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For Ireland’s Catholic Schools, a Catalog of Horrors

6 minute read
Bryan Coll / Belfast

James Quinn and his classmates called it the blackjack — five layers and 18 in. (46 cm) of leather, studded with coins and other metal objects. The priests at the school Quinn attended in rural Ireland in the 1950s each carried a blackjack and used it, along with bamboo rods and other objects, to dole out almost daily beatings to hundreds of children. “Whatever class you went to, you got a beating from whoever was in charge,” says Quinn, now 70. “But knowing what other people went through, I know I was one of the lucky ones.”

Quinn was one of more than 2,000 people to give evidence in a nine-year inquiry into child abuse at educational institutions, orphanages and hospitals run by Roman Catholic religious orders in Ireland from the 1930s to the 1990s. On Wednesday, May 20, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse released its findings. The five-volume, 2,600-page report is a catalog of horrors, describing “endemic sexual abuse” at boys’ institutions and the “daily terror” of physical abuse experienced by the estimated 30,000 Irish children who were sent to them.

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The report lists the sexual, physical and emotional abuse — including rape, molestation and severe beatings — inflicted on children in about 100 so-called industrial schools, most of which had closed by the 1970s. These were state-funded institutions run by Roman Catholic orders such as the Christian Brothers or Sisters of Mercy, to which orphans, truants, children of unmarried mothers and those with behavioral problems were typically sent.

Few children received any semblance of what would pass for an adequate education today. Instead, boys and girls spent much of their days in workshops, on farms or in laundries, providing free labor for the religious orders, which, in turn, received government payments for each child that was sent to school. “I was supposed to be sent to school for an education,” says Quinn, who spent hours each day repairing damaged clothes in a tailor’s shop. “But it was more like penal servitude.”

As well as documenting the most depraved acts committed by school staff, Justice Sean Ryan’s report condemns the culture of secrecy that prevailed in the institutions. Incidents of child abuse committed by members of religious orders were almost never reported to the police. Furthermore, priests who were known abusers were often transferred to other institutions, where they continued to abuse children.

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The report also criticizes the “deferential and submissive attitude” of the state toward the religious orders. It says inspections of the industrial schools carried out by the Irish Department of Education were inadequate and that despite claims by young people of mistreatment, the government continued to send children to the schools for decades. In some of the most shocking cases detailed in the report, boys who reported sexual abuse by priests or lay staff members were physically beaten for speaking out, while their abusers continued to work at the school.

“I’m delighted about the report,” says journalist and campaigner Mary Raftery. “For years, we were the lone voices. We lived through decades in this society where people just refused to believe that nuns and priests could behave in [this] way.” It was Raftery’s documentary film series States of Fear, broadcast on Irish television in 1999, that first brought allegations of systemic abuse in reform schools and other institutions to public attention and led to the creation of the child-abuse commission.

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Raftery believes that the exhaustive nature of the report explodes one of the most persistent myths surrounding child-abuse scandals in Ireland. Before now, incidents had largely been blamed on individual clergy. Ryan’s findings, however, reveal an entire system that was rotten at the core and showed scant regard for the welfare of the children placed in its care.

The Christian Brothers ran more industrial schools in Ireland than any other religious order. Indeed, for much of the 20th century, the group was responsible for providing primary and secondary education for the majority of Catholic boys in the country. The order has come under fire from campaigners like Raftery for allegedly blocking the work of the child-abuse commission. The inquiry was delayed for more than a year, after the Christian Brothers won a court case preventing members and former members from being named in the commission’s final report — including those who had already been convicted of abuse. “There was a very serious worry about injustices being done to [brothers] who were dead or to living people who were accused and who maintained their innocence,” says Brother Edmund Garvey, a spokesman for the order. “But there was no intention to obstruct or delay [the commission].”

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The damning indictment of the Christian Brothers in the report has raised questions about the order’s future — and that of other religious congregations in Ireland. In an increasingly secularized country, what place do religious orders have, now that their reputations are in tatters? “It is a major crisis for us from a public-perception point of view,” says Garvey. “There were people who believed they were doing the very best for these kids, but that was ruined by the unconscionable actions of a number of people. Is it irreparable damage? I would hope not, but there is a huge task of reconciliation and helping damaged people [repair] their lives.”

Child-abuse scandals involving priests are not new in Ireland. A series of high-profile pedophilia cases in the 1990s helped bring about the collapse of a government and, together with the country’s economic boom, severely diminished the Church’s long-held influence over Irish society. The findings of this most recent report, however, could drive that wedge deeper than ever before. “I don’t see how [the religious orders] can ever recover from this,” says Raftery. “Not just from the way they responded to the knowledge of abuse [but also] from their continuing cover-up of it over the last decade, when people were trying to get answers.”

For some victims’ groups, the battle to expose the truth has only just begun. Protesters outside the Dublin hotel where the report was presented to the media (victims and their families were not allowed to attend) said they would pursue their abusers in court and seek criminal prosecutions. To date, more than $193 million in compensation has been paid by the Irish government to victims of abuse in residential institutions.

Former industrial-school resident Quinn says he didn’t speak to anyone about his experiences for more than 30 years. It was only after the first wave of scandals broke in the ’90s that he felt able to tell his story. “Years ago, if I had mentioned to anyone here what had happened, no one would have believed me,” he says. “Everyone here thought that whatever a priest or a brother said was the gospel truth. It’s only since all of this blew up that people started saying to me, ‘Did that really happen in the schools?’ Now I can turn round and say, ‘Yes, it did.’ ”

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