Sex abuse in private schools
Previous reports into child abuse by clergy showed poor children were especially vulnerable. But the latest audit indicates that the middle classes were also at risk, writes CARL O'BRIEN
THEY ARE BASTIONS of privilege that for generations have taken in the sons of Catholic middle-class families and moulded them into the leaders of tomorrow. The Spiritan Congregation, formerly known as the the Holy Ghost Fathers, runs schools – including Blackrock College, St Michael’s, St Mary’s and Templeogue College in Dublin, and Rockwell College in Co Tipperary – that have produced lawyers, doctors, politicians, senior members of the judiciary and other members of the establishment.
For some people they are schools that have represented academic excellence, sporting endeavour and moral guardianship over the past century or more. For others they are schools that have bred a rock-solid certainty and confidence among students that to outsiders can seem like arrogance.
“Fearless and bold,” reads the title of a recent book celebrating Blackrock’s 150th anniversary. That reputation makes this week’s revelations of abuse at the schools all the more jarring.
Abuse reports to date have revealed how the poorest and most disadvantaged children were the most vulnerable to exploitation. But the audit by the child-protection watchdog of the Catholic Church, the National Board for Safeguarding Children, indicates that some of the most privileged in society were also at risk.
It states there were unacceptable failures over several decades to protect children from at least 47 alleged abusing Holy Ghost priests in its schools. In total, when they combed the files, they uncovered 142 allegations of abuse in the years leading up to 1994.
“There is evidence that there were serial abusers who worked in school communities in Ireland. They went undetected and unchecked giving them unmonitored access to children during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s,” it states.
Suspected abusers were often moved by the congregation, either within Ireland or abroad, provoking concern that other victims had yet to come forward.
“Children could have been spared if action was taken,” the report states.
But it wasn’t, and the current leadership of the congregation has to carry the responsibility for those failures, the report finds.
The scale of abuse involving individual priests makes for disturbing reading, but the most troubling aspect is the time it took to intervene. One prolific abuser, who abused children over the course of 13 years and was removed from ministry in 1995, was discovered to be contributing on a Catholic internet forum in 2011. Despite concerns raised about that priest within three years of the abuse starting, he continued to abuse children for a further 10 years.
Another priest who abused 28 children between 1968 and 1993 was removed from ministry only in 1996. He has since died.
This week’s report acknowledges, however, that significant progress has been made in boosting safeguarding measures. It says the current provincial leaders made “commendable” initiatives that showed a serious approach to accepting responsibility for past failures and to ensuring the future safety of children. But, it says, more measures are required.
The Spiritan Congregation apologised swiftly this week.
“What happened to these victims and their families is inexcusable,” said Fr Brian Starken, the order’s Irish provincial. “As a religious congregation we are filled with shame, but our shame cannot compare with the immense suffering and hurt experienced by victims and their loved ones.” Fr Starken said all the appropriate procedures and protections were now in place and the order was committed to another review within the next five years.
For victims of abuse, though, the apology isn’t nearly enough. Only when it actively seeks out other victims and provides support will the congregation be able to turn its words into action, according to one one abuse victim.
“The apology means nothing until then,” says Mark Vincent Healy, who was abused by a priest when he was a pupil at St Mary’s College at Rathmines, in Dublin, in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
He says he has been in contact with at least 30 other victims of abuse, and he suspects there are many more. “In the past there was an attempt to protect the reputation of the school at all cost. There was no consideration for the victims . . . [The congregation] must now reach out to all the people out there.”