Thursday, June 21, 2007

The Bad Samaritans

The Bad Samaritans

Different Perspectives in the Wake of the Iraqi Orphan Scandal.

An “infant asylum” in Quebec circa 1935

Are “children of sin” considered human? Are severely handicapped children considered worthless? When Original Sin is not considered enough to stigmatize infants and children, what will?

In the wake of the Iraqi orphan abuse scandal, I struggled with two images in particular: the ones with the smiling women amongst the curled-up, naked and emaciated bodies of some of the children. Even though I live in San Francisco, I was, in fact, too close to the situation.

You see, I was born in an orphanage in Chicago, "but for the grace of God” I narrowly escaped becoming a Duplessis Orphan:

The 40s,50s and early 60s were hard times for the people of Quebec. Many children were given up by their parents to orphanages and even more “children of sin” (illegitimate) were born (as I was) in “infant asylums.” Moreover, it was a time when the Catholic Church dominated all of the area’s orphanages and insane asylums. In 1988, a child abuse scandal rocked Quebec: in order to receive more money from the government for the orphans’ care, the Church doctored medical records and declared a number of orphans as either insane or retarded. Thousands of normal children were shipped to asylums, medically experimented upon and, in some cases, given lobotomies. Many were physically and even sexually abused. Shock treatments were common. There were 52 such faith-based organizations in Quebec Province. Over a period of three decades, more than 7000 lives were ruined.

And some didn’t survive at all: an unmarked gravesite at one of the asylums is still being investigated: the survivors – calling themselves the Duplessis Orphans (after the corrupt premier of the Province at the time) – want to have autopsies performed to shed light on the extent of the abuse, but the Catholic Church has strongly objected. In an interview conducted by CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company):

He [Cardinal Turcotte] says that the church was the sole institution willing to help the orphans. He also states that the church shouldn't be held responsible for systemic abuse.

Quebec Premier Bernard Landry: "It was the acceptance by our society of a somber episode in our history."

Back in Iraq, one article placing the blame on American propaganda quoted a government official as saying “these children were lucky to be taken in. They’re lives were saved.”
Taking part in the press conference was the director of the orphanage, Dhiaa’ Abdul Amir, who had fled after U.S. troops found the center. He denied that there was any abuse of the children, adding that the photos released by the U.S. military focused on two boys suffering from skin infections but that the rest of the children were healthy.

"Those handicapped children were abandoned by their families and we are trying to save them from death.”

Iraq and Quebec: so different and yet oddly similar. In Iraq, even though the women in the pictures were not Catholic nuns, they were given the same charge: “These helpless children now depend on you.” They were also given something else: unbridled respect for their positions. That is what makes the two cases so similar: unequivocal trust and respect. Good Samaritans are never criticized – or investigated. Both the nuns of Quebec and the Iraqi women thought that they were doing nothing wrong. Both probably thought to themselves “they’re lucky to be here at all! Food and services are wasted on them!”

In both cases, they abused trusts as well as children.