Why are revelations of past abuse in boarding schools only emerging now?

‘I think there is a reluctance because of the uncomfortable truths it would open up’

Decades after much of the abuse took place, and with many of those accused dead, Ireland is moving finally towards a more comprehensive reckoning with the allegations wracking prestigious boarding schools.

But with further revelations emerging by the day, questions remain about why exactly it has taken so long to reach this point.

More than 15 years ago, the Catholic Church set up an internal watchdog to hold dioceses and religious congregations to account when it came to child protection in response to what became a tidal wave of child sex abuse allegations.

The National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCC) at times clashed with religious authorities in its efforts to investigate past failings.


Over the guts of a decade, the board conducted reviews into all 26 Catholic dioceses on the island of Ireland and also investigated all 138 religious congregations.

Despite publishing audits criticising how religious orders who ran many schools handled allegations of child sex abuse, the reports did not spark any wider public reckoning, particularly among prestigious fee-paying boarding schools, such as Blackrock College.

In respect of the Spiritans, who ran the south Dublin school, as well as Willow Park, Rockwell College, St Michael’s and St Mary’s, a 2012 audit states the board found evidence “that there were serial abusers who worked in school communities”.

It states these abusers went “undetected and unchecked giving them unmonitored access to children during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s”, with the audit criticising the failure of the religious congregation to keep children safe.

Why then has the flood of allegations about past abuse in Spiritan schools only emerged following a recent RTÉ radio documentary, featuring two brothers who were both sexually abused in Blackrock College?

Ian Elliott, a prominent child protection expert who was the first chief executive of the NBSCCC, said the audits had been limited in what they could state publicly.

The first audits that the national board introduced were resisted by many and we had to fight hard to get them accepted

—  Ian Elliott

As a non-statutory body, the reports were not able to identify known abusers by name, or even the schools they worked in, where they were alleged to have molested children.

As a result, there was a degree of separation between the criticism of the religious congregations in the audits, and the schools they ran where the abuse took place.

“The first audits that the national board introduced were resisted by many and we had to fight hard to get them accepted,” Mr Elliott said.

“For abuse in schools to be included, the alleged perpetrator had to be a priest or religious. In my experience, each religious body had a different attitude to the process of review,” he said.

Some of the religious bodies were “more open than others” when it came to co-operating with audits, he said.

Mr Elliott has said he would support calls from survivors and politicians for an independent inquiry with legal powers to investigate the alleged abuse in Spiritan schools.

“If voluntary reviews were sufficient to tell the story completely, we would not be in the position we are in now. This is a story that needs to be told for several reasons, as well as bringing some closure to survivors,” he said.

The Government has said it is considering what form a potential inquiry would take. It is understood high-level meetings have taken place on the issue in recent days, discussing how the inquiry might work, and possible options for who might lead the work.

There is concern from some corners in Government that there would be a difficulty in limiting the scope of any statutory investigation that was set up.

Since the allegations of past abuse in Blackrock have been aired, survivors of alleged child sex abuse in other boarding schools have come forward.

Tom Maher (59), a past pupil in Castleknock College, has alleged he was sexually abused by a priest at the fee-paying school in west Dublin during the 1970s.

The Vincentians, who ran Castleknock College and St Paul’s College, have disclosed the congregation has to date received 48 reports of its members allegedly abusing children.

A number of men who spoke to The Irish Times in recent days detailed alleged sexual and physical abuse at the hands of priests in Moate College, a boarding school for boys run by the Carmelites in Co Westmeath.

The Carmelites, who also run Terenure College, confirmed 56 people had reported being allegedly sexually abused by its members.

The Dominican Order said it had received 97 complaints of alleged child sexual abuse, a large number of which related to Newbridge College, a boys boarding school it ran in Co Kildare.

The Franciscan Province of Ireland confirmed it had received 124 allegations of sexual abuse of children made against 26 friars.

The Diocese of Meath, which ran St Finian’s College, previously a boarding school in Mullingar, said it had received one allegation of child sexual abuse from a past pupil related to the 1950s.

Many survivors across a number of boarding schools spoke to The Irish Times about their disbelief that it had taken this long for the lid to blow on past abuse in prestigious schools.

In some cases the abuse has been known about for decades, following criminal convictions in the courts.

Fr Ronald Bennett, a Franciscan, was convicted in 2006 of abusing boys in its fee-paying boarding school, Gormanston College, Co Meath.

Former principal of Dominican-run Newbridge College, Fr Vincent Mercer, was convicted in 2005 of sexually abusing boys in the school during the 1970s.

The fact that we haven’t given more attention to abuse within the school system is staggering

—  Colm O'Gorman

In Spiritan schools, Fr Henry Moloney was convicted in 2000 and 2009 for abusing boys in St Mary’s, and in 2015 for abuse at Rockwell College.

The priest had been moved between St Mary’s, Blackrock and Rockwell, until he was removed from ministry in 1996.

Even as recently as last year, the Jesuits made a public apology over a previous failure to act on allegations Fr Joseph Marmion was sexually and physically abusing pupils as a teacher in Belvedere College in the 1970s.

The religious congregation has set up a redress scheme for past pupils who suffered abuse, in recent days stating it had received 149 allegations of abuse against 43 of its priests.

“The fact that we haven’t given more attention to abuse within the school system is staggering,” according to Colm O’Gorman, survivor of clerical sexual abuse and founder and former director of One in Four.

Previous inquiries, such as the 2005 report on clerical abuse in the Ferns diocese, and the 2009 Murphy report on abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese, had highlighted how abusers “used access to schools” to find victims, he said.

While the Ryan report investigated abuse in industrial schools, orphanages and reformatories, there has never been a dedicated statutory investigation into abuse in other schools, he said.

Mr O’Gorman, who was abused by Fr Seán Fortune and has for decades campaigned for survivors of clerical sex abuse, said many survivors of abuse in boarding schools had come forward years ago.

“Victims went to the guards, they went to lawyers, they went to the courts,” he said. “When people take civil actions, they think they are going to get their day in court, but often that’s not how it works. You are told you have to take this cheque,” he said.

More than €20 million has been paid out by religious orders to settle civil cases taken by survivors over recent decades, between the Spiritans, the Jesuits, the Vincentians, the Dominicans, the Carmelites and the Franciscans.

The State had been put on notice about past abuse in schools, but for decades had failed to take any action to investigate it properly, Mr O’Gorman said. “I think there is a reluctance because of the uncomfortable truths it would open up,” he said.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times