Dear Brother O’Neill . . . a former Christian Brothers pupil writes

There is nothing ‘historical’ about the child abuse I suffered 45 years ago – the kind your order now seems to want to forget all about. My anguish continues

A reader writes an open letter to Br Hugh O'Neill, superior general of the Congregation of Christian Brothers, in Rome

Dear Superior General, – Only last year, in my late 50s, I woke up to the exact nature and general effects of abuse I suffered at the hands of two of your Christian Brothers here in Ireland before I was 12. One is dead, the other alive in Ireland and living a secular life outside your congregation.

Human memory is very complex, and such a lapse of time is not uncommon in cases of childhood abuse. Although I can assure you that my testimony is correct, perhaps it’s best that we immediately set aside any thoughts of court cases or lawyers.

I think we both understand too well how such thoughts exercise our worst fear reflexes, and how ineffective and expensive these processes can become. (I note with sadness that in May 2013 your congregation’s Australian province, at Victoria’s parliamentary inquiry into child abuse, admitted to hiring a private investigator to follow one of the victims. It spent nearly a million Australian dollars defending the perpetrator, plus hundreds of thousands to defend other members also accused of rape.)


There are other strategies to deal with these matters, ones that could bring about some desperately needed healing for all concerned.

Even though we’ve never met we do have a rather special connection, by virtue of your position as head of the congregation. It’s a connection you have with countless other men like me, and that is what prompts me to write to you in this public way.

Unless something has changed in the congregation since the Ryan report, in 2009, when you were not superior general, you will probably not wish to acknowledge the connection between us. That report showed your congregation had apologised, acknowledging that “some abuse had taken place”, but “failed to accept any congregational responsibility for such abuse”.

My dark nights

I have gone through a dark night of the soul over the past year, but because of some great people who supported me I have come to see this recent time as a period of growth rather than as one of diminution. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene, Prometheus chained to a rock, and Buddha under the Bondhi tree all experienced dark nights of the soul many times over.

Such experiences force us all to face aspects of ourselves that are in need of transformation. It seems certain that before 1802 your congregation’s founder, Edmund Rice, had his own dark night that led him to forgo his lucrative business interests in favour of helping the poor children who surrounded him in Waterford. I suspect that dark nights are being experienced by past and present members of your congregation still.

I appreciate all the great work that the Christian Brothers are doing around the world in 2016, and I understand that geographically the congregation is divided into several provinces that encompass every inhabited continent. Funding raised by the Irish-based charity Edmund Rice Development is directed mainly to nine countries in Africa, where the Christian Brothers work on mission in development: Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Funds are also raised for work in Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and India.

Also, I see you are setting up a new NGO known as Edmund Rice International, whose stated purpose is to gain a “general consultative status” with the United Nations. This position allows groups “the opportunity to challenge systemic injustice and to engage in advocacy work with policymakers on behalf of people who are made poor”.

When it comes to child abuse, however, after a flurry of apologies and guarded gestures of compensation your congregation appears to want to be shut of all so-called historical abuse cases.

Money can’t relieve pain

I want to help you to understand that there is nothing historical about the child abuse I suffered 45 years ago. Nor is there anything historical about the abuse suffered by countless others like me who walk the towns and cities of the many countries in which your congregation ministered. The resulting anguish is continuous and deep, and money alone cannot relieve it.

It is my contention that the good work you are doing around the world can count for little while you continue to ignore this enduring legacy of those abusive brothers your congregation failed to regulate in the past. Many adults like me have been “made poor”, not by some vague environmental circumstance but specifically by the depraved and pitiful actions of official members of your congregation of Christian Brothers.

My heart sank today, reading a quote attributed to a predecessor of yours, the Irishman Br Edmund Garvey. When asked what kind of will he would draw up in regard to the congregation’s property and financial assets if he found himself the last Christian Brother alive in Ireland, he replied: “I would instruct that these be used to support the poor and marginalised in the Third World. Our death in Europe would be the rebirth in the Third World.”

Such an utterance placed beside “we fail to accept any congregational responsibility for abuse” in Ireland demonstrates not only how far from Edmund Rice’s original vision your order has strayed but also how unconsciously callous it has become.

