Call for members of religious communities to not only speak out in defence of the poor but also to be with them in the way that made Catherine McAuley such a compellingly powerful advocate for social justice.

Alice Leahy, called on the members of religious communities to not only speak out in defence of the poor and those who take a stand on their behalf but also to be with them in the way that made Catherine McAuley such a compellingly powerful advocate for social justice in her time.

Delivering the Catherine McAuley Lecture tonight (Wednesday, 17 October, 2001) Alice Leahy, Co-Founder and Director of TRUST, said that Catherine McAuley knew first hand the smell and pain of poverty and not only provided frontline care and help but also took a stand for the poor.

“Catherine McAuley was a courageous advocate for social justice. She defended those who had no one to stand up for them. Her work made her an outsider and she knew the importance of standing up for those who took a stand and was resolute in standing by her own Sisters, even challenging Bishops and leading Church people when necessary.”

The Annual Catherine McAuley Lecture was established to honour the founder of the worldwide Mercy Order and previous guest lecturers have included President Mary McAleese and the Poet Brendan Kennelly.

“Catherine McAuley was an inspiring woman who asked awkward questions and was a true advocate on behalf of the poor,” Alice Leahy said, “and now more than ever it is important that voices are raised, especially as conditions for those people who become homeless are getting more impossible everyday.”

Alice Leahy went on: “It is not acceptable that at a time of great prosperity in this country that the stench and smell of poverty, which would have been quite familiar to Catherine McAuley in the darkest days of the Nineteenth Century, in the overflowing work houses of the time, is still a prevalent feature of life for the outsiders in Irish society today!”

” The people we always understood as homeless, the really marginalized or outsiders in our midst, have not gone away. But many of the beds traditionally used by homeless people in hostels are now being taken up by those employed in poorly paid jobs unable to get private rented accommodation and ineligible for local authority housing.” Alice Leahy said.

But how have those with responsibility for managing the social and health services responded to this crisis? Buzzwords like “performance indicators,” “benchmarking” and “partnership”. While on the ground those working at the coal face, who daily see first hand the effects of real marginalisation, are rarely if ever consulted and if they are their views are simply not heard. Yet more and more highly paid consultants are hired to produce more and more research reports and nothing changes on the ground, Alice Leahy said, as more and more frontline staff become demoralised.

“We meet people everyday whose bodies have been ravaged by disease, stabbed, burned by cigarettes. Many have pressure sores from sleeping out in all weathers, sometime sleeping in urine soaked clothes for weeks. Major skin problems are not uncommon like leg ulcers as well as lice, scabies and even malnutrition.

“All the medical conditions common to the general public but exacerbated by poor living conditions we see on a daily basis. These conditions are also often compounded by feelings of despair and inadequacy and many, perhaps unsurprisingly, are taken over by addiction to society’s drugs, including alcohol and gambling.”

“These are conditions that Catherine McAuley would have been quite familiar with. But would she have remained silent? Would she have challenged the current management of the services today, even whose language seems designed to alienate the very people they are meant to serve?”

“But if we are to really tackle exclusion and alienation in Irish society we also need a management revolution in the public service. Management that stifles criticism, does not seek the views of the people in the front line, is doomed to continue to waste resources and not help to end the alienation and exclusion of the people I meet everyday. Members of religious communities are in a unique position to help encourage that radical change. I am confident Catherine McAuley if she was with us today would be at the forefront in asking the awkward questions that need to be asked now more than ever before,” Alice Leahy said.