The savage reality of our darkest days

Thu, May 21, 2009, 01:00

THE REPORT of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is the map of an Irish hell. It defines the contours of a dark hinterland of the State, a parallel country whose existence we have long known but never fully acknowledged. It is a land of pain and shame, of savage cruelty and callous indifference.

The instinct to turn away from it, repelled by its profoundly unsettling ugliness, is almost irresistible. We owe it, though, to those who have suffered there to acknowledge from now on that it is an inescapable part of Irish reality. We have to deal with the now-established fact that, alongside the warmth and intimacy, the kindness and generosity of Irish life, there was, for most of the history of the State, a deliberately maintained structure of vile and vicious abuse.

Mr Justice Ryan’s report does not suggest that this abuse was as bad as most of us suspected. It shows that it was worse. It may indeed have been even worse than the report actually finds – there are indications that “the level of sexual abuse in boys’ institutions was much higher than was revealed by the records or could be discovered by this investigation”.

With a calm but relentless accumulation of facts, the report blows away all the denials and obfuscations, all the moral equivocations and evasions that we have heard from some of the religious orders and their apologists. The sheer scale and longevity of the torment inflicted on defenceless children – over 800 known abusers in over 200 institutions during a period of 35 years – should alone make it clear that it was not accidental or opportunistic but systematic.

Violence and neglect were not the result of underfunding – the large institutions, where the worst abuse was inflicted, were “well-resourced”. The failure of the religious orders to stop these crimes did not result from ignorance. The recidivist nature of child sexual abusers was understood by the Brothers, who nonetheless continued deliberately to place known offenders in charge of children, both in industrial schools and in ordinary primary schools. At best, this represented what the report calls “a callous disregard for the safety of children”. At worst, it was an active protection of, and thus collusion with, the perpetrators of appalling crimes.

Nor did the abuse continue because of secrecy. Again, the very scale of the violence made it impossible to keep it sealed off from either officialdom or society at large. Contemporary complaints were made to the Garda, to the Department of Education, to health boards, to priests and to members of the public. The department, “deferential and submissive” to the religious congregations, did not shout stop. Neither did anyone else. Indeed, perhaps the most shocking finding of the commission is that industrial school inmates were often sexually exploited by those outside the closed world of the congregations, by “volunteer workers, visitors, work placement employees, foster parents” and by those who took them out for holidays or to work.

The key to understanding these attitudes is surely to realise that abuse was not a failure of the system. It was the system. Terror was both the point of these institutions and their standard operating procedure. Their function in Irish society was to impose social control, particularly on the poor, by acting as a threat. Without the horror of an institution like Letterfrack, it could not fulfil that function. Within the institutions, terror was systematic and deliberate. It was a methodology handed down through “successive generations of Brothers, priests and nuns”.

There is a nightmarish quality to this systemic malice, reminiscent of authoritarian regimes. We read of children “flogged, kicked . . . scalded, burned and held under water”. We read of deliberate psychological torment inflicted through humiliation, expressions of contempt and the practice of incorrectly telling children that their parents were dead. We read of returned absconders having their heads shaved and of “ritualised” floggings in one institution.

We have to call this kind of abuse by its proper name – torture. We must also call the organised exploitation of unpaid child labour – young girls placed in charge of babies “on a 24-hour basis” or working under conditions of “great suffering” in the rosary bead industry; young boys doing work that gave them no training but made money for the religious orders – by its proper name: slavery. It demands a very painful adjustment of our notions of the nature of the State to accept that it helped to inflict torture and slavery on tens of thousands of children. In the light of the commission’s report, however, we can no longer take comfort in evasions.

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Almost unbearable though it may be, it is important that everyone who can do so should read and absorb this report. We owe that especially to those victims who first broke the silence on the RTÉ documentaries Dear Daughterand States of Fearand to those who came forward to tell their stories to the commission. It is to be hoped that, in spite of the failure of the religious congregations to take full responsibility for what happened, those who have suffered have found some comfort in that process and in a report of such unflinching lucidity.

Most importantly, though, we owe it to all who are vulnerable in today’s Irish society. For their sakes, we need to know what happens when institutions acquire absolute power over defenceless people and when the State and society come to believe that it is better to collude in crimes than to challenge cherished beliefs. Mr Justice Ryan suggests the erection of a monument to the victims of abuse with the words of the State’s 1999 apology inscribed on it. That should happen, but the real monument will be that we inscribe on our collective consciousness as a society the two words “Never again”.