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Blackrock College abuse: ‘Code of omerta’ finally shattered by brothers’ bravery

Many former pupils who came forward to tell their stories have asked not to be named

It is a bastion of privilege that for generations has taken in sons of Catholic middle-class families and moulded them into the leaders of tomorrow. “Fearless and bold” goes the Blackrock College anthem, a school founded by the Holy Ghost Fathers – now known as the Spiritans – more than 150 years ago. The school prides itself on its record of academic excellence, sporting endeavour and moral guardianship – but this week it has been confronting the darkest chapter of its history.

New revelations of child sexual abuse have tumbled into the open, prompted by a radio documentary that told in jolting detail of two brothers, Mark and David Ryan, who were sexually abused by priests at the school in the 1970s, unbeknown to each other. In the days following its broadcast, more victims shared harrowing experiences of abuse at the school during the 1970s and 1980s, and at other Spiritan-run schools such as Templeogue College in Dublin and Rockwell College in Co Tipperary.

At least 233 men have made allegations of abuse against 77 Irish priests from the Spiritans, some of whom were serial abusers and had unchecked access to children during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The abuse, say survivors, has left a trail of shattered lives scarred by depression, addiction and, in some cases, suicide.

What is remarkable about the story is that it has emerged at all.


Even as this newspaper reported in 2012 of abuses by priests at other Spiritan-run schools such as St Mary’s College Rathmines in Dublin, Rockwell College in Co Tipperary and others, there was silence from Blackrock.

Yet, as we now know, 57 men have alleged that they were abused as boys on the campus of the Dublin school.

Such is the power of the “Rock” brand and the loyalty it generates that even those men who were so violently physically and sexually abused while students there did not, until this week, risk being seen to betray it. There was also the shame that it was them, not others, who were chosen by abusers, particularly in such a macho culture as a boys’ boarding school.

This week most of the men who came forward to tell their stories preferred not to be named. It is also a question of protecting now elderly parents who, frequently, scrimped and saved to give their sons what they believed was the best start in life.

‘All about class’

Prof Tom Inglis, a sociologist and author of Moral Monopoly: the Rise and Fall of the Catholic Church in Modern Ireland, says the silence is “all about class”.

“This would not be such big news if it happened in a CBS school down the country but this is a school of so many leaders, celebrities and public figures. There is a sense that they have been contaminated,” he says.

“It’s the idea of, ‘how could this happen to one of our boys from a respectable family going to a respectable school ... surely it must be a flaw in his character?’ But we shouldn’t be shocked. The ‘Rock boys, at the end of the day, are no different from kids in the CBS or the reformatory schools.”

The 2009 Ryan report found that sexual abuse was “endemic” in residential institutions for boys – orphanages, industrial schools, reformatories – run by male religious congregations. Why should elite boarding schools for boys be any different?

None of the serial abusers at Blackrock named publicly this week were reported by the college authorities to gardaí, health or social services.

The Blackrock omerta was finally breached on Monday when Mark (61) and David (58) Ryan told RTÉ’s Doc on One programme in gut-wrenching detail of their sexual abuse at the hands of Fr Tom O’Byrne and other priests at Willow Park School and Blackrock College.

They spoke of how it was 2002 before either became aware of the other’s abuse. Both men grew up off Mount Merrion Avenue near the college in South Dublin, which Mark began attending in September 1973 when he was 12.

Younger brother David was 12 also when he was invited by Fr O’Byrne for private swimming lessons at Blackrock, where his abuse began. Criminal proceedings against Fr O’Byrne were fought by the priest, funded by the Spiritans. The Supreme Court found in the priest’s favour in 2007. By then he was 87. In 2003 the brothers agreed a settlement with the Spiritans, without apology or any admission of liability by the congregation. Fr O’Byrne was still teaching at Blackrock until 1996/97. He died in December 2010 aged 90.

The Ryan brothers’ powerful testimony freed many other ‘Rock men, now in their 50s, 60s, some even in their 70s, to come forward and tell their own stories of abuse by other priests, a brother, and laymen at the Blackrock campus.

Violence and rage

“James”, who attended Willow Park and Blackrock College in the 1980s, says he was raped by Brother Luke McCaffrey when he was 10 or 11 years of age.

“He taught religion and was in charge of teaching catechism, sold the Catholic paraphernalia like booklets, miraculous medals and prayer missals,” he said.

