"I see a mob being formed" - Are we placing too much blame on religious orders?

Today's Pat Kenny Show featured a heated debate on the narrative surrounding Ireland's religious charities

An Irish journalist has slammed the portrayal of religious orders in the media and elsewhere over recent weeks as the dispute over the ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital rumbles on.

Writing in The Irish Examiner last week, columnist Victoria White said the narrative around the ownership issue has rubbished the life’s work of hundreds of hard-working women in religious orders, “without whom a large chapter of Irish women’s history is unwritten.”

“The reason the Religious Sisters of Charity own St Vincent’s University Hospital is that they were prepared to do what few others bothered to do,” wrote Ms White. “They were frequently radical and frequently heroic.”

She continued the debate on The Pat Kenny Show this morning, with Irish Times social affairs correspondent Kitty Holland weighing in with her take on the issue.

In defence of the church

Ms White said there are very few people left who are willing to publicly come out and defend the Catholic Church.

“I am just very concerned,” she said. “I am actually very hurt; I grew up in a situation where in journalism and in the media you had these values of balance and evidence, and you didn’t form a mob - and I see a mob being formed here.”

“It is not ideal that it was charity that spearheaded and still keeps these services [going] – and no one seemed to think of it beforehand – but it was the Sisters of Charity that started [...] one of the first hospices in these islands in Harold’s Cross.”

She said that while the treatment of single mothers in Ireland in the past was appalling; admittance to one of the religious institutions or respite homes was “better than the roadside.”

“If you know anything about social history – if you ever sing a ballad – you will know that it was perfectly alright for the poor woman with the child to walk the roads and become a prostitute for fear of any other way of maintaining her child,” she said.

Separation of church and state

Ms Holland said religious orders provided services at a time when the Irish State could not afford to do so – but called on the charitable orders to examine why they were provided in such a “harsh, judgemental, traumatising and emotionally abusive” manner.

She said the debate at the moment needs to focus on the separation of church and state adding that, “we have a long way to go in this country, “in providing services as a right as opposed to a charitable model.”

“I don’t want to have to say thank you to somebody for providing a service,” she said. “I want it as a right.”

“Of course it suits the State to have charities providing all these services because then the State only has to stump up half the cost - while people like Focus Ireland, Simon, the hospitals and schools go out fundraising to taxpayers - who have already paid their taxes - to pay for the other half.

“It is a win, win for everyone in terms of the powers that be in this country that that is the model.”

State responsibility

Both women agree that the State has a responsibility to “make up the ground” and begin providing full services as needed – with Ms White conceding that “ideally” the new hospital should be fully state owned.

Ms Holland said the country is at a “hugely important moment” adding that we need to be absolutely certain that the decisions taken in relation to the hospital are “right and perfect.”

“I think at this moment in Irish history when we are dealing with the National Maternity Hospital [...] this is a hugely important moment for women in Ireland and indeed for everyone in Ireland as a statement for where we are going,” she said.

“To say that it will be grand and everything will be fine; we have done too much of that.”

You can listen back to the full debate with Pat Kenny here: