children were being abused in its church-run schools. And it chose to do nothing about that abuse for a very long time, due to the power the church has historically wielded in Ireland.
The graphic, Judas betraying Jesus with a kiss, is from Hans Holbein the Elder's painting of the betrayal of Jesus (ca. 1494-1500).