This is a heartbreaking story.
Even worse than the physical abuse, even worse than the misplaced trust in those who were supposed to be most caring, even worse than the official indifference and efforts to avoid accountability, was the effort to break a person’s soul and spirit through humiliation.
It is difficult to say that some things could be worse than sexual abuse or rape, which is a terrible crime. But, in this case, there are examples to sustain such an argument.
The crushing of the personalities, of the identities, of these children was systematic and thorough.
They were put into Purgatory, if not Hell, on earth. From news reports published in recent years, as the inquiry dragged on, it seems that it was even worse for the girls than for the boys — though the girls endured less sexual abuse, it was their spirits and personalities, and their gender identity, which were relentlessly attacked — and they were all tortured.
The stories, recounted sporadically in the press, cut off one’s breath. Over 1,090 victims gave testimony.
It took nine years, but finally, a long-avoided and long-awaited report was released today in Ireland: “unveiled by High Court Justice Sean Ryan, [it] found that molestation and rape were ‘endemic’ in boys’ facilities, chiefly run by the Christian Brothers, and supervisors pursued policies that increased the danger. Girls supervised by orders of nuns, chiefly the Sisters of Mercy, suffered much less sexual abuse but frequent assaults and humiliation designed to make them feel worthless”
According to a report by the Associated Press, “Wednesday’s 2,600-page report sides almost completely with the horrific reports of abuse from former students sent to more than 250 church-run, mostly residential institutions“.
John Kelly, a former inmate of a Dublin industrial school who fled to London and today leads a pressure group called Irish Survivors of Child Abuse, said that “Victims will feel a small degree of comfort that they’ve been vindicated. But the findings do not go far enough”.
The AP reported that “Irish church leaders and religious orders all declined to comment Wednesday, citing the need to read the massive document first. The Vatican also declined to comment. The Irish government already has funded a parallel compensation system that has paid 12,000 abuse victims an average of 65,000 euros ($90,000). About 2,000 claims remain outstanding. Victims receive the payouts only if they waive their rights to sue the state and the church. Hundreds have rejected that condition and taken their abusers and those church employers to court. Wednesday’s report said children had no safe way to tell authorities about the assaults they were suffering, particularly the sexual aggression from church officials and older inmates in boys’ institutions. ‘The management did not listen to or believe children when they complained of the activities of some of the men who had responsibility for their care’, the commission found. ‘At best, the abusers were moved, but nothing was done about the harm done to the child. At worst, the child was blamed and seen as corrupted by the sexual activity, and was punished severely’ … [T]he commission said its fact-finding — which included unearthing decades-old church files, chiefly stored in the Vatican, on scores of unreported abuse cases from Ireland’s industrial schools — demonstrated that officials understood exactly what was at stake: their own reputations”.
More information is available on the internet here.
This AP report can be read in full here.
The BBC reported that “The commission said overwhelming, consistent testimony from still-traumatized men and women, now in their 50s to 80s, had demonstrated beyond a doubt that the entire system treated children more like prison inmates and slaves than people with legal rights and human potential”. According to the BBC, the Irish report said that “The reformatory and industrial schools depended on rigid control by means of severe corporal punishment and the fear of such punishment … It was systemic and not the result of individual breaches by persons who operated outside lawful and acceptable boundaries”. The BBC story can be viewed in full here.
The religious correspondent of The Times of London (many in Britain are prejudiced against the Irish, particularly because they are mainly Catholic) wrote, quoting from the report “ ‘A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys’, says the report. ‘Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from’. The authorities failed repeatedly to do anything effective about the systemic abuse of children. Many of these poor children were in the care of the Catholic Church in the first place – mostly the Christian Brothers for boys and Sisters of Mercy for girls – only because of truancy or petty crime, or because they were unmarried mothers or their infants”. This article can be read in full here.
What happened to these children in Irish custodial care is one of the major historical crimes and tragedies on this earth. It ranks right up there with a number of better-known horrors. And it deserves full and sober attention, so that it will never happen again.