What degree of denial results in a policy of travelling to far-off lands to alleviate poverty, leaving ex-pupils abused by members of your congregation in the loneliest poverty of spirit at home?

Presumably you are worried about being financially bankrupted by historical-abuse claims, but is anyone thinking about how the congregation has been morally bankrupted by ignoring the ongoing silent, crushing repercussions of congregational abuse in your original schools?

I wonder if you would consider helping survivors and perpetrators to collectively acknowledge that the most important thing we can all do is to work together towards healing in the here and now. Amends are called for, and they don’t have to be exclusively financial.

One of the lucky ones

Let me try to outline what we’re really dealing with. The psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk, in his book

The Body Keeps the Score

, shines fresh light on the contemporary nature of “historical” abuse. Copious scientific research continues in this field. It might help you to know how my body kept the score and how I, in adulthood, have been made poor in body, mind and material resources as a result of being physically, sexually and emotionally abused in a Christian Brothers day school in Ireland between the ages of 10 and 12.

My story is not untypical. Although I had unaccountable and accumulating emotional difficulties, and a slippery sense of their source, I had no detailed memories until last year. I had the symptoms but not the cause.

I was lucky enough to be referred to the psychiatrist Ivor Browne, who understands the way that overwhelming childhood experience can remain “unexperienced” until much later in life. Now retired from Irish psychiatry, Prof Browne retains a gift for helping people to access what he terms the frozen present.

Over the course of a few psychotherapeutic sessions with him, and numerous follow-up sessions with a psychotherapist whom I had previously attended when the rumbles began to intensify, 10 years ago, my clouded childhood began to clear. I moved towards healing and new internal freedom.

Perhaps the greatest loss in an abusive childhood is loss of safety in the world. This simmers throughout a lifetime and sometimes becomes so intense that we are impelled to take drastic action. Suicide is never out of the question. My drastic actions were manifold, but I survived long enough to reach Ivor Browne’s door. I am one of the lucky ones.

This is how serious your “congregational responsibility” is, Br Superior General: every adult must eventually deal with the fallout from an “interfered-with” childhood, and this results in countless further losses in adulthood, sometimes even death, through physical or mental illness.

Can you truly understand that?

Numerous scientific papers show how chronic trauma interferes with neurobiological development and the capacity to integrate sensory, emotional and cognitive information into a cohesive whole. This is poverty. It can be and needs to be addressed by organisations such as yours.

My first drink

Since I took my first drink, as a teenager, I was never able to leave it at one. My chronic need for alcohol and cigarettes arose from my chronic uneasiness in the world. Thanks to help that I was blessed to receive I have not had a drink or a cigarette for almost 15 years. When these crutches were gone the underlying causes of my dis-ease slowly and painfully began to be revealed, culminating in last year’s breakthrough.

In my teenage years I had to undergo a serious operation on an internal organ, which I’m pretty certain was damaged as a result of a Christian Brother’s perverse activity. All through my life I have suffered from gastrointestinal and large-intestinal distress.

In my late 30s I developed an auto-immune disease, which I will have for life.

About seven years ago I could no longer function effectively in the workplace, despite having had an impressive 30-year career. I was mystified and immobilised, and I withdrew from many social activities. How could I explain what was wrong with me if I myself didn’t know?

Only for the resourcefulness and quiet generosity of loved ones my family might have been in dire straits. My children would have become the very poor that Edmund Ignatius Rice sought to relieve.

One of the most distressing outcomes was a tendency I developed towards chronic low-grade negativity and sporadic outbursts of anger towards my nearest and dearest. This was as much of a mystery and heartache to me as it was distressing for them.

Since I uncovered the root of my malaise my home has become a happier place, although the ghosts are never far away.

In retrospect I can also better understand the painful, impossible situations I created in the all-too-numerous intimate relationships I had before my marriage, in my early 40s.

I am also now able to appreciate why I had such a poor memory of my childhood – which, by the way, took place in a supportive and loving home.

Unlike countless others who suffered similar abuse to me, I am still alive. I’m still walking this precious earth with my precious loved ones, who, although they suffer, have not had to suffer the loss of me. I believe suicide doesn’t happen. It is caused.

