Religious orders have the right to exist, but not to privilege and undue influence in public life

In a recent article in the Irish Examiner, Fergus Finley  asks “Why do we still allow religious orders to exist?” He was responding to the latest revelations of clerical sex abuse in Irish schools, this time by the Spiritans who run Blackrock College, and the Carmelites who ran Terenure College.

It is not the existence of religious orders that is the problem in Ireland; it is the privilege and undue influence they have been given by the State.

They have consistently abused that privilege and influence, and still do, especially in our education and health systems where public services are delivered.

When Louise O’Keeffe took her case to the Courts about the failure of the state to protect her from sexual abuse in a publicly funded national School, the Supreme Court found that our Republic wasn’t responsible as the state ceded control of our schools to churches.

This means that in Ireland, we hand over control of most of our schools to an organisation that has enabled paedophiles and covered up their crimes, and whose Irish Bishops have lied to and deliberately misled state tribunals about these crimes.

It was the European Court that told Ireland that it was responsible for the protection of children from sexual abuse, and held it responsible.

Is there any parent in the country who wants the Catholic Church to keep the front-line responsibility for the protection of children from sexual abuse in schools?

The Catholic Church has been given so much control and influence that it will be difficult to remove the legal pathways that has given them such power. Attitudes may have changed, but the undue influence of the Catholic Church is deeply rooted in our culture and laws.

If we want to remove some of that privilege then we should start with the Constitution. Under the Irish Constitution the state is obliged to respect and honour religion.

Article 44.1 states that:

“The State acknowledges that the homage of public worship is due to Almighty God. It shall hold His Name in reverence, and shall respect and honour religion.”

The President and Judges must take a religious oath. This oath is written into the Constitution so there is no choice to make a declaration.

“In the presence of Almighty God I do solemnly and sincerely promise and declare that I will maintain the Constitution of Ireland and uphold its laws, that I will fulfil my duties faithfully and conscientiously in accordance with the Constitution and the law, and that I will dedicate my abilities to the service and welfare of the people of Ireland. May God direct and sustain me.”

Members of the Council of State, which includes the Taoiseach and Tanaiste, must take a similar oath. The effect of these oaths is that conscientious atheists cannot take up these offices of state.

The preamble to our Constitution starts with:

“In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred, We, the people of Éire,”

Under the Charities Act, one of the categories for recognition is ‘religion’. It is treated differently to the other categories. The Charities Regulator cannot remove a religious charity without first referring it to the Attorney General.

The ‘religion’ category doesn’t include those with non religious philosophical convictions. We have recently made a submission on this.

If we want to ensure that the Catholic Church is treated the same as other religions and people with philosophical beliefs, without privilege and undue influence on our laws and public life, then we need to amend our Constitution to ensure that no religion ever gets such privilege and control again.

Atheist Ireland