Sometimes — and what happened to these children is one of these times — it is a horror to be alive. But, for whatever reason, the Creator wills an imperative to live. For these children, living was immensely cruel.
The writer in The Times of London used the “H” word — though with a lower-case letter [a word which we in Israel of course know we cannot use except in reference to one particular historical genocide, or Shoah, during the Second World War], saying: “It would be no exaggeration to call this a holocaust of abuse. Time after time, victims complained, even though in most cases merely speaking out constituted an immense act of courage. And time after time, Catholic priests, monks and nuns claimed the accusations were lies”. Again, this article is available online here.
The Irish Times wrote that “Physical, emotional and sexual abuse was ‘endemic’ in institutions run by the religious congregations throughout the 20th century, blighting the lives of thousands of victims, the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse has found. The Department of Education failed to carry out proper inspections and disregarded the violence within the industrial school system for which it was responsible, according to the five-volume report published yesterday. The department’s deferential and submissive attitude toward the religious congregations impeded change and compromised its ability to carry out its duty to monitor the schools where abuse was rife, the report says. It accuses religious authorities of a ‘culture of silence’ for seldom bringing sexual abuse by members of orders to the department’s attention. Religious congregations were not prepared to accept responsibility for the sexual abuse carried out by their members, and did not listen to or believe people who complained of sexual abuse.
The report makes 21 recommendations, starting with a proposal to erect a memorial to victims of abuse in institutions. It says the State should admit that abuse of children occurred because of policy, systems and management failures, and should take steps to learn lessons from the past.
Religious orders need to examine how their ideals became debased by systemic abuse, and how they tolerated breaches of their own rules. The report also calls for the provision of counselling and family tracing services, and stresses the need for a childcare policy that is child-centred. ‘In addition to being hit and beaten, witnesses described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked and otherwise physically assaulted, scalded, burned and held under water’. Witnesses told of being beaten in front of other staff and pupils and in private. The abuse was carried out by religious and lay staff, older residents and others associated with the schools and institutions, and the many reports of injuries include broken bones, lacerations and bruising. More than 500 witnesses said they had been sexually abused. ‘Acute and chronic contact and non-contact sexual abuse was reported, including vaginal and anal rape, molestation and voyeurism in both isolated assaults and on a regular basis over long periods of time’. Witnesses also reported widespread neglect and emotional abuse. Some were incorrectly told their parents were dead and were given false information about their siblings and family members. These people told the commission this had a devastating emotional impact on them. Witnesses believed awareness of the abuse taking place existed within society, both officially and unofficially. At times, protective action was taken following complaints being made but, in other instances, complaints were ignored, witnesses were punished or pressure was brought to bear on a child or family to remain silent. The report sets out the devastating impact of the abuse on many victims, with lives marked by poverty, social isolation, alcoholism, mental illness, sleep disturbance, aggressive behaviour and self-harm. One-third of witnesses reported a variety of mental problems [this is a tribute to human resiliancy — the World Health Organization estimates that 25% of the general population has mental health problems] … Children were committed to institutions by the courts using procedures with the trappings of the criminal law, and the authorities were unwilling to address the failings in the system”. This account can be read in full here.
Another story in the Irish Times reported that “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”. This account can be read in full here.
A transcript of one of the public hearings of the inquiry revealed that most institutions to which these children were sent had no hot water until 1973. Another transcript revealed how the children were flogged repeatedly, and mercilessly, mostly at night, and on their “bare bottoms”. There is much, much more. And, what happened to the boys was a horror, but what happened to the girls was, if possible, worse.
A writer at the Irish Independent noted that the mechanism by which society contrived this utter and unconscionable betrayal of innocent children remained obscured: “Setting aside everything done to the children during their incarceration, nothing was as terrible or alarming as the events which led so many of them to lose their liberty by being placed in the hands of the gardai and taken away to what were child prisons, there to serve terms of up to 14 years. The children were not represented in the courts. Their circumstances were not properly investigated. They were, as the founder of the Legion of Mary, Frank Duff, asserted in a letter to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, ‘shovelled into the industrial schools’.’ This analysis can be read in full here.