Report Details Abuses in Irish Reformatories

By Sarah Lyall (NY Times)
May 21, 2009

Tens of thousands of Irish children were sexually, physically and emotionally abused by nuns, priests and others over 60 years in a network of church-run residential schools meant to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unwanted, according to a report released in Dublin on Wednesday.

The 2,600-page report paints a picture of institutions run more like Dickensian orphanages than 20th-century schools, characterized by privation and cruelty that could be both casual and choreographed.

"A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions," the report says. In the boys' schools, it says, sexual abuse was "endemic."

The report, by a state-appointed commission, took nine years to produce and was meant to help Ireland face and move on from one of the ugliest aspects of its recent history. But it has infuriated many victims' groups because it does not name any of the hundreds of individuals accused of abuse and thus cannot be used as a basis for prosecutions.

It was delayed because of a lawsuit brought by the Christian Brothers, the religious order that ran many of the boys' schools and that fought, ultimately successfully, to have the abusers' names omitted. In 2003, the commission's first chairwoman resigned, saying that Ireland's Department of Education had refused to release crucial documents. The report covers a period from the 1930s to the 1990s, when the last of the institutions closed.

It exposes for the first time the scope of the problem in Ireland, as well as how the government and the church colluded in perpetuating an abusive system. The revelations have also had the effect of stripping the Catholic Church, which once set the agenda in Ireland, of much of its moral authority and political power.

The report singles out Ireland's Department of Education, meant to regulate the schools, for running "toothless" inspections that overlooked glaring problems and deferred to church authority.

The report is based in part on old church records of unreported abuse cases and in part on the anonymous testimony of 1,060 former students from a variety of 216 mostly church-run institutions, including reformatories and so-called industrial schools, set up to tend to neglected, orphaned or abandoned children.

Most of the former students are now 50 to 80 years old.

Some 30,000 children were sent to such places over six decades, the report says, often against their families' wishes and because of pressure from powerful local priests. They were sent because their families could not afford to care for them, because their mothers had committed adultery or given birth out of wedlock, or because one or both of their parents was ill, drunken or abusive. They were also sent because of petty crime, like stealing food, or because they had missed school.

Many of the former students said that they had not learned their own identities until decades later. They also said that their parents had unsuccessfully tried to reclaim them from the state.

In a litany that sounds as if it comes from the records of a P.O.W. camp, the report chronicles some of the forms of physical abuse suffered in the boys' schools:

"Punching, flogging, assault and bodily attacks, hitting with the hand, kicking, ear pulling, hair pulling, head shaving, beating on the soles of the feet, burning, scalding, stabbing, severe beatings with or without clothes, being made to kneel and stand in fixed positions for lengthy periods, made to sleep outside overnight, being forced into cold or excessively hot baths and showers, hosed down with cold water before being beaten, beaten while hanging from hooks on the wall, being set upon by dogs, being restrained in order to be beaten, physical assaults by more than one person, and having objects thrown at them."

Some of the schools operated essentially as workhouses. In one school, Goldenbridge, girls as young as 7 spent hours a day making rosaries by stringing beads onto lengths of wire. They were given quotas: 600 beads on weekdays and 900 on Sundays.

Girls were routinely sexually abused, often by more than one person at a time, the report said, in "dormitories, schools, motor vehicles, bathrooms, staff bedrooms, churches, sacristies, fields, parlors, the residences of clergy, holiday locations and while with godparents and employers."

The Vatican had no response. But leaders of various religious orders — who often argued during the investigations that the abuse was a relic of another time, reflecting past societal standards — issued abject apologies on Wednesday, taking care to frame the problem as something that is now behind them.

Cardinal Sean Brady, the Catholic primate of All Ireland, said in a statement that he was "profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed," adding, "I hope the publication of today's report will help heal the hurts of victims and address the wrongs of the past."

David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, a group based in St. Louis, said that while the report had failed in its duty to bring the perpetrators to justice, it had been clear about the failings of the church.

"While horrific, widespread reports of abuse and cover-up are sadly quite common, the significance here is that a government panel is conclusively saying that the finger-pointing and blame-shifting and excuse-making of the church hierarchy is bogus," he said in an interview.

The commission was formed in 2000, after an explosive series of radio programs and documentaries in the 1990s began exposing a terrible secret that had been kept by an entire society: the details of what went on in the children's homes. In 1999, Bertie Ahern, then the prime minister, issued a blanket apology to the victims of the abuse.

Since then, the accusations and the question of justice have been a preoccupation across Ireland and among Irish emigrants around the world. In 2002, the Catholic Church in Ireland agreed to pay $175 million to compensate victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy. A separate group has paid out some $1.5 billion so far to more than 10,000 people who have claimed they were abused in state and church-run institutions.

Terence McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, an American group that maintains an Internet archive of material related to Catholic abuse, said that the report had failed by not going far enough.

"The report is significant in that it provides a detailed anatomy of how the abuse occurred and the institutions in which it occurred," he said in an interview. "The problem is that you spend almost 10 years and who knows how much money, and you never get to the point of saying who was responsible."