The abuse began “with him fondling me and he used to tell me I was his favourite – then it moved on to him wanting me to do things to him that he said were special and wanting me to touch him. I don’t know how or why but I resisted as best I could. And that was when the anger came into it. The violence. The first time he raped me the pain was unbelievable – he did it in rage.”

James remembered how, cycling home afterwards, he “couldn’t sit on my bicycle seat because of the pain” and then “trying to wash the blood off my underpants in our upstairs bathroom with a nail brush and Imperial Leather soap”. It didn’t work. He would then put his wet underpants in a plastic bag and hide them until bin day. “I remember going out at night when it was dark and up the road and putting them in a neighbour’s bins,” he said.

The impact of the abuse has been severe. No relationship lasted beyond months. “The minute that any form of sexual intimacy went beyond a certain stage I’d have these feelings of guilt and anger and I’d run away. I do wonder how I may have hurt others with apparent coldness and this remains a guilt for me,” he said.

He had a breakdown in his 30s and has “fought the fight against depression and anxiety since then”.

There was “Brian” who still cannot bring himself to discuss what was done to him by Fr Aloysius Flood and Fr Senan Corry at Willow Park School in the 1970s. “My life changed when I was woken up one night and seriously sexually assaulted by Flood. I was a pious, innocent 11 year old asleep in my bed, boarding at Willow Park. I had no idea what was going on.” Fr Flood and Fr Corry “were rapacious”, said Brian. “They roamed freely at night. I was abused by both, as so many others were too.”

John O’Dwyer (65) attended Blackrock and Willow Park until 1976 and said priests and pupils there were “clearly aware of what was going on”. He described Blackrock College as the “wild West of private Catholic education”. He had been physically abused by a priest on an almost daily basis and, on at least one occasion, he said he was sexually abused.

On Liveline this week Aidan Moore described how he was sexually abused by a lay member of staff at Blackrock and former Christian Brother Edward Baylor, in the latter’s house at Stillorgan in 1978. He described Baylor as a “viciously violent” man who had “absolutely pummelled” a classmate in the school.

‘Shameful period’

The question of what role the State or Department of Education had, if any, in ensuring the welfare of children in boarding schools run by congregations is one that has yet to be fully explored.

“It was minimal,” said one senior Department of Education source. “For two reasons; one, resources were not applied to inspecting post-primary schools; and two, the Catholic Church would not have welcomed intrusion into their internal affairs. The coalition of the department, State and Catholic Church was a tight relationship.”

So what happens, now, to the growing volume of allegations against priests in Blackrock and other schools run by religious congregations?

Gardaí have confirmed they are investigating abuse allegations relating to Spiritan schools and have urged other victims to make contact with their local Garda station. A key focus will be on how complaints were handled by school management. In many cases senior members of staff served for decades in management roles during the period in question.

Blackrock College, meanwhile, has apologised to victims, describing the abuse as a “shameful period” in the school’s history that it deeply regretted. In a letter to parents principal Alan MacGinty said the school would work diligently to ensure the highest standard of care for all students and staff.

But the apologies and pledges of action ring hollow for many abuse survivors.

James, who described his abuse during his time at Blackrock, said he has “no appetite for acknowledgment from the Holy Ghost Fathers. I would not believe any apologies – especially when 80 per cent of the brave men who have shared their experiences with the Holy Ghost Fathers have received no apology or restitution. And I wouldn’t want their money.”

In his view what is needed is clear: a State-backed inquiry where the “Holy Ghost Fathers have to hand over all of their records and where an agency independent of them takes control.”

The priests: ‘They roamed freely at night. We were easy prey’

Fr Tom O’Byrne: Originally from Limerick, he took up teaching roles at St Michael’s College in Dublin in 1962 before moving to Blackrock College in 1967. School records show he was still listed as a member of the school community until at least 1996/97. He faced multiple charges of child sexual abuse during the 2000s. A number of past pupils say they were abused by him in the school’s swimming pool and in the priest’s quarters. The Director of Public Prosecutions charged Fr O’Byrne with 37 offences arising out of sexual abuse but in 2007 the Supreme Court dismissed it on the basis that the priest was then 87. He died in 2010.

Fr Senan Corry: Fr Corry was appointed to Blackrock College in 1957 and became a teacher in Willow Park School. He played a key role in coaching junior rugby teams. When he retired from teaching, he stayed on as a member of the college community until at least the late 1990s. One past-pupil who says he was abused by Corry said he had easy access to boarders and describes him as “rapacious”. Another says he went to the headmaster of Blackrock College at the time and ended up in a meeting with the headmaster, the priest and his parents in which Fr Corry denied any abuse. “I was 12. I never got over it,” the past pupil told Liveline this week. He said he went from being a high achiever and captain of the football teams to being a destructive, angry child and, later in life, a heroin addict. Fr Corry died in 2004.

Fr Patrick Aloysius Flood: From Ballyhaunis, Co Mayo, Fr Patrick Aloysius Flood was a former student of Blackrock College. He was appointed as a teacher at Willow Park in the primary section of the school in 1960 and worked in various roles until 1977. One past pupil recalls being woken up one night and seriously sexually assaulted by Flood. “I was a pious, innocent 11-year-old asleep in my bed, boarding at Willow Park. I had no idea what was going on.” Fr Flood was later appointed principal of St Michael’s in 1977 before returning to Blackrock College in 1983 as dean of the boarding school. He spent a number of years as a curate in Dalkey parish in the 1990s. He died in 2013.

Brother Luke McCaffrey: From Clogher, Co Tyrone, Brother Luke McCaffrey joined Blackrock College initially as a gardener in 1950 before securing a teaching role in Willow Park in 1955-1995. He taught religion and had responsibility for Holy Communion classes. One past pupil, who served as an altar boy, describes being groomed and later abused. “I resisted as best I could,” he recalls. “And that was when the anger came into it. The violence. The first time he raped me the pain was unbelievable – he did it in rage.” McCaffrey left the school community around 2000, and died in 2002.

‘Faith and fortitude’: How Blackrock College became Ireland’s ‘Eton’

Some say the British Empire was founded on the playing fields of Eton. If so, then Blackrock College can lay a strong claim to being the nursery of most of Ireland’s future leaders.

A glance at members of the congregation who attended a mass in 1960 to mark the school’s centenary provides a striking example of the school’s exalted place in political and clerical circles.

Among those present were three former and one future taoisigh: Éamon de Valera, a ‘Rock boy and teacher, Liam Cosgrave, WT Cosgrave and John A Costello. Archbishop of Dublin Dr John Charles McQuaid – a former student and headmaster – and Cardinal John Dalton, a former student, were also in attendance.

The school, founded 162 years ago by Père Jules, a member of the Holy Ghost Fathers, was originally known as French College.

Its aim at the time was to train personnel for missionary service overseas, as well as providing a first class Catholic education.

Dr John Charles McQuaid, who was dean and president of Blackrock College in 1925-1939, played a key role in the development of the school. While complaints of child sex abuse at Blackrock were made long after his stewardship, he was subject of two abuse complaints and a separate “concern” in a State inquiry into the handling of clerical child sex abuse complaints in the Dublin Archdiocese.

Among its past pupils include former Chief Justice Ronan Keane, medical surgeon Maurice Neligan, Legion of Mary organiser Frank Duff, politicians Ruairí Quinn and Barry Andrews, broadcaster Ryan Tubridy, designer Paul Costelloe, artist Robert Ballagh and rugby internationals Brian O’Driscoll, Leo Cullen and Luke Fitzgerald.

Questioned on Friday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the latest revelations were “sickening”. He said it was important the gardaí investigate “to the greatest extent possible”. Calling for “full transparency” from the various religious orders who ran the schools, he said: “It is very very shocking that such abuse happened and the manner it happened.”

However, he was non-committal about whether any further State inquiries should be undertaken: “We’ve had many inquiries into historic abuse in Ireland, from the industrial schools to the dioceses.” He said they had “lifted a veil” on past crimes.

Today the school, which has 1,600 students across Willow Park primary and Blackrock College, says it continues to offer a “holistic education in the Catholic Spiritan tradition”. It inspires strong loyalty with 8,000 estimated to be part of the Blackrock College Union, which represents past pupils.

While for some it is a school that represents academic excellence and sporting endeavour, for others it is an environment that has bred a confidence among students that can border on arrogance, summed up by the school’s anthem: “Rock boys are we/Our title is our glory/Fearless and bold ...”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is Religious Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent