Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Fate of Ireland's care home children made me weep tears of rage

Spiritual guidance: thousands attend Pastor James McConnell's church
Spiritual guidance: thousands attend Pastor James McConnell's church

As a longtime journalist I've heard some gruesome tales and feel I've developed a pretty thick skin. But I'll admit, I just stood in the kitchen and cried when I read this week's story about care home children in Ireland being 'used' in medical trials in the 1960s and '70s.

There can't be many people currently residing in the developed world who haven't worked out that institutions, on the whole, don't work very well. In the UK, numerous recent revelations regarding – deep breath – corrupt policemen, lying politicians, bent journalists, predatory celebrities, cruel nurses, greedy councillors, crooked bankers, cheating sportsmen, double-dealing lawyers and self-serving educationalists, have left us with little faith in that once revered and respected thing, The Establishment.

(Don't get me wrong, the misty eyed Faragey notion that things were nicer in the olden days is risible; the only difference now is that we're more likely to find out about monstrous acts. Ironically, though the work of journalists who expose and shame our villains sometimes ushers in waves of despair that leave us struggling to stay standing, it also offers hope that society might get better – even if it's just because the bad guys are scared of ending up on the front pages.)

The case of almost 300 children in nun-run care homes being exploited in medical trials across two decades is a stinging reminder that the most dangerous institutions of all may be those in which the management believe their authority comes from a power higher than the democratic state; the ones, in short, who reckon they have God on their side. Of course the Magdalene laundries already persuaded many of us of that, and if allegations about dead babies from the mother and baby home in Tuam being dumped in unmarked graves turn out to be true, our hearts will yet again shrivel in horror.

It's one of the great unexplained mysteries – why an unshakable faith in being endorsed by an omniscient being has led to some of the most shocking examples of what Robert Burns brilliantly summed up as "man's inhumanity to man".

You'd think nuns and priests and pastors, who are presumably au fait with the generally good-natured and tolerant nature of their hero Jesus Christ, might behave rather better than the average day to day mercenary.

And yes, many do. But too many others' assumption of God's approval – validated not by their actions but by their badge – seem often to result in them jettisoning their personal moral conscience and behaving cruelly or encouraging prejudice. Even worse, rather than being shunned or reprimanded, they're often tolerated or even cheered on by their spiritual back-crew.

We can laugh at silly old Pastor McConnell referring to Islam as "Satanic"; what's more worrying is the thousands of people who regularly turn up to hear his wise nuggets about other people's religions. Including, by his own admission, the First Minister. Judging by the job title, shouldn't a Christian preacher be a totem of compassion and open-mindedness? Isn't the notion of one being investigated for a 'hate crime motive' kind of upside-down crazy?

The hypocrisy, the cold-bloodedness, the arrogance of those involved in using children as guinea pigs – none of it surprises us any more. But each new detail of how these women and children who didn't come up to scratch – often due to their sheer innocence – were bullied and betrayed, still stabs at the gut. Little wide-eyed kids with arms like pin cushions; how can we bear it? And even more to the point – how could men and women of faith let it happen?

 

Murray’s a smash hit with the ladies

Tennis legend Billie-Jean King paid tribute to Andy Murray's “positive attitude to women” this week, praising Murray's mother and ex-coach Judy, for “raising him right”.

Murray stands out among the male tennis stars for his interest in the women's game and support for female players, and put the cherry on top on Sunday when he announced his new coach was Grand Slam winner Amelie Mauresmo.

Shellshocked sports journalists asked if it could really work — a man being told what to do by a woman?!

And lots of women, including I'm sure King and Martina Navratilova, saluted the progressive and canny Mr Murray.

 

Farewell Rik, my first-ever crush

It's customary when a celebrity dies for social media forums to fill with expressions of regret. I've never been keen on the practise, feeling the fleeting nature of such outpourings undermined the gravity of death.

But I confess I did end up on Twitter when Rik Mayall, my first crush, died this week.

I was truly sad to hear the news — I still have the kind letters he sent in response to my 12-year-old's fawning fanmail.

On Twitter I shared memories and YouTube clips with besotted fans and yes, it felt nice to remember him with other like-minded souls.

Goodbye People's Poet, we loved you.

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