Brothers, priests and nuns were our siblings, uncles, aunts


The religious orders were aided and abetted by a society in thrall to a punitive theology, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

A SINGLE sweet pressed into a child’s hand once a week during the rosary, which probably saved a girl’s sanity. A kindly old brother, with starving boys flocking around him, grateful for the bread he kept for them. A shopkeeper who broke the canes in his shop over his knee, and then told the astonished child who had been sent to buy them to tell the nuns they were out of stock. “The only boy from Gorey” remembering how his dreadful loneliness so far from home in Artane was lightened by one “brilliant” Brother. These, and other incidents, are like pin points of light in the otherwise unrelenting darkness of the Ryan commission report.

And like pin points of light, they only serve to emphasise the darkness. Small acts of kindness were treasured, and recounted years later, because they contrasted with the desperate bleakness of these children’s existences. Of course, there were larger kindnesses, too, such as nuns who provided emotional shelter for years for past pupils. But mostly it is a litany of cold, grey, bleak lives, where children had to contend not only with loss of family, often including siblings, but the fear of arbitrary, unfair punishment and constant hunger. Many carry literal scars, and are haunted by memories of sexual exploitation and degradation.

It really is the most damning indictment of Irish society that these places existed, and continued to exist for so long. The religious orders have to accept that they presided over places where brutality was accepted as a necessary means of maintaining control, and where sexual abuse was hushed up with no thought of the consequences for children. They have to deal with the shame of falling so far short of the ideals not only of Christ but in many cases, of enlightened founder figures.

But let us not slide conveniently from idealising and idolising people in religious life, to demonising them. Who were these nuns, Brothers and priests? They were our brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins, who were shaped by the same repressive society and punitive theology as everyone else, and who were aided and abetted by politicians, An Garda Síochána, the judiciary, the Department of Education, by organisations such as the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (then NSPCC), and the silent shrugs of many in Irish society. Nor did journalists distinguish themselves, with honourable exceptions such as Michael Viney and Joseph O’Malley. Prominent journalists have admitted self-censorship from fear of being sued and put out of business.

But as the commission report makes clear, not everyone stood idly by. Individual religious and priests made valiant attempts to reform and humanise appalling systems. While some foster families recruited by the institutions perpetuated abuse, most did not.

Most importantly of all, some of the most abused and battered children grew up to be fearless advocates for truth, and kept on knocking on doors until they were heard, despite being rejected and disbelieved. Although believed by many for years, the report is their official vindication.

I have met many survivors, and have often been struck by how whole they are, despite their experiences. They shame the rest of us.

Why did it take so long for the truth to emerge? Surely it’s not because most of us just want to get on with our lives, and don’t want to be disturbed or distressed? Industrial schools as such no longer exist in our society, but there is no room for complacency. The commission heard some stories of abuse dating back only to 2000, not 1940. This is not yesterday’s news.

The commission made recommendations that have been made over and over again. (Incidentally, I misquoted child welfare consultant Kieran McGrath in last week’s article. I reported him as saying that the report on Monageer could have been written before the inquiry. In fact, what he said is that the recommendations could have been written before the inquiry.) For example, it recommends that every child in care should have “a consistent professional figure with overall responsibility”. Yet most children in care have no key social worker. The Ryan commission states that good childcare depends on good communication, especially between agencies. We know that does not happen, either.

Let’s look at just two statistics. There are 250 children with mental illnesses currently in completely unsuitable adult psychiatric facilities, because there is nowhere else for them to go. The Immigrant Council reminded us recently that between 2001 and 2007, 441 immigrant children who came unaccompanied to this country went missing out of HSE care, and only 52 have been accounted for. Will we only have an inquiry into those missing hundreds of immigrant children if, God forbid, some of them die?

Few people will sift through the five volumes of the report. Might I recommend that people might read the relatively short, but profound submission of the Rosminian Institute of Charity. They presided over institutions that were as bleak and brutal as any of them, but they have travelled a long way in the past few years. It can be found online The Rosminians say that in relation to industrial schools the questions, “What do children need?” and “What do our schools provide?” should have led to the same answer, but that often the first question was not even asked. They also say plainly that the response to sexual abuse was wrong morally, legally, and administratively. “The context of the times was an influence, but should have been resisted.”

It is a powerful reminder to really try to see what “context of the times” we are failing to resist today. Might our contemporary sin be that of substituting economics for conscience, of declaring that we just can’t afford proper facilities or care for children? What children are struggling right now to be heard, and who today is trying in vain to champion their cause?