Religious still denying scale

Extraordinary evidence of abuse and cover up.
Religious orders say institutions were happy and well run. Colin Murphy reports

• "Br Blank is more to be pitied than censured. He just has no control over his hands."

• "Br Blank (was) accused of immodest handling of boys in Clonmel. The Council, after hearing Br Blank, considered the offence more imprudent than grave."

• "If a Brother were transferred as Superior to another place, in that way his character would be amply safeguarded."

• "The brother... happened accidentally to strike the boy, who stood behind him, with his elbow in the face."

• "Should it be a custom that Brothers, teachers or night watchmen take boys out of bed at nighttime and beat them, that custom is to cease, I am now forbidding it."

Denial, contradiction, equivocation, cover-up. And no concern for the children abused. Eight years after the apologies by the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy for the abuse of children in their institutions, the leadership of the orders stood before the Child Abuse Commission recently and said the institutions they ran were happy, well-run places.

Time and again they were confronted with the evidence, from their own archives, that this was not so: that sexual abuse (in the case of the Brothers' institutions) was rife, that physical abuse was chronic, and that complaints of abuse met with only mild