Irish report: child abuse in Church institutions

Irish report: child abuse in Church institutions

Br Barry Coldrey

Dr Barry Coldrey CFC is a former teacher in Christian Brothers secondary schools and has written and lectured extensively. He spent eight years during the 1990s working on issues concerned with the child sexual abuse crisis and the Church, especially in regard to the abuse scene in orphanages. His general academic research was made available to the present Irish Commission.

On 20 May 2009, Irish High Court Justice Sean Ryan unveiled the Final Report of Ireland's Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse after nine years of testimony from nearly 2,000 former residents, staff and retired government officials of the 216 Church-managed industrial schools, reformatories and orphanages which operated in the Republic from the 1930s to the 1990s.

The investigation declared, in five large volumes of 2,600 combined pages, that many priests, brothers, nuns and lay staff gave unsatisfactory care to the young people placed in these institutions. Moreover, government inspectors failed to intervene to stop the pervasive severity, sexual abuse and sparse standard of living to which the children were subjected.

The striking claims of abuse in the Republic's care system were given extensive publicity throughout the English-speaking world, including Australia. This media scrutiny does not do the Church any good, but Ireland is at a distance and the media interest will soon wane.

Meanwhile committed Catholics are embarrassed, and tribal "census" Catholics might be angry, but the latter do little to assist the Church deal with these issues.

The Christian Brothers maintained seven large institutions in Ireland including the massive industrial school for boys, Artane, in the northern suburbs of Dublin, which was gazetted to take up to 900 boys. The Brothers' industrial schools were identified for exceptional criticism.

Over a period of fifty years, more than 30,000 children deemed to be petty thieves, persistent truants, or from dysfunctional families, were sent to residential care in this austere network of children's homes, the last of which closed in the 1990s. Most had ceased to function twenty years previously.

Ireland's former Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, established the Commission of Inquiry in 2000 after the screening of television documentaries which uncovered evidence of widespread abuse at the Republic's children's homes. Mr Ahern also offered an apology on behalf of the state to abuse victims and established a fund of around one billion euros in compensation to 12,500 surviving abuse victims, some four percent of whom live in Australia.

In fact, this Commission is the climactic exploration into a subject which has enthralled the Irish public for almost thirty years, viz, the dark underbelly of the Republic's former child care system.

Already, there have been many memoirs, autobiographies, plays and TV documentaries which have covered the same ground with horrific exposes to fascinated and horrified audiences.

Each release has triggered a wave of controversy and a flood of apologies. Perhaps the Ryan Commission's Report is the final act in this long industrial school saga and the matter may finally be laid to rest.


However, the Report remains a devastating indictment of Church and State authorities when it came to their exercise of responsibility for the care of Irish children throughout most of the 20th century.

There is a harrowing account of the physical, sexual and emotional abuse inflicted on the young people who attended the industrial schools. The Report found that corporal punishment was "pervasive, severe, arbitrary and unpredictable" throughout the system, especially in homes for boys and especially in Christian Brothers institutions.

In addition, sexual abuse was "endemic" and Church authorities were aware (at times) that long-term sex offenders were repeatedly abusing children.

Where all the homes were concerned, the Commission found that "children were frequently hungry, food was inadequate, inedible and prepared badly". Clothing was "a particular problem in boys' schools" where children often worked for long hours outdoors on farms. Moreover, the clothes stigmatised the children as residents of an industrial school.

Accommodation in the institutions was "cold, spartan and bleak" with sanitary provision "primitive" in most institutions for boys and "the schools were run in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable, oppressive discipline on children and staff!" The education the children received is judged in the most pejorative terms and the State Education Department also received a blistering serve.

It is a wonder any survived, but they did!

In the wake of the Commission's Report, Cardinal Sean Brady offered an apology for the widespread abuses. In a statement released by the Irish Catholic Bishops' Conference, he said: "I am profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed that the children suffered in such awful ways in these institutions. Children deserved better, especially from those caring for them in the name of Jesus Christ."

The spokesman for the Christian Brothers, Edmund Garvey, told RTE Radio that the Congregation was "deeply sorry, deeply regretful."

In view of all the savage criticism, is there anything to be said for the institutions, the Congregations who managed the homes, and the carers, most of whom are deceased?

In this Commission Report, as in most of the other exposes of the industrial schools, there is a pervasive tendency "to read history backwards", to forget that times have changed since the 1930s to the 1970s when these imposing schools were a prominent feature of the Irish social scene.

In those times, Ireland was a poor nation and its care system served those at the base of the social system. In recent times, Ireland has experienced the widespread prosperity of the Western world so it is easy to forget that times have passed.

Moreover, while some behaviour, such as sexual molestation of children, is universally condemned, other behaviour, such as corporal punishment of refractory youngsters, admits of degrees and is a matter of opinion. Corporal punishment in private homes and ordinary schools was near-universal in Ireland during the industrial school era. There were abuses, but this was the context and the context shaped carer attitudes.

Moreover, child care theory has changed radically in the last half century. This writer made his pioneering research in this area available to the Irish Commission without apparent result or influence.

Until the 1950s, residential child care (such as prevailed in the industrial schools) was intended to protect society from the deprived child, not (in the first instance) to protect the child. This is not well-known and may be an embarrassment to modern care professionals.

The industrial schools had a further objective which was not to provide a cosy existence for deprived children. There was a belief, which had its origins in the 19th century but was still current to the 1950s, that there existed a criminal underclass, a threat to respectable society and a menace to themselves. This criminal, vagrant underclass renewed itself with a constant intake of deprived, marginalised children.

The industrial and reformatory schools were intended to remove children from unsatisfactory parents and break the criminal cycle; their objective was to turn deprived, vagrant, abandoned children into respectable, hard-working members of the working class. A real transformation of attitudes was intended, by persuasion and loving care if possible, and by force if necessary.

This sounds hard and unpleasant and it was, but these views shaped carers' attitudes and cannot be airbrushed away. These views of child care were transformed during and after the 1960s into modern, child-centred, residential care, but ideas can linger after any conceivable use-by date.

The view of the carers, most deceased, did not influence the Irish Commission to any degree. Perhaps, this brief article might finish with a comment from one of them. The late Brother Colm Keating, Congregation Leader of the Christian Brothers during the 1990s, once remarked to this writer that he had spent five years on the staff of Artane Industrial School as a young Brother. "It was fearfully hard work", he said. Colm meant that it was a very tough ministry - for the carers!