PATSY McGARRY, Religious Affairs Correspondent
Sexual abuse was “endemic” in State-run institutions for boys and children lived in “daily terror” of being beaten over more than five decades, the long-awaited Commission into Child Abuse report has found.
The report, that runs to thousands of pages, outlined a harrowing account of the emotional, physical and sexual abuse inflicted on young people who attended schools and institutions from 1940 onwards.
It found that corporal punishment was “pervasive, severe, arbitrary and unpredictable” in the institutions where “children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from.”
The report said that the level of emotional abuse of disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children by religious and lay staff was “disturbing” and that the Catholic Church was aware long-term sex offenders were repeatedly abusing children.
There were angry scenes at the launch of the report in Dublin’s Conrad Hotel this afternoon when some victims were refused admission. Reacting to the report, victims’ group One in Four said it was a “shameful day for Ireland”.
The report is a devastating indictment of Church and State authorities when it came to their exercise of responsibility for the care of children in the Republic of Ireland throughout most of the 20th century.
The Commission, set up in May 2000, heard evidence from almost 2,000 people who spent their childhood in 216 institutions in the Republic, mainly in the decades between 1940 and the mid-1980s. However it also heard evidence from some people going back as far as 1914 and up to 2000.
Sexual abuse was “endemic in boys institutions”, involving such abuse by some staff members and some older boys. Sexual abuse “was not systematic in girls’ schools”, though girls were subjected to predatory sexual abuse by male employees (of the institutions) or visitors or in outside placements.
Among the boys’ industrial schools investigated in detail by the Commission were Artane in Dublin , Letterfrack in Galway, St Joseph ‘s in Salthill Co Galway and St Joseph ‘s in Tralee Co Kerry, which were all run by the Christian Brothers.
Also investigated was the boys’ reformatory at Daingean, Co Offaly, run by the Oblate fathers, as well as industrial schools at Ferryhouse, Co Tipperary and at Upton, Co Cork run by the Rosminian fathers, and Greenmount industrial school in Cork , run by the Presentation Brothers.
Where girls’ institutions were concerned it investigated Goldenbridge industrial school in Dublin, St Joseph’s in Clifden Co Galway, St Michael’s at Cappoquin, Co Waterford and St Joseph’s in Dundalk Co Louth, all of which were run by the Sisters of Mercy.
It also investigated St Patrick’s girls’ industrial school in Kilkenny which was run by the Sisters of Charity.
Where all such institutions were concerned the Commission found that “children were frequently hungry, food was inadequate, inedible and badly prepared in many schools.” Clothing was “a particular problem in boys’ schools where children often worked for long hours outdoors on farms. In addition, boys were often left in their soiled and wet clothes throughout the day and wore them for long periods.”
But where all were concerned, “in all schools up until the 1960s clothes stigmatized the children as industrial school residents.” Accommodation in the institutions was “cold, spartan and bleak” with sanitary provision “primitive” in most boys’ schools particularly.
Academic education “was not seen as a priority for industrials school children” and “in reality, the industrial training afforded by all schools was of a nature that served the needs of the institution rather than the needs of the child.”
A finding which the Commission said was “a disturbing element” of the evidence presented before it, was “`the level of emotional abuse that disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children were subjected to generally by religious and lay staff” at the institutions.
Witnessing such abuse of other children, as well as witnessing beatings, “had a powerful and distressing impact” on children.
Separation of siblings and restrictions on family contacts “were profoundly damaging for family relationships.” It meant that “some children lost their sense of identity and kinship, which was never recovered.”
In addition to the conclusions above the Commission found that “schools were run in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even staff.”
The system of institutionalisation in Ireland at the time was “a response to a 19th century social problem, which was outdated and incapable of meeting the needs of individual children.”
The defects of the system “were exacerbated by the way it was operated by the (religious) congregations.”
It also found that “the capital and financial commitment made by the religious was a major factor in prolonging the system” while “the system of funding through capitation grants led to demands by managers (of the institutions) for children to be committed to industrial schools for reasons of economic viability of the institutions.”
By contrast it found that in England , from the mid-1920s on, “smaller, or family-like settings” were set up and were seen to provide better care for children in need. The Commission noted how, despite these advances in England , “in Ireland , however, the industrial school system thrived.”
Where the Department of Education was concerned the Commission found that its “deferential and submissive attitude” towards the religious congregations “compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspections and monitoring of the schools.”
The institutions were also “accorded a low status within the Department” which “generally saw itself as facilitating the congregations and the resident managers (of the institutions).” It found that the system of inspection of the institutions by the Department of Education “was fundamentally flawed and incapable of being effective.”
Noting that “many witnesses who complained of abuse nevertheless expressed some positive memories” and that “small gestures of kindness were vividly recalled”, the Commission’s final conclusion was that “more kindness and humanity would have gone a long way to make up for poor standards of care” in the institutions.
Speaking at the launch of the report today, the head of the commision, Mr Justice Sean Ryan, said: “For all that the report tries to do, it does not try to balance what happened to children in institutions against what might have become of them if they had not been taken into care in the first place.”
“When you take people into a State-regulated, statutory systems of care, whether it is right or wrong to subject them to such detention, you owe them a duty to take proper care of them and it cannot be an answer to a complaint about abuse or inadequate care that the people would have been worse off if you had not taken them in.”
He also said all parties had co-operated with the commission in its investigation and singled out in particular among the religious congregations, the Rosminians for praise who operated industrial schools at Upton in Cork and Ferryhouse in Tipperary.
He said the Rosminian congregation accepted responsibility for the abuse in their institutions but they did not stop at that point. Their attitude was to seek to understand the abuse whereas other congregations tried to explain it.