Land of saints and child abusers…

May 22nd, 2009

I am angry.

This week in Ireland, The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse published its report after ten years (summary here – full report here). The commission investigated reports of the abuse of children in Catholic Reformatory and Industrial Schools over a sixty year period up to the 1980s. Such institutions were set up to care for poor and abandoned children and often as a means of dealing with troublesome children.

Scene from the feature film Song for a Raggy Boy

Scene from the feature film "Song for a Raggy Boy"

What makes me angry is not just that children were beaten, tortured and raped. What makes me angry is not just that children were beaten, tortured and raped by people who were supposed to be caring for them. What makes me angry is not just that children were beaten, tortured and raped by members of religious orders who were supposed to be caring for them. What makes me angry is that not one of the torturers and rapists still alive is going to be named and not one of them is going to be prosecuted.

It angers me that the Catholic Church and the Government in Ireland knew that abuse was going on and did nothing about it.

It angers me particularly that the Christian Brothers (against whom more allegations were made than all of the other male orders combined, according to the RTE news website) even successfully sued the commission in 2004 to keep the identities of its members anonymous in the report. I was educated by the Christian Brothers for all my secondary schooling. I was in a normal school, not one of the institutions that are the subject of the report. My memories of the brothers are generally good, particularly of one head teacher who was a gentleman. I have no personal axe to grind with the order, but to think that even now they would try to cover up the abuses of some of their members is a disgrace. If I had children in a CB school, I would withdraw them in protest.

Why was there so much abuse in Ireland? I think it goes back to the (not distant) past when poor families were large and couldn’t provide for all their children, so some were packed off at a young age to religious orders to become priests, nuns and brothers. Effectively condemned to a life of restrictions that they had not chosen for themselves. These were not vocations, they were sentences. What resentments and frustrations did these children carry with them into adulthood and subsequently take out on the children who eventually came into their own care?

Severe corporal punishment was considered normal in school when I was a child. Of course, “severe” is a relative term. I have no experience of brutal beatings, either as a victim or a witness, but when the whole class is being punished with strokes of a large, wooden ruler on the palms of both hands, and you are waiting somewhere down the line, having to see and listen to those before you receive their punishment knowing that yours is coming, and to top it off the class is being punished for making noise during a break when you yourself had stayed as quiet as a mouse – that can be quite traumatic for a six-year-old mind. That happened at the Sisters of Charity primary school in Gardiner Street, Dublin. I bear no ill-will towards the nun who meted out that punishment. She was generally a good woman.

Later I went to a school run by the De La Salle brothers in Navan. The young brother who taught me there was generally good-natured and friendly but had a bizarre way of testing the boys’ spelling skills. He would line the whole class up along the walls of the classroom. Each boy in turn would be given a word to spell. If he got it right, he sat down. Otherwise he would remain standing. Those were very long moments in a boy’s life because he had to wait for round one to be over. Round two started with a single lash across the palm of the hand with a bamboo cane for each boy who remained standing. The lash was excruciating; the waiting possibly even more so. Then the spelling bee would begin again. Each of the remaining boys would be given another word to spell. Round three would begin with a lash to each hand. I don’t remember whether there was a round four. Fortunately, I was literate from an early age, so I rarely got lashed for spelling mistakes. But I burn with anger and resentment now when I think of it. There was no educational value in such behaviour, certainly not for any children who had never been encouraged to read or who were dyslexic. My parents never learned of those beatings from me. I considered them normal and I had been brought up not to question authority. Ironically, the brother blurted it out to my mother during a meeting when he thought she had come to complain. He said that when he had started out, he vowed he would never strike a child, but in the end he saw no other way to control the class. Yes… because during our spelling bees we must have been like rioting prison inmates on crack.

I mention these two, generally good and kind, teachers because even they beat us when it came down to it. And we were ordinary children in an ordinary school who went home to our parents in the afternoon. What must have gone on behind the closed doors of those institutions for underprivileged children if ordinary kids like us were being physically and mentally abused for not knowing how to spell “anguish”.

I can only imagine the anguish suffered by those victims of abuse (and I personally know some) at the hands of the Catholic Church with the collusion of the Irish Government, to be told now that their abusers will not face justice.

The kinds of abuse that went on are Abu Ghraibian, yet perpetrated not on adults by soldiers following the orders of shadowy intelligence officers, but on children by priests, nuns and brothers with the consent of government ministers.

Anywhere else there would be prison sentences for the abusers and anyone who obstructed justice by shielding abusers. But not in Ireland, where the old attitude of “Ah, sure it’s best we don’t think about these things” that allowed it to happen in the first place is still alive and well, it would seem.

And the irony of recent times is that Ireland’s Minister for Justice wants to be able to prosecute people for “blasphemy“. But not for the abuse of a child, it would seem, because not offending religious people is more important than not raping children. Welcome to 1930s Ireland.

It’s at times like this I wish I was not agnostic, then I could believe that Hell awaits such people. What all this certainly does show me is that even if there were a god, religious organisations have no direct line to him and certainly receive no mandate from him.

