Lamentation, Feet-Washing: Why Paddy Doyle is a Great Man

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Paddy Doyle, author of ‘The God Squad’

Despite spending most of his adult life bound to a wheelchair, Paddy Doyle is a formidable man. Formidable in many ways. After years of neglect and abuse in the Cappoquin, Wexford, industrial school in Ireland (including continued misdiagnosis and medical experimentation which resulted in his ongoing health battles), Paddy was one of the early voices exposing the extraordinary horrors many Irish children were subjected to under the “watchful” eye of Church and State. His book The God Squad (1989, Raven Arts Press/Transworld UK) serves as the definitive survivor’s testimony. It is an unapologetic, unflinching, and often humorous account of his battle with dystonia (which he pithily maintains, “It might well sound like a breakaway Russian Republic but it isn’t”) and a life punctuated by abuse and loss. I cannot recommend this book enough – it is so completely opposite the typical mis-lit treatise that it stands apart. You will not pity Paddy – you will applaud this man’s iron will and wry outlook on life, despite what that life has hurled at him.

When he was four years old, Paddy’s mother died of cancer, and he witnessed his father’s subsequent suicide by hanging.

Incarceration followed in a series of institutions, in which he was not just used with harshness, ignorance and insensitivity, but was also subject to physical and sexual abuse, culminating in brain surgery. He is now permanently crippled in body though not in spirit.

He has used his experience well and is now recognized as one of Ireland’s leading disability activists and has served as member of the government-appointed Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities. Paddy was also recently been appointed by the Government as a member of the Memorial Committee to Survivors of Child Abuse.

I’ve been privileged to know Paddy through his Internet circle of friends and fellow campaigners for some years now. I’ve enjoyed many an amusing and enlightening e-mail exchange with Mr. Doyle, and my life is enriched knowing him.

When the child abuse scandal first broke in Ireland, Paddy was one of a very few voices of reason advocating that no deals be cut, no decisions made, without the input of every survivor. “Nothing about us without us” has long been his motto, and with good reason. Many ‘representatives of’ survivors and survivor groups played loose and fast, dealing sub rosa with the Irish State and the Catholic Church and in the process, sadly rendering survivors’ rights impotent. Some have even further perpetuated the abuse upon their own by misusing funds paid out by Church and State meant for survivors’ needs.

Paddy saw all of this coming, warned against it and continues to expose it. He suffers no fool lightly. Last week, he sent an alert to his wide circle of friends to let us know a ceremony was being planned for Sunday, February 20 at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral – a “Liturgy of Lament and Repentance.” Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley of Boston and Dublin’s Archbishop Diarmuid Martin were on hand to perform a symbolic “foot-washing” for selected abuse survivors, among them prominent survivor spokeswoman Christine Buckley. Read the full text of the service at the Boston Globe.

The irony of this dog-and-pony-show is not lost among those of us who continue to campaign for justice for survivors whose voices have not yet been heard; particularly survivors of Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries and the Protestant-run Bethany Home, who were omitted from the 2002 Redress Act. ‘Twas Mary Magdalene herself made most famous for the whole foot-washing thing, now equally infamous for her connection to the Church ‘penitent’ model, notably as applied to the Magdalene Laundries and their ‘penitent’ slaves.

procathedral_picture_41298308010Sunday’s particular show was organised between the Church and abuse survivors Father Paddy McCafferty, Catholic activist Paddy Monaghan and survivor Marie Collins, who allegedly set about preparing a liturgy in consultation with survivor groups. Unfortunately, this consultation did not include voices like Paddy’s, mine and many other good people. Had we been consulted, we would’ve advised against such a theatrical spectacle, as it does nothing for the very real needs of an aging population coping with the results of a lifetime of abuse, denied education and life skills and struggling with daily needs such as housing and medical care. Not to mention those still left without even a public apology.

I think any of us in Paddy’s circle could agree that this exercise scheduled for Sunday was a slap in the face to so many who seek justice as more than a foot bath. And today’s press would indicate it backfired in a mighty way. But the slap didn’t end there. Paddy made the trip up to Dublin on the day from his home south of Dublin, accompanied by Mary Smith, a woman whose mother had been sent to a Laundry after falling pregnant with Mary. Mary herself ended up shunted off to an industrial school and Laundry. She had a letter for Cardinal O’Malley with her and wanted to attend the ceremony and deliver it to him.

Paddy Doyle and Mary Smith are refused entrance at Dublin’s Pro Cathedral

But Paddy and Mary were denied admittance at the door. A phalanx of Irish gardai and Church officials would not allow them in. Amid a group of survivors protesting the event, Paddy told The Irish Times it was “getting to the stage where apologies are becoming cliches.”

In the wake of the 2009 Ryan Report and then the collapse of the Irish economy and call for new government, this theater of the absurd foot-washing episode seems a desperate cry by Church (and State) to be done with it all…more of a symbolic hand-washing rather than foot-washing. As my colleague in Justice for Magdalenes, Professor James Smith put it: “It is as if now that the national finances are in the toilet, the notion of justice, ethics, [and] morality is suddenly contingent on the national coffers.” And Sunday’s service was an expedient and desperate attempt to put close to it all. Many of us are still dealing with, as James put it, “closed ranks and silence” on serious human rights issues: the abuse and unpaid labour of the Laundries; vaccine trials perpetrated on babies marked for adoption, without mothers’ consent; survivors of the Bethany Home; and more.

And yet somehow this morning, the ever-pragmatic Paddy was able to put his infamous humourous spin on it all: “The cops couldn’t arrest me because they hadn’t got a van to put the wheelchair in!”

Paddy is the keeper of the fire that burns in those of us still denied justice. An ailing economy and Church urgency to get their house in order (which involves further sweeping of elephants under the carpet) will not silence or stop our voices. And certainly not with the formidable Mr. Doyle leading the charge. Long may he reign.