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Opinion: 'The government won't remove the Church from its authority over social services until we demand it'

It will take legal challenges on the grounds of gender discrimination to fully remove the Catholic Church from publicly-funded services, writes Colleen Hennessy.

Colleen Hennessy Writer and political scientist

THE CAVALIER ANNOUNCEMENT by the Department of Health this week that the Sisters of Charity are to be given the new State-funded hospital in south Dublin demonstrates the protected status enjoyed by the Catholic Church in Irish public policy.

The consequences of the Church’s role in abusing the Irish people have been well-documented. The failure of the Irish government to protect people from this abuse has also been well-documented. The continued failure of the Irish government to hold the Catholic Church accountable for past abuse of its citizens is well-documented too.

The Irish government has not enforced the 128-million euro indemnity claim between against 18 religious organisations following the Ryan Report.

Indeed, the Sisters of Charity have contributed only 2 million euro of an additional 5 million euro owed in addition to their share of the overall claim. The Irish government has failed in even securing apologies to Church abuse victims.

Organisational independence?

Yet the Department of Health feels confident that they can “ensure clinical and operational independence” despite not owning the hospital.

This confidence is shockingly misplaced based on their track record to oversee, regulate and ensure transparency and independence in the financial sector, the law and order sector, the planning and housing sector, let alone in Church-owned education and health services.

The announcement by the Department of Health right before the Citizens’ Assembly shares its final recommendations on the eighth amendment this weekend shows that the government does not think that the Citizens’ Assembly’s recommendations regarding abortion legalisation is relevant to the ownership of the new National Maternity Hospital.

This does not bode well for the Coalition to Repeal the Eight Amendment.

Normalisation of a religious order owning a social service

I fear for the campaign to repeal the Eighth because although access to abortion services is integral to gender equality in healthcare, I fear it won’t be enough to address the incestuous entanglement between Ireland’s public policy and State-funded services and the Catholic Church.

This week’s announcement in the context of the Citizens’ Assembly, the confirmed mass grave at a Magdalene laundry in Tuam, and the recent Census results shows the continued normalisation of a religious order “owning” a tax-payer funded social service.

I believe it will take legal challenges on the grounds of gender discrimination and inequality under Irish law to fully remove the Catholic Church from publicly-funded schools and other services.

Discriminating against women

Organisations funded through public monies cannot legally discriminate against women.

The Catholic Church continues to deny female religious the same access to employment as male religious with its refusal to allow the ordination of women. It denies women access to the Vatican decision-making structures, such as the synod on the family in 2015, based purely on gender.

As a private organisation, it may have the legal protection (although still immoral position) to continue these practices, but as an organisation receiving Irish State funds this is gender discrimination.

Three State-funded agencies recently announced that they will not fund Ireland’s higher education institutions who do not have gender equality accreditation by 2019. This move is the result of the National Review of Gender Equality in Higher Education Institutions which found significant gender inequality in the leadership and career progression at Irish universities.

Yet an organisation that openly discriminates against women in its own ranks, is allowed to control 90% of Ireland’s primary and secondary schools.

The government’s announcement is a challenge to the Irish public. It is a slap in the face at an attempt at collaborative and participatory decision-making through the Citizens’ Assembly.

It makes it very clear that the Irish government has no intentions of removing the Catholic Church from its authority over social services until the Irish voters demand it.

Colleen Hennessy studied Irish and American social policy. She alternates her time between policy writing and freelance journalism.  She can be reached on Twitter @colleenhenness4 or at colleenhennessy.com.

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About the author:

Colleen Hennessy  / Writer and political scientist

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