Ryan taboo on warped sexual training of Brothers a cop-out
OPINION:Sexual violence is at the heart of Christian Brother thinking and practice. Sadly, the Ryan report fails to draw obvious conclusions, writes JIM BERESFORD
REFERRING TO the beating and humiliation of child prisoners described in the Ryan report, theologian Mary Condren (Opinion and Analysis, June 13th) says it was well known that “many religious congregations used the discipline, small whips, every week on their own naked flesh . . . Others actively practised public humiliation.” I thank Condren for breaking a taboo.
Indeed the Christian Brothers used self-flagellation to punish the sexual impulse, hoping thereby to preserve the vow of chastity. Novices as young as 15 at their Marino novitiate were issued with the “discipline” and instructed to use it whenever they fell into sexual sin by thought or deed. As one novice informed me: “we were told to whip our bottom while saying Hail Marys”.
Self-flagellation is not an aberration of Christianity; it is a form of mortification at least as old as western monasticism and is still practised by many Christians today. Many of the famous saints were self-flagellants and proud of it. A whipping is thought to purify the body of sexual sin – though in truth it often has the opposite effect. Although modern psychology regards the practice as an expression of psycho-sexual pathology, self-flagellation was an essential part of the religious formation of Christian Brother novices until the 1960s.
By the time he arrived at Artane reformatory aged 18-20, a Christian Brother would have spent most of his teenage years whipping his own bottom as punishment for what he believed to be his sexual sinfulness and he was likely by then to have developed a sadomasochistic sexuality. Before being dispatched to Artane a novice was briefed that reformatory boys were sexually depraved and therefore in need of strong sex discipline. The briefing notes for novices said: “These boys need firmer discipline than normal boys . . . your first three priorities should be discipline, discipline and discipline”.
Once in the prison, the novice was instructed by the resident monks how to punish a sex offence. This usually entailed administering up to 20 strokes of the cane or strap on the bare backside of the “offender”, especially one known or alleged to have been sexually penetrated by a monk or another inmate (The brotherhood chose to believe the rape of a boy was a mere misdemeanour and the boy himself the real transgressor). This was a form of punishment approved for use on recusant reformatory boys by the education minister – though the same minister strictly prohibited such punishment in Ireland’s national schools.
Given his religious formation, the novice probably believed such punishment condign, salutary and didactic – “profitable chastisement that would have God’s blessing”, as described in the brotherhood’s constitution. Indeed, to the novice, it would have seemed perfectly natural to spank a sex sinner. And he probably derived sexual gratification from doing it. The pornography of the prone naked boy disposed
for whipping probably didn’t register with him and he probably didn’t realise that his career as a sexual sadist had begun. He quickly learned that his progress depended on his aping the resident monks. Thus was the culture of sexual violence transmitted.
Christian Brother historian Barry Coldrey accurately describes this kind of spanking as “sexualised violence” and there is little doubt that its endemic use in Artane was a result of the sadomasochistic sexuality instilled in the novices during their formation. Yet the authors of the Ryan report don’t even hint that there could have been a sexual motivation for such violence.
A celibate sex-starved self-flagellant drags a boy from his bed, interrogates him on his sexual behaviour, and then ritually flogs his bare bottom for some alleged sex offence – and the report doesn’t see that this might have a sexual motivation. Readers around the world are amused at the report’s unworldliness and dismayed at its evident unfamiliarity with the extensive literature on the beating of children for sadistic sexual satisfaction.
Why does the Ryan report not mention sadomasochism? And why has no one else in Ireland mentioned it? Well, certain taboos have to be respected. Sex cannot be discussed honestly in sexually repressed Holy Ireland. Mention of sexual masochism and sadism would probably frighten Irish horses. Historian Roy Foster says Ireland is the last bastion of Victorian puritanism. The country has yet to learn that the suppression of information on sex endangers children. I asked the Laffoy-Ryan commission to investigate the religious origins of psycho-sexual pathology in the Christian Brothers but was told the commissioners did not consider their religious beliefs and practices a matter for investigation.
I was surprised at the commission’s response, especially as one of the six commissioners, Fred Lowe, was a principal clinical psychologist and another, Dr Imelda Ryan, was a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist. I’m bound to wonder about their expertise. Evidently the commission shied away from confronting the simple truth that behaviour begins in the mind. Psychology was never Ireland’s strong suit, theology being the preferred substitute.
Brother Javier (a Ryan report pseudonym) was the sex disciplinarian during my time in Artane and I learned to my cost that he was a prodigious spanker who took obvious pleasure in his work. When, in December 1962, he was found to have dispensed a particularly severe spanking to an inmate, the Department of Education’s inspectorate dismissed the boy’s complaint but suggested Br Javier take a course in psychology. The brotherhood was mystified by the suggestion and ignored it. Who needs psychology when you have theology and a big stick?
And, of course, certain political taboos had to be observed by the Ryan report. Let me try to break one of those. The holders of the education portfolio between 1932 and 1957 – Thomas Derrig, Eamon de Valera, Seán Moylan and Richard Mulcahy – had all been men of violence, and Christian Brother alumni. There, I’ve said it, now I’ll have to wash my mouth out!
Is it any wonder that violence was endemic in institutions controlled by that department? These politicians are not held to account by Mr Justice Ryan nor are the ministers for justice or the judges. The Ryan report describes the child prison scandal as “an unfortunate tragedy”, implying that no one was responsible for the illegal mass-incarceration of thousands of Irish children.
In the Dáil on July 17th, 1951, Capt Peadar Cowan, a TD for the Artane area, complained to minister for education Moylan that the Artane boys were being flogged on the buttocks with canes, leaving marks. Instead
of putting a stop to the floggings, Moylan excused the practice by telling the Dáil, “. . . many of these children who have been confined are not normal children”.
So there we have it – spelled out in public for all to hear in 1951. The official word was that the Artane boys were not normal boys and therefore had to be flogged in a manner strictly forbidden in national schools. A form of degrading State-authorised violence was specifically and exclusively reserved for the child prisoners, and everyone knew it.
Now everyone denies knowing.
“If only we’d known” is the refrain now echoing across Ireland and in the corridors of power. Peadar Cowan’s 1951 intervention is not mentioned in the Ryan report and your readers are entitled to wonder why.
Ireland made the Christian Brothers and then they made Ireland. To a large extent their mindset is Ireland’s mindset. Their sadomasochism is an unacknowledged part of Irish male identity. The minds of many Irishmen – from Patrick Pearse to Eamon de Valera to Bertie Ahern to Seán Ryan – were formed by the brotherhood. Home truths are often difficult to acknowledge.
I said from the outset that the commission’s inquiry should be conducted by outsiders – individuals free of Ireland’s religious and political baggage. The Ryan report is an Irish solution to an Irish problem, an old-fashioned Irish cover-up.
Jim Beresford is former Artane child prisoner 14262. He lives in Huddersfield, England