Sunday, July 24, 2011

Let's get this psychopathic institution out of our schools

By Jennifer O’Connell

Psychopaths can be surprisingly good company. Typically, they have a high degree of superficial charm, and an over-inflated sense of self-worth. They tend to suffer from grandiosity, and have unrealistic expectations of life.

Psychopaths also have very little empathy, or none at all. They get bored easily, and so they tend to graduate towards the bright lights of big towns.

Psychopaths are peculiarly well suited to corporate life: they can thrive in big organisations where ruthlessness and an ability to manipulate others are highly valued.


Psychopaths are often sexually promiscuous. They are usually pathological liars, who are reluctant to take responsibilities for their actions. They are criminally versatile – willing to turn their hands to many types of crime. And they don’t learn from their mistakes – around 60 per cent of criminal psychopaths go on to reoffend when they’re released from prison.

It’s thought roughly one per cent of the population is psychoapthic, but the chaotic influence they wield far exceeds this.

I learned all this while reading the British author Jon Ronson’s compelling The Psychopath Test, in which he explores the madness industry generally – and Robert Hare’s famous checklist for signs of psychopathy particularly.

The trouble with reading a book like The Psychopath Test is that you start to see psychopaths everywhere. As I read the book on the beach, I looked up from my lounger: suddenly a beautiful summer’s day on the Mediterranean seemed fraught with danger. Was that man striding about in his Speedos, barking instructions into a mobile phone, really just a high-powered executive finding it difficult to wind down on holidays?

In the bar, where I had lunch, the owner slammed my salad down on the table and moaned about how stressed he was, how hard he has to work. I immediately assessed him for “proneness to boredom” and a “grandiose sense of self worth”.

I promised myself I would stop seeing psychopaths everywhere.

And then I read the Cloyne report.

I read, with a chilling sense of deja-vu, how priests had abused children with impunity, and how Church seniors had, once again, tripped over themselves in their eagerness to protect their own.

I read how the diocese of Cloyne failed to report nine of out 15 serious complaints made between 1999 and 2005.

I read how a priest described as ‘Father Flan’ had a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old girl – but that it was only after he eloped with a married woman that Monsignor O’Callaghan (whose job it was to report abuse claims to the authorities) decided in hindsight that he should have “gone straight to the gardaí” with the initial complaint.

I read how a national school principal was so concerned about the safety of her pupils when a priest whose behaviour had given rise to concern and rumour, “Father Calder” was appointed school chairman, that she refused to let a number of small boys take time off to attend confession – at which point Father Calder reminded her who was paying her wages. The report states that “he told her that he could refuse to sign her salary form if she was not obeying the Rules for National Schools by not complying with his requests as chairman.”

When she took her complaint to Monsignor O’Callaghan, he retorted that she was “anti-homosexual”.

I read how Bishop John Magee compiled “deliberately misleading” reports of his interview with a priest who admitted abusing a 16-year-old boy; and how Monsignor O’Callaghan decided that a priest “petting” and “fondling” a naked nine-year-old girl was mere “over-familiarity”, rather than abuse.

And I read how the Papal Nuncio refused to assist the Commission in its investigation; how the Vatican described the guidelines on reporting child abuse allegations to the civil authorities as 'merely a study document'.



Wading through yet another grim catalogue of abuse and cover-up, I suddenly saw how the Church is an organisation in which a psychopath might expect to prosper. And then I had another thought.

As an institution, the Catholic Church’s conduct throughout the abuse scandal has shown behaviour that a psychiatrist would probably diagnose as consistent with psychopathy.

Through the Ferns, Murphy, Ryan, and now the Cloyne report, a few features have remained consistent: the lack of empathy for the victims; the grandiose refusal to recognise, or abide by, civil laws; and the pathological lying, promiscuity and recidivism on the part of the abusers.

Systematically, victims were abused, bullied, manipulated and stripped of their dignity by their abusers, and then ignored, manipulated and stripped of their dignity by the authorities. Alleged abusers were protected, covered up for – and in one case detailed in Cloyne, offered a promotion as parish priest.

Incredibly, this is the organisation to whom we continue to entrust the education and care of the vast majority of our most precious and vulnerable citizens: our children.

The very same bishops who repeatedly put the well-being of abusers ahead of the protection of children – the same bishops who showed such lack of empathy for abused and such contempt for civil law - have direct control of 90 per cent of our national schools.

For parents like me, parents of children who will be entered the national school system for the first time in a few short weeks, it’s comforting to think that bishops no longer exert the control they once did; that their influence on our children’s education these days is symbolic only.

It’s comforting – but it’s not actually accurate.

As the documentary-maker Mary Raftery pointed out recently: “One has only to look at a number of court rulings which state unambiguously that it is school boards (and the patron bishops who appoint them) who are in law wholly responsible for the safety of our children in school. The State has been found to have zero legal responsibility.”

As I read the report, one sentence kept coming back to me: “He reminded her who was paying her wages”.

In fact, it’s you and I and every other taxpayer who pays teachers’ wages. The notion that a principal acting in the best interests of child protection could be threatened by a priest – a priest whose behaviour around young men had given rise to serious concern – is chilling. And yet, in legal terms, he was right: the principal is answerable in law to the chairman of the board of management.

We are the ones who offloaded the responsibility for the education of our children onto the Church: now we must be the ones to demand it back.

Lets get this psychopathic institution out of our schools.

This column was first published in The Sunday Business Post on July 24, 2011






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