Child Abuse Scandal: How the Irish Government protected the Catholic Church

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Excerpt from Beyond Belief: The Catholic Church and the Child Abuse Scandal, by David Yallop (Constable & Robinson, 2010). Reprinted with permission from the author.

From Part 2: Ratzinger: Confronting the Secret System

In April 2009, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin publicly warned all Irish Catholics to brace themselves for the publication of the Ryan Report in May. This was a monumental investigation, named after Chairperson Judge Sean Ryan, begun in 1999 and concluded ten years later. Entitled ‘The Report of the Commission on Child Sexual Abuse’, it dealt in great detail within its 2,600 pages with clerical abuse reaching back to before the Second World War. The Commission’s brief was to investigate all forms of child abuse in Irish institutions for children. The majority of allegations it investigated focused upon the system operated in some sixty residential ‘Reformatory and Industrial Schools’ operated by Catholic Church Orders, more often than not run by the Christian Brothers.

The report should be made compulsory reading for the wide range of apologists not only for the current Pope, it is a truly shocking indictment. The report establishes that the system within these schools treated children ‘like prison inmates and slaves’ devoid of any legal rights. The report identified sub-human behaviour that repeatedly records beatings and rapes, subjection to naked beatings in public, being forced to perform oral sex, and even beatings after failed rape attempts by Christian Brothers.

Adjectives including ‘systemic’, ‘pervasive’, ‘chronic’, ‘excessive’, ‘arbitrary’ and ‘endemic’ are used by the Commission to describe the indescribable. Those apologists will search in vain for evidence that what occurred was perpetrated by a very small minority, although even one perverted degenerate would be one too many. It is clear from the details contained within this document that we are confronted with a widespread evil that went on year after year, decade after decade.

It is mystifying therefore that the late Karol Wojtyla dismissed the clerical abuse of children as ‘an American problem’. Anyone who shares that level of self-delusion and therefore concludes, for example, that what confronted the Ryan Commission was first ‘an Irish problem’ should reflect that wherever the Christian Brothers went – be it Canada, Australia or elsewhere – they brought with them their version of Christianity, which included systematic brutality. The report contains forty-three conclusions and twenty recommendations. The former include:

  • Overall: physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions. Sexual abuse occurred in many of them, particularly boys’ institutions. Schools were run in a severe regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even on staff.
  • Physical abuse: the Reformatory and Industrial Schools depended on rigid control by means of severe corporal punishment and fear of such punishment, which permeated more of the institutions and most of those run for boys. Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from.
  • Sexual abuse: sexual abuse was endemic in boys’ institutions. The schools investigated revealed a substantial level of sexual abuse of boys in care that extended from improper touching and fondling to rape with violence. Perpetrators of abuse were able to operate undetected for long periods at the core of institutions.

When confronted with evidence of sexual abuse, the religious authorities’ response was to transfer the offender to another location where, in many instances, he was free to abuse again. Although girls were subjected to predatory sexual abuse, it was not systemic in girls’ schools. There is a belief in some circles that this secret system of moving a molester is a gambit that began in the 1980s, but the long reach of this investigation, back to testimony that is pre-Second World War, exposes this canard. The evidence extends much further and ranges from 1914 onwards.

Over 25,000 children attended these institutions. Approximately 1,500 came forward with complaints to the Commission. Doubtless that number would have been far greater if others had lived to tell their tale; still others did not testify for a variety of reasons, ranging from shame to fear. The effect of these abuses upon the children is there for the rest of their lives. It was not easy for any of them to testify to strangers; that would take extraordinary courage. They talked of the neglect, the poor standards of physical care, of the gnawing hunger day after day, struggling to survive with minimal food that was inedible and badly prepared. They described the lack of heating in bleak rooms, and the emotional as well as the physical abuse. Going to the toilet would often be seized upon as an opportunity for degradation and humiliation. They recalled that the criticism was incessant, as was the verbal abuse, which was invariably accompanied with shouting of how worthless they were.

The Commission also established that successive governments had conspired with the perpetrators. The Department of Education inspectors were ‘fundamentally flawed and incapable of being effective’. The department did not apply the standards laid out in the rules and their own guidelines when investigating complaints but ‘sought to protect and defend the religious congregations and schools’. The department dealt inadequately with complaints about sexual abuse, ‘which were generally dismissed or ignored’.

The Commission’s recommendations were limited by the Irish Government to just two categories. In short, the Irish taxpayer picked up the bill for the costs of the inquiry and any compensation but remained in ignorance of exactly who was to blame. It was a situation that would endure because of previous undertakings given to the Christian Brothers, including the promise that there would be no prosecutions even though the evidence of criminal acts was overwhelming.

It had been intended that there would be a policy of ‘name and shame’, but that was blocked by a legal challenge made by the Christian Brothers. The Brothers sought and received permission to deal with abusers anonymously. Thus, the report does not state whether all abusers were members of religious orders in charge of schools, or whether external parties were involved. Notwithstanding the straightjacket imposed on the Commission, the report had a profound impact in Ireland and beyond. But a sustained wailing and gnashing of teeth in the face of such sustained criminal behaviour is worthless unless at the end there is a measure of justice for the victims. Without that there would be little to show other than a pile of platitudes.

In the event ‘no naming and shaming’ was followed by the revelation of a further twisting of the knife. An ‘indemnity deal’ had been signed between two representatives of the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI), an umbrella group representing 138 religious congregations, on behalf of eighteen religious orders that had run the residential institutions, and the then Minister of Education, Michael Woods. It would not have been unreasonable to expect that many of those responsible for the acts condemned by the Commission would end up in court, then in prison. Instead, the deal that had been cut between the government and CORI not only ensured immunity and privacy, it went even further: the religious orders were also indemnified from any legal action, whereby any costs would now be met by the Irish taxpayers in return for a transfer of property and assets to the sum of €128 million. No representatives of the victims had been involved in any of these negotiations.