To get a flavour for what the commission’s report is about, I recommend you watch “Song for a Raggy Boy“, which is based on the true story of a lay teacher’s courage to stand up against abuse in a Catholic Reformatory and Industrial School in 1939 Ireland.

Some quotes from the report of The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Volume IV, Section 6):

  • Physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions.
  • The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools.
  • The Rules and Regulations governing the use of corporal punishment were disregarded with the knowledge of the Department of Education.
  • Complaints by parents and others made to the Department were not properly investigated.
  • The Reformatory and Industrial Schools depended on rigid control by means of severe corporal punishment and the fear of such punishment.
  • A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys. Children lived with the daily terror of
    not knowing where the next beating was coming from.
  • Children who ran away were subjected to extremely severe punishment.
  • There was little variation in the use of physical beating from region to region, from decade to decade, or from Congregation to Congregation.
  • Sexual abuse was endemic in boys’ institutions.
  • Cases of sexual abuse were managed with a view to minimising the risk of public disclosure and consequent damage to the institution and the Congregation. This policy resulted in the protection of the perpetrator. When lay people were discovered to have sexually abused, they were generally reported to the Gardaí. When a member of a Congregation was found to be abusing, it was dealt with internally and was not reported to the Gardaí.
  • The recidivist nature of sexual abuse was known to religious authorities.
  • When confronted with evidence of sexual abuse, the response of the religious authorities was to transfer the offender to another location where, in many instances, he was free to abuse again.
  • Sexual abuse was known to religious authorities to be a persistent problem in male religious organisations throughout the relevant period.
  • The Congregational authorities did not listen to or believe people who complained of sexual abuse that occurred in the past.
  • In general, male religious Congregations were not prepared to accept their responsibility for the sexual abuse that their members perpetrated.
  • Older boys sexually abused younger boys and the system did not offer protection from bullying of this kind.
  • Sexual abuse of girls was generally taken seriously by the Sisters in charge and lay staff were dismissed when their activities were discovered.
  • Sexual abuse by members of religious Orders was seldom brought to the attention of the Department of Education by religious authorities because of a culture of silence about the issue.
  • The Department of Education dealt inadequately with complaints about sexual abuse. These complaints were generally dismissed or ignored.
  • Children were frequently hungry and food was inadequate, inedible and badly prepared in many schools.
  • Accommodation was cold, spartan and bleak. Sanitary provision was primitive in most boys’ schools and general hygiene facilities were poor.
  • A disturbing element of the evidence before the Commission was the level of emotional abuse that disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children were subjected to generally by religious and lay staff in institutions.
  • The system as managed by the Congregations made it difficult for individual religious who tried to respond to the emotional needs of the children in their care.
  • Witnessing abuse of co-residents, including seeing other children being beaten or hearing their cries, witnessing the humiliation of siblings and others and being forced to participate in beatings, had a powerful and distressing impact.
  • Separating siblings and restrictions on family contact were profoundly damaging for family relationships. Some children lost their sense of identity and kinship, which was never recovered.
  • The Confidential Committee heard evidence in relation to 161 settings other than Industrial and Reformatory Schools, including primary and second-level schools, Children’s Homes, foster care, hospitals and services for children with special needs, hostels, and other residential settings. The majority of witnesses reported abuse and neglect, in some instances up to the year 2000.
  • Many witnesses who complained of abuse nevertheless expressed some positive memories: small gestures of kindness were vividly recalled.

3 Responses to “Land of saints and child abusers…”

  1. Rowan Manahanon 22 May 2009 at

    So let me get this straight …

    Irish couples had large families and some of the younger sons and daughters were basically forced into the religious orders because there were too many mouths to feed?

    And Irish couples had large families and tens of thousands of children ended up in state institutions run by these religious orders because there were too many mouths to feed?

    And the Catholic hierarchy continues to insist that large (catholic) families are a good thing and that the use of contraception is (a) a sin and you will burn in hell for it and (b) not going to save you from HIV anyway?

    I only discovered recently that the government deal to charge the Irish taxpayer for compensation for all this abuse was conducted in secret and signed outside of the working calendar of the Irish parliament. I have a major problem with that …

  2. Declan Chellaron 23 May 2009 at

    Maybe it’s only a sin to rape a child if you are A) not a priest or a brother or B) wearing a condom at the time.

    Governments… I think politicians should be paid well, but should have to line up once a month to be birched by their constituents in order to remind them of the dangers of hubris. And that includes the clergy, they are just another political entity anyway.

  3. GODon 25 May 2009 at

    An interesting fact that might have escaped the attention of commentators is that there were no approved secular primary teacher training colleges in Ireland. Thus teacher training (funded by the dept of Education)was under the auspices of a teaching order and then after qualifiying appointments were in the gift of the local Parish priest (chairman of the school board). Training teachers to educate and develop thinking adults wasn’t in the curriculum then.

    PS.”religious organisations have no direct line to him and certainly receive no mandate from him.”

    You’re right of course!

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