Few people outside Ireland know of Mary Raftery, but they should.
To appreciate the kind of person she was, you need to appreciate what Irish society was like just a few decades ago. Most things of importance in Ireland were controlled by the Catholic Church. Because of their power and influence, nothing happened in the country without the imprimatur of the bishops. They had ways of making their views known. What displeased them quickly came to an end. Priests were seen as minor nobility: to be revered, not to be crossed, no matter what their personal qualities and vices. The Church had their backs. So long as you followed the system, you could get on with your life.
And what of those who didn’t fit? The Church had solutions for them, too. They ran Industrial Schools to deal with poor and unruly children. They ran slave laundries to deal with unmarried mothers. Within these walls, they beat troublemakers into submission. For others, they had more effective means of gaining the upper hand, practically guaranteeing that they would never speak up for the shame of it.
Much of this took place behind closed gates and closed doors. Most people never heard of it. If you heard something, you were far better off staying quiet. Life would be easier for you. From the highest statesmen to the keenest of media investigators, the monster that lay at the heart of the Catholic Church in Ireland lay hidden for decades; all the while growing, gathering tentacles, feeding off its most vulnerable, corrupting those who came in contact with it.
This was the country in which Mary Raftery began her career in investigative journalism. Things weren’t right. A heroin epidemic was raging in Dublin. Mary began to inquire into its causes. Her inquiries lead to broken people, their dreams destroyed long before they ever took drugs. Ireland had a horrible secret, and it was behind a lock that would require several years of dogged determination to open. Mary helped to unpick that lock.
The 1990’s were not great years for the Catholic Church in Ireland. Bishops and priests were discovered to have had children in secret. Damaging books were being written. Pederasts in clerical garb were being exposed. It was possible to look upon these incidents as aberrations and the protagonists as bad apples. Easily excused and dismissed. It would take something much bigger to rock the sensibilities of official Ireland.
In 1999, Mary Raftery’s RTE documentary series, “States of Fear”, did just that. It exposed a widespread system of institutional abuse, through which thousands of children were processed, for over half a century. The system functioned through deprivation, starvation, overwork and violence: both physical and sexual. What this documentary had in abundance was evidence. After her programme, it wasn’t so easy to make excuses.
Mary went on to produce more documentaries that set out the scale of the problem. “Cardinal Secrets” (2002) showed how senior bishops “managed” the crisis, often compounding the horror and injury for victims. More recently, “Behind the Walls” (2011) shone a light into the Government run psychiatric hospitals. At one time, Ireland lead the world in terms of the number of people detained in mental institutions.
For those still in denial, the subsequent years have been torrid indeed. The scale of the problem has been revealed to be enormous and manifest. A succession of official reports have backed up, with compound interest, the original allegations. The rot within the Catholic Church has been laid bare. We now live in an Ireland that looks at the past and our past masters, and says “never again”.
We knew Mary Raftery from her regular media appearances and for her great faculty to put words to the intense anger we all felt when the latest stories came to light. She was not someone to be trifled with in a debate, as apologists found quickly to their cost. She came across as brave and ruthless in the face of grave injustice. Mary epitomised a new type of morality, based on compassion, truth and justice. She was a role model for a new, more secular generation. Mary Raftery was a sceptic, a rationalist and a humanist. Her name and her work deserves widespread recognition.
Mary Raftery died last week at the age of 54, after a battle with ovarian cancer.