The sum of €128 million did not even cover the cost of the Commission, leaving nothing to compensate the victims. This deal remained secret until revealed by the news media in January 2013. It had been completed by a caretaker government at the time of the 2012 election, on the last possible day of business. As such the agreement had neither Cabinet approval nor the benefit of a debate on the issues within the Dáil. The overall cost to the Irish taxpayer has been put at €1 billion.

This currently is what passes for justice in Ireland for the victims of sexual and physical abuse. In June 2009, Pope Benedict yet again demonstrated that he inhabits a very rarefied area untouched by reality. Talking to the Irish bishops Martin and Brady, the Pope urged them:

To establish the truth of what has happened, ensure that justice is done for all, put in place the measures that will prevent these abuses happening again, with a view to healing for survivors.

This meeting between Benedict and the two bishops took place a month after the Ryan Report had been published. The Pope’s appeal was directed not just at the two men sitting before him but to the entire Catholic Church of Ireland and to its priests and nuns. Quite simply, he was asking the Church to find a satisfactory solution. Many priests within that Church would appear to have concluded in the lights of the various clauses in the ‘indemnity deal’ that they already had a satisfactory solution.

This was not and is not a problem confined to the orphanages, schools of correction and institutions. In Ireland there were wider lessons to be learned. Even after the meticulous detail contained within the Ryan Report was published the apologists continued to deny the truth, doubtless motivated by a sentiment shared by many within the Vatican and other places ‘for the good of Mother Church’. They hid behind a quiver of curious arguments: ‘This was only a small minority of priests … These children who were allegedly abused, well nothing has been proved in court … They were all ne’er do wells, part of the criminal class … this survey only looked at children being held in residential institutions and industrial schools.’ That last argument had particular resonance for the traditional Catholic. ‘Take a survey of the Dublin Archdiocese and you will get a quite different picture’, went the argument. Sometimes life is well written.

Next up for consideration was the Murphy Report, again named after its Chairperson, Judge Yvonne Murphy, with the mandate to report on the handling by Church and State authorities of a representative sample of allegations and suspicions of child sexual abuse against clerics operating under the aegis of the Archdiocese of Dublin over the period 1975 to 2004.

Judge Murphy and her Commission were appointed in November 2005; their report was published in November 2009. Publication was delayed for some six months by the government, and was only eventually released because the Irish High Court ruled that it should be. At the eleventh hour, the Irish Government, who where of course fully aware of the report’s contents, asked the Court to further delay publication. The Court declined the application.

The Murphy Commission was working to a much smaller compass than the Ryan Report. Its time-frame was confined to twenty-nine years, and the representative sample of cases investigated was confined to the activities of forty-six priests. The report’s introduction couched in calm neutral language calmly reveals quite shocking facts.

It is important in the Commission’s view not to equate the number of complaints with the actual instances of child sexual abuse. While a significant number of priests against whom allegations were made admitted child sexual abuse, some denied it. Of those investigated by the Commission, one priest admitted to abusing over 100 children, while another accepted that he had abused on a fortnightly basis during the currency of his ministry which lasted over 25 years [a minimum of 650 separate sexual acts of abuse on children]. The total number of documented complaints recorded against those two priests is just over seventy. In another case, there is only one complaint but the priest has admitted abusing at least six other children.

Officials of the Archdiocese of Dublin conveyed to the Commission that the various cases that had come to light over the previous thirty-five years had left the Church, in common with the general public,

taken by surprise by the volume of the revelations … Church authorities have repeatedly claimed to have been, prior to the late 1990s, on a “learning curve” in relation to the matter. Having completed its investigation, the Commission does not accept the truth of such claims and assertions.

Yet again, the spectre of suppression of the truth for the good of Mother Church raises its head.

The Dublin Archdiocese’s pre-occupations in dealing with cases of child sexual abuse, at least until the mid 1990s, were the maintenance of secrecy, the avoidance of scandal, the protection of the reputation of the Church and the preservation of its assets. All other considerations, including the welfare of children and justice for victims, were subordinated to these priorities. The Archdiocese did not implement its own canon law rules and did its best to avoid any application of the law of the State.

Not much comfort for the apologists is to be found in those conclusions. Indeed, as can be seen, although the area of investigations differed vastly from Justice Ryan’s epic investigation of industrial schools and orphanages, the evidence and the conclusions to be drawn from the respective reports have an overwhelming symmetry. As for the ‘learning curve’ pleading of ignorance, Archbishop McQuaid was dealing with such cases in the 1950s and 1960s. There have been bishops all over the world who have used this defence during the past thirty years. Any adult male – be he a bishop or a man in any other walk of life – who did not know long before this scandal became public knowledge that grown men having sex with children is wrong and insidiously harmful to children is either an idiot or a liar or both.

Excerpted from Beyond Belief by David Yallop. Copyright © 2010, 2013 by David Yallop. All rights reserved.

David Yallop is widely considered to be the world’s leading investigative writer. In the course of his career, he has met with some of the world’s most powerful and most dangerous men, often he has uncovered truths that they had wanted to keep buried. He is the author of amongst others, In God’s Name, The Power and the Glory, and Beyond Belief.

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  1. Instead, the inquiry was ordered to look at child protection practices in the diocese and how it dealt with complaints against 19 priests made from 1996, the year in which the Catholic Church put in place detailed procedures for dealing with child sexual abuse.


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