Secretive State might mislead you to think abuse is thing of the past


ANALYSIS:SINCE THE publication of the Ryan commission report almost a fortnight ago, it has been said (with a certain sense of relief) that at least the era of institutional child abuse is firmly in the past. Such complacency is in fact profoundly misplaced, writes MARY RAFTERY

It is certainly true that you will not find in the Ryan report much detail of more recent cases of abuse within children’s residential homes. Mr Justice Seán Ryan tends to focus more on the abuses of the industrial schools era, which effectively ended in the mid to late 1970s.

There are a few exceptions to this, most notably the examination of abuse and neglect of children at the group home in Cappoquin, Co Waterford, run by ex-Mercy nun Nora Wall, identified in the Ryan report as Sr Callida, together with important details of recent abuse at the Christian Brothers-run school for deaf boys in Cabra.

However, detailed consideration of the abuses which we know occurred at a large number of other children’s residential centres well into the 1990s is notably absent. To deal with these, providing a link between the abusive past and much more recent practices, would have been an exercise of enormous value.

Unless those connections are rammed home, it remains far too easy to avoid confronting the legacy of the past, slipping again into the kind of generalised denial which so bedevils the area of child abuse in this country.

It is unfortunate in this context that the Ryan commission did not address in any detail the abuses which occurred in Dublin’s Madonna House.

One of the country’s largest children’s residential centres during the 1980s and early 1990s, it was run by the Irish Sisters of Charity. This was the same congregation responsible for employing no fewer than three paedophiles in succession to work in their industrial school in Kilkenny.

Frank Griffin, a maintenance man at Madonna House, was found guilty in 1993 of sexually abusing a number of children resident at the facility. It should be remembered that many of these children were already victims of sexual abuse – they had been removed from their families for their own safety and placed in State care.

In response to public pressure, the nuns and the government set up a joint inquiry into how the abuse could have occurred. The resultant report was published by the Department of Health in 1996. It immediately caused a public furore, principally because major sections had been censored or redacted. It was an almost identical forerunner of the controversy surrounding the recent report into the Monageer tragedy, where the State has similarly hidden from public view substantial sections of the inquiry report.

So determined was the State to keep secret the key findings of the Madonna House report that the members of the inquiry team had been threatened that their indemnity against any possible legal action taken on foot of the report’s contents would be withdrawn if any aspect of the censored portions were to be leaked. For the following three years, until the broadcast of the final part of States of Fear (on the day of the Taoiseach’s apology to victims of child abuse), the lid had remained firmly sealed on the truth of what had happened in Madonna House. We in RTÉ had however obtained a copy of the censored sections, and broadcast them that evening.

What they contained was damning evidence of cover-up and collusion, combined with the description of a pervasively abusive institution. Numerous children had reported to those in charge that Griffin was sexually abusing them, in one case a full eight years before any action was taken and the Gardaí informed. Other sexual abuse was also identified and detailed by the report.

Inevitably, it was in the previously hidden portions of the report that the pernicious legacy of the industrial school era was to be found. The inquiry team reported that children were subjected to “harsh, punitive and humiliating practices”. Words used to describe the facility and its management culture included unsafe, dangerous, secretive, closed, pervasive dysfunction, and incompetence. All of these findings were carefully designed to be hidden forever from public view.

And Madonna House was by no means alone. During the research for States of Fear, we were able to identify up to 20 residential childcare facilities where abuse had been reported and where inquiries were either absent or suppressed.

Trudder House in Co Wicklow was one of the most tragic cases. Set up in the mid-1970s to house boys from the Travelling community who had been living rough and sniffing glue, it almost immediately became a house of horrors. Eventually, 19 of its young residents made allegations of sexual abuse against several people connected with the home.

Allegations against its director included multiple aggravated rape of several children, together with sadistic beatings and torture. This individual fled Ireland during the 1980s and was reported to be working in childcare in Scotland. He died in the early 1990s.

In 1996, the Dáil was informed that Trudder House was the subject of an inquiry by the Eastern Health Board. This was not published. We do not even know if it was completed, let alone if any of its recommendations were implemented.

A similar pattern emerged in Cualann, a small group home for children run by the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge. This order had presided over an immense complex at High Park in Dublin’s Drumcondra, housing an industrial school and a large Magdalen laundry.

In the 1990s, the Gardaí investigated allegations of abuse of children at the Cualann facility. Again, these were acutely vulnerable children taken into State care for their own safety. Some of these allegations are at the most extreme end of the scale of depravity, involving boys as young as seven. The alleged perpetrator is believed to have fled to England and no prosecution ensued. The response of the nuns was simply to shut down their facility. The children were moved out of what had been their home. Some of them subsequently sought and were awarded damages in court, but no official inquiry of what had happened or how it had occurred was ever produced.

What remains so disturbing about this recent history of abuse and devastated childhood is the persistent pattern of secrecy from the State when confronted with its own responsibility and neglect. It is clear that lessons remain to be learnt, most particularly the imperative need for complete openness in all issues relating to child abuse.

States of Fear

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