Atheist Ireland responds to Fergus Finlay about religious orders existing and ending their privilege

Fergus Finlay has moved the goalposts in his response to our article about religious orders. He was originally talking about the right of religious orders to exist. Now he has shifted to talking about the legal consequences for individual people who break the law. We disagree with his original argument, and agree with his revised argument.

The background to the issue

Fergus wrote last week that we should not allow religious orders to exist. Atheist Ireland responded that religious orders have the right to exist, but not to the privilege and undue influence in public life that they have been given and have consistently abused.

Fergus has now responded by asking why people who cover up child abuse should not be disbarred as leaders of religious orders. We agree that they should, but that is not the same thing as saying that we should not allow religious orders to exist.

Let’s start by looking at Fergus’ original argument. He wrote:

“Why do we still allow these religious orders to exist? They are nothing more than vehicles for corruption and abuse, and they need to be shut down… Religious orders should have no recognition in law.”

Michael Nugent responded on Twitter:

“Like Fergus Finlay, I grew up resisting an authoritarian Ireland. I’m shocked to see Fergus now suggest making religious orders illegal. They should pay tax and be accountable to the law, but they have the same right to exist as any other group.”

Atheist Ireland responded in our article:

“Religious orders have the right to exist, but not to privilege and undue influence in public life. They have consistently abused that privilege and influence, and still do, especially in our education and health systems where public services are delivered.”

Fergus now points out that our article also said:

“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.”

And Fergus responds:

“As Father Dougal once said, ‘I’m hugely confused Ted’. When I call out the behaviour of the religious orders — in slightly more measured language, actually, than Atheist Ireland — I’m being authoritarian. But in its language, we’re handing over control to paedophiles and their protectors. Someone somewhere needs to get a grip.”

“I’d love people [by implication, including Michael Nugent and Atheist Ireland] to explain why people who run organisations that pay their taxes on time, but cover up the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of children, shouldn’t be disbarred as leaders of their organisations in exactly the same way.

What we both want and how to do it

Let us clarify for Father Dougal and others who are confused. Both our description and Fergus’ description of the criminal behaviour of the Catholic Church are reasonable, and are consistent with the conclusions of State tribunals. We need to stop this criminal behaviour, make the criminals accountable, and ensure it does not happen again.

Where we differ with Fergus is how to achieve that outcome. Fergus argues that religious orders need to be shut down, and should have no recognition in law. We disagree with that solution, as it breaches the human rights to freedom of religion or belief, conscience, and association.

We believe the State should allow religious orders to exist, but should remove the privilege and influence that the State has given them and that they have consistently abused, particularly in the education and health systems.

For example, 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.

If we want to remove that privilege, we should start with the Constitution. Under the Irish Constitution the state is obliged to respect and honour religion. The President and Judges and Taoiseach must take a religious oath.

Removing these constitutional privileges will help us to remove the statutory privileges that religions also enjoy. Not only do they run most of our state-funded schools and many hospitals, but they have further privileges in our Equality and Charities laws.

We can remove those privileges without denying religious orders the right to exist.

Holding the people responsible accountable

Fergus then describes how our High Court has found a private sector enterprise guilty of revenue-related crimes, and the judge prohibited its directors from serving as directors of any company established under Irish law for the maximum period he could impose.

Fergus then asks:

“I’d love people [by implication, including Michael Nugent and Atheist Ireland] to explain why people who run organisations that pay their taxes on time, but cover up the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of children, shouldn’t be disbarred as leaders of their organisations in exactly the same way.

I’d love them to explain why their organisations should “have the same right to exist as any other group” — as long as they pay their taxes. If cheating the tax system is grounds for disbarment, why isn’t destroying the lives of children?”

This is where Fergus is moving the goalposts from his original claim. He was originally talking about the right of religious orders to exist. Now he has shifted to talking about the legal consequences for individual people who break the law.

Firstly, we didn’t suggest that the only obligation on religious orders was to pay their taxes. We also said that they should be accountable to the law, and that the State should stop giving them privilege and undue influence. If that were to happen, of course they should have the same right to exist as any other group.

Secondly, we agree with Fergus that people who cover up the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of children should be disbarred as leaders of their organisations. Indeed, we believe they should be tried for, at minimum, obstructing the course of justice, and if found guilty they should be sent to prison.

We can make these people accountable without denying religious orders the right to exist.

Atheist Ireland

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