Harrowing Irish church abuse revealed

Last updated 00:00 21/05/2009
CATHOLIC GUILT: An investigation into Ireland's Roman Catholic-run institutions says priests and nuns terrorised thousands of boys and girls in workhouse-style schools for decades.

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For decades, thousands of Irish children suffered soul-crushing lives of forced labour, beatings and molestation in spartan institutions run by Roman Catholic religious orders.

Campaigners for the abused believe that a measure of justice may finally be arriving - despite the church's best efforts to keep the past a secret.

The Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse is publishing a 2575-page report after a nine-year investigation repeatedly delayed by church lawsuits, missing documentation and alleged government obstruction.

Its experts have sought to produce a comprehensive portrait of sexual, physical and emotional damage inflicted on children consigned to the country's defunct network of reformatories, workhouses, orphanages and other church-run institutions from the 1930s to 1990s.

Most of the children were ordered into church care because of school truancy, petty crimes or because they were the offspring of unwed mothers. Many faced regimes of terror involving ritual beatings and intimidation. But until the investigation came along, thousands of survivors said they had nowhere safe to tell their stories - because swathes of Irish Catholic society sought to label them liars.

Some of those victims say they feel hopeful now that vindication might be at hand.

Christine Buckley, who was one of the first to break silence in the early 1990s on the church's institutional abuse of children, said the report's verdict on church and government failings should demonstrate "whether the journey for justice, undertaken by so many and for so long, has at last been successful."

She, like many campaigners, said it was critical that the truth of their brutal childhoods be placed indisputably on the public record after decades of dispute from the religious orders - principally the Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy nuns - that ran Ireland's 19th century-era industrial schools and other state-funded refuges for Ireland's most vulnerable children. Most closed in the 1970s.

Typically, children at such facilities stopped receiving any formal education by age 12. But they kept generating income for the religious orders through their teens with their mandatory, unpaid labour on farms, in laundries and as domestic cleaners.

In Buckley's case, she was consigned to a Dublin orphanage in the late 1950s because she was the child of a single Irish mother and Nigerian father; children born out of wedlock typically were placed for adoption or into state care. All the girls at her former Sisters of Mercy-run home, Goldenbridge, were expected to manufacture 60 rosary necklaces a day or suffer humiliation or beatings.

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Officials of the Sisters of Mercy, Christian Brothers and more than a dozen other orders implicated in sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children all testified to the commission. None was willing to comment this week in advance of the report's unveiling.

During the commission's investigations, oral evidence was collected from more than 1000 people chiefly in their 50s to 70s - several hundred of whom traveled back to Ireland from as far away as the United States and Australia - who described childhoods of terror and intimidation.

The Christian Brothers delayed the investigation for more than a year with a lawsuit that successfully defended their members' right to anonymity in all references in the report - even in cases where individual Christian Brothers have already been convicted of sexual and physical attacks on children.

The Catholic Church's practice of protecting the sexual predators in their parishes and schools, rather than the children who suffered at their hands, has fanned several waves of outrage in once-devout Ireland starting in the mid-1990s.

The damage done to the church's reputation here has exceeded, in scope and political impact, even what happened in the United States, which suffered its own wave of abuse-coverup scandals in the past decade.

Ireland's first major paedophile-priest scandal, in 1994, triggered the collapse of a government. In 1999 former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern issued an apology for the state's failure over decades to defend children's rights in church-run facilities.

Ahern established both the fact-finding commission and a panel that has already paid out damages averaging nearly euro65,000 each to 12,000 abuse victims. The taxpayer, not the church, has footed most of that bill.

"The depth and duration of the abuse endured by our children in these institutions beggars belief," said Maeve Lewis, executive director of an abuse-victims support group called One in Four.

AP

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