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.”

IT IS THREEyears since the Ryan report jolted the country. The sheer scale and longevity of the torment inflicted on children in State-funded industrial schools and other institutions made clear that this was systematic abuse of the poorest and most marginalised children.

The Murphy report into the cover-up of abuse in the archdiocese of Dublin also showed a pattern of senior members of the clergy moving abusing priests into working-class or disadvantaged parishes.

This week’s audit reports, though, were the first to examine abuse among religious congregations. The three congregations – the Holy Ghost Fathers, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the Dominicans – ran fee-paying schools. Some were surprised that the audit results revealed a higher proportion of allegations against members of congregations than against priests in dioceses.

However, for Maeve Lewis, the executive director of One in Four, the advocacy group for abuse victims, this finding confirms what her group has been hearing for years. “It’s very clear that abuse wasn’t confined to disadvantaged communities,” she says. “Sex offenders will always tend to target a vulnerable child or try to create a dynamic where a child feels they can’t tell anyone out of a sense of shame, guilt or potential consequences. The socioeconomic background doesn’t matter.”

But how widespread was this abuse? Did senior clergy or other students know what was happening? Those who attended Holy Ghost schools describe their contrasting experiences.

Maurice Manning, a former Fine Gael senator, recalls that while there may have been rumours about a handful of priests when he was a student at Rockwell, during the late 1950s and early 1960s, most of the teachers were well liked.

“Maybe there were one or two you wouldn’t want to get caught alone with . . . There were kids who were more vulnerable than others. But I wasn’t aware of anyone being abused. And I think that was the honest view of most of my classmates.”

Gerald Montague, a philosopher who lives and works in Germany, was a student at St Mary’s College during the late 1950s and early 1960s. “I didn’t recall anything of a sexual nature until I discussed it recently with some friends,” he says. “They reminded me of a father we used to call ‘Fr Fiddly Fingers’. It seems I just didn’t want to know.”

But for those who were on the receiving end of abuse, it has been a horrific experience some are still struggling to come to terms with.

James Ahern – not his real name – was a student at Blackrock College in the late 1970s. He says he was repeatedly abused by a priest over the course of his first two years at school while attending swimming lessons.

“There were certain priests known by the class to behave inappropriately. The priest who abused me was known for running up against people, for instance. But you never spoke about the abuse itself.”

When Ahern turned 18 he told a family member, who then tried to bring it up with a member of the clergy at Blackrock. “The priest just walked away, mid-conversation, and didn’t want to listen,” he says.

Eventually, in 2004 or 2005, another victim took a case against the abusing priest. The case was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. The priest subsequently died.

“There was no contact with the congregation until I raised the issue with the National Board for Safeguarding Children, when it announced it was doing an audit. That was the first time I had contact with them. It took 35 years for them to take an interest in it,” says Ahern.

“The way I see it, they have been trying to contain the problem: showing that the current procedures are working but not wanting to understand the extent of the problems of the past . . . They don’t want their reputation to be sullied.”

Ahern says individual students and neighbours have been extremely supportive since he went public about having been abused. But he feels the responses of the order and of groups linked to the school have been inadequate in searching out other abuse victims.

Mark Vincent Healy says the fact that priests molested boys was widely known.

“One of the priests, he’d put his hands down the back of your trousers or down your jumper, trying to grope you. We just froze. We were like rabbits in headlights. We were all so innocent and obedient to authority.”

He says he was abused by two priests. Fr Henry Maloney, who taught there between 1968 and 1973, was transferred to Sierra Leone after complaints were made. He was ultimately convicted of abusing Healy and another man.

Another priest, Fr Arthur Carragher, who taught at the school in the late 1960s, was accused of abuse and he was relocated to Canada after complaints were made. Two brothers later made abuse allegations against this priest in 2001, but nothing materialised. There is no extradition treaty between Ireland and Canada, so Fr Carragher succeeded in his effort not to be tried in Ireland. The priest later admitted abusing the brothers.

Moving priests around was a way of protecting the school’s reputation, says Healy. But even now he believes there is a reluctance to face up to the scale of potential abuse. He says he asked the past-pupils’ unions at the Spiritans’ schools in Ireland to publicise the audit of the congregation on their websites, but not all did so. Healy says the congregation was ultimately forced to act in auditing past allegations of abuse.

“If you graduated from one of the schools and weren’t abused, and benefited from being a former student, maybe some people feel it’s disloyal to be bringing this up or they might lose social kudos. Or maybe people just wish it would go away . . . I get that feeling sometimes. But I must say that, individually, past pupils are incredibly supportive and understanding.”

TODAY THERE AREsignificant changes in the relationship between the congregation and the schools. The principals of Holy Ghost schools contacted by The Irish Times this week declined to comment, referring queries to the Spiritans’ communications office. It points to a series of reforms over the past decade or more. No Spiritan priests remain as teachers. There is limited contact between Spiritans and children, unless through school chaplaincy work or parish work.

The patron of the schools is no longer solely the provincial of the congregation; they are run by boards of management that include lay people and priests, under the trusteeship of the Des Places Educational Association, a limited company set up by the congregation in 1999, which also oversees the Holy Family Community School in Dublin.

In response to victims’ claims that the order has not done enough to reach out to victims through past-pupil networks or other means, the congregation says it plans to seek new ways of contacting those who were abused. “Conscious that an apology is only a first step, we have begun to respond to the recommendations of the report. We have, for example, just concluded a recruitment process which will see two suitably qualified professionals take up duty in our safeguarding office within the next month,” it says.

“Led by them, the congregation will seek new ways to best engage with victims, whether they have already come forward or have not previously made their abuse known to the Spiritan leadership.”

In addition, it says it is constantly working with management, staff and parents to ensure its schools continue to be safe places where children can learn and grow in maturity and faith. There are no allegations of abuse on record from 1994 onwards.

There’s no doubt there have been significant improvements, but this week’s report points out there is still a way to go. For victims such as Healy, the coming months and years will be a crucial test of whether the congregation is willing to sacrifice its reputation by doing the right thing for victims.

“We shouldn’t have to fight for justice,” he says. “And this shouldn’t cause dissent among former students. All I know is that if this was an experience of mine, surely there are many, many more. Has the congregation even looked for these people? It’s time to find the lost sheep.”