I am one of the lucky ones, and that is why I am writing this letter with a heart full of gratitude, even if my brain hurts a little and my gut is anxious and now tears are running down my face. I am one of the lucky ones, Br Superior General.

In a homily at the closing Mass of the second meeting of Edmund Rice Education Network, in Peru earlier this year, Br Hugo Cáceres said: “Encounters with others should help develop relationship skills and communication abilities of good treatment, openness to understand each other, making ourselves vulnerable to their hearts in order to receive and express feelings.”

Why do his words sound hollow to me here in Ireland?

It is time for you and your fellow congregational leaders to learn how adverse childhood experiences affect brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, even the way DNA is interpreted. Then you and they might be inspired to use your vocations in a way that would truly help the poor ones, those who emerged emotionally crippled from Christian Brothers schools around the world and now struggle in obscurity, unacknowledged and, worse still, perhaps harming others.

Morally corrupt atmosphere

The gaping hypocrisy in your congregational stance on “historical abuse” is being sustained at a great cost to many, many people. It produces a morally corrupt atmosphere in which neither you nor I can truly prosper.

Let’s make a deal. I’ll take responsibility for confronting and, hopefully, forgiving the living former Christian Brother who harmed me. I would like an opportunity to tell him how his behaviour damaged my life, almost but not quite destroying it. Luckily I found my life again, after it all.

In the quietness of your heart can you feel the very obvious need for “congregational responsibilty” for the consequences of child abuse in your former schools and institutions? Will you take action?

I suggest, as a first step, that you consider establishing a process to provide restorative-justice mechanisms, whereby offenders and victims meet and reconcile, for perpetrators and survivors of abuse at your schools and institutions.

More appropriate and effective than criminal-justice processes (and costing nothing like them), such structures could bring about deep healing and help to eradicate the roundabout of anguish that Christian Brother survivors and perpetrators continue to circle.

The 2014 document Sexual Trauma and Abuse: Restorative and Transformative Possibilities?, edited by the psychotherapist Marie Keenan, of University College Dublin, demonstrates the value of this method.

Who knows where such a process might lead? And who knows where your example might lead other troubled institutions, not least the ultimate one, the family?

A reply to this letter would be welcome – unless, of course, you fail to accept any “congregational responsibility” for my letter. In that case I will remain, –

Yours faithfully,


PS: If any of this seems far fetched I suggest you consult the solid science of the Adverse Childhood Experiences study. This is the largest and most influential study of the relationship between childhood adversity and long-term health.

Begun in 1995, it involves a lifespan study of 17,421 people in the United States; it has spawned hundreds of scientific papers. Unfortunately, the findings have yet to influence conventional clinical practices.

In the course of my recovery from my emotional wounds I continue to come upon many people who are working against the tide to wake us all out of our torpor. The ideas of these people are backed up by experience and scientific research and are easily accessible. They can offer organisations such as Edmund Rice International genuinely insightful perspectives.

Let’s take just a few examples.

It seems to me that conventional legal processes have simply obscured solutions, further traumatising victims and galvanising the emotions of congregational leaders and survivor support groups. They have soaked up financial resources that could have been put to better use. That is why I recommend Sexual Trauma and Abuse: Restorative and Transformative Possibilities? edited by Marie Keenan of UCD.

Mike Lew's comprehensive Victims No Longer, considered a sort of bible for male survivors of sexual abuse, tells the story of people like me. Anyone can read it if they want to understand those adults who are "made poor" by child sexual abuse.

The psychiatrist Gabor Maté, author of In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, works with patients challenged by hard-core drug addiction, mental illness and HIV. He is interested in how childhood stress shows up as adult illness. "It is much more of a unity than western medicine likes to acknowledge," he says.

Recent technological advances in brain imaging and neuroscience have greatly helped those who study the long-term effects of trauma and are attempting to develop strategies to minimise and even stem those effects. Apart from Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, you can Google Peter Levine, Norman Doidge, Bruce Lipton and Martin Teicher for more information.

The writer's identity is known to the Editor