Systematic abuse in State institutions laid bare

Thousands of children suffered physical and sexual abuse over several decades in residential institutions run by religious congregations…

Thousands of children suffered physical and sexual abuse over several decades in residential institutions run by religious congregations, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse has found.

The report published yesterday describes how children lived in "a climate of fear" in the institutions and finds that "sexual abuse was endemic in boys' institutions". Cases of sexual abuse were hidden by the congregations that ran the institutions and offenders were transferred to other locations where they were free to abuse again, the report says.

The commission, which was chaired by Mr Justice Seán Ryan, heard from more than 500 witnesses who said they had been sexually abused.There were also many reports of injuries, including broken bones, lacerations and bruising.

Eight chapters in the report are devoted to the Christian Brothers, the largest provider of residential care for boys in the State. More allegations were made against the Christian Brothers than all other male orders combined.

The report sharply criticises the Department of Education for failing to carry out proper inspections. "The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection," the report says. The commission, which was set up in 1999, investigated industrial schools, reformatories, orphanages, institutions for children with disabilities and ordinary day schools. It heard evidence covering the period from 1914 to the present but the bulk of its work addressed the period from the early 1930s to the early 1970s.

More than 1,700 men and women gave evidence of the abuse they suffered as children in institutions, with over half reporting sexual abuse. Accounts of abuse given in relation to 216 institutions are detailed in the report, which runs to nearly 3,000 pages.

More than 800 priests, brothers, nuns and lay people were implicated. The final cost of the commission may be over €100 million.

Responding to the report, the Catholic primate Cardinal Seán Brady said he was "profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed that children suffered in such awful ways". He added: "Children deserved better and especially from those caring for them in the name of Jesus Christ."

Reacting to the report, Minister for Education Batt O'Keeffe said "the wrongs of the past" could not be undone. "However, as a responsible and caring society, we must fully face up to the fact that wrong was done and we must learn from the mistakes of the past." Mr O'Keeffe extended his "sincere and profound sympathy" to those who were abused.

Speaking in the Dáil, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the Government would "carefully study the findings and recommendations". He acknowledged the report would show the "great failings of the State and many others in the care of children. . ."

The Christian Brothers, who are severely criticised in the report, also issued an apology. "We are deeply sorry for the hurt caused. We are ashamed and saddened that many who complained of abuse were not listened to . . ." they said in a statement. "We appreciate that no healing is possible without an acknowledgement of our responsibility as a Congregation for what has happened," they added.

The Catholic Archbishop of Dublin, Most Rev Diarmuid Martin, said the stories of abuse were "stomach-churning". All church organisations mentioned should seriously examine how their ideals had become debased by systematic abuse, he said.

There was a mixed reaction from victims groups. The One in Four organisation, which offers support to victims of abuse, said publication of the report marked a "shameful day" for Ireland. Chief executive Maeve Lewis said: "We all turned our back on the children who were so shamefully treated in these institutions."

Child welfare organisations called for a constitutional amendment to protect the rights of the child. Fergus Finlay, chief executive of Barnardos, said: "We must guarantee that the voices of children are never silenced again."

The report recommends an overhaul of the inspection system for childcare services to include unannounced inspections and objective national standards. It also proposes the erection of a memorial to victims of abuse in the institutions.

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is separate from the Residential Institutions Redress Board, which has received some 15,000 applications. It is expected the total cost of awards by the board will exceed €1 billion, of which €128 million has been contributed by 18 religious congregations.