Physical, emotional and sexual abuse was widespread in State institutions

Thu, May 21, 2009, 01:00

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 Abusehas 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 commission, chaired by Mr Justice Seán Ryan, heard evidence in private from 1,090 men and women who reported being abused as children in Irish institutions. The abuse related to 216 different schools, homes, hospitals and fostercare situations, though the vast majority of abuse was reported in industrial schools and reformatories.

The abuse dated back to as early as 1914 and as late as 2000, but the vast majority of reports covered the period from 1930 to 1990.

More than 800 individuals were identified as having carried out physical or sexual abuse of children during this period. More than 90 per cent of witnesses said they had been physically abused.

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. The department is criticised for carrying out inspections that were too few and too limited in scope. It also lacked ideas about policy and never thought about changing the system, the report states.

Its failures can be seen as “tacit acknowledgment” by the State of the ascendancy of the congregations and their ownership of the system, it says.

The report says the reformatory and industrial school system was based on a Victorian model of childcare that failed to adapt to 20th-century conditions and did not prioritise the needs of children.

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.

The commission has used pseudonyms for all those making complaints and those accused of abuse, even where the latter were convicted in the courts.

Eight chapters in the report are devoted to the Christian Brothers, the largest provider of residential care for boys in the State. More allegations were made against the Christian Brothers than all other male orders combined.

The commission says the Christian Brothers acknowledged that some abuse had taken place but failed to accept responsibility as a congregation for this abuse. While it co-operated with the commission by making documents available, the order was “defensive” in the way it responded to complaints, according to the report.

In the best-known Christian Brothers industrial school, at Artane in Dublin, the physical punishment of boys was “excessive and pervasive”. Artane, which was four times the size of any other industrial school, also suffered a “chronic” problem of sexual abuse, the report states. Complaints were not handled properly and the steps taken by the Christian Brothers to avoid scandal and publicity, protected the perpetrators of abuse. The safety of children was not a priority at any time.

Letterfrack, “an inhospitable, bleak, isolated institution” in Co Galway, also run by the Christian Brothers, suffered similar problems. Physical punishment was severe, excessive and pervasive. The report says the order could offer no explanation why two of its brothers remained for up to 14 years on the staff without being detected and reported.

In another reformatory, in Daingean, Co Offaly, the physical abuse of boys was extreme, including floggings or ritualised beatings for even minor transgressions, and a gangland culture with a sexual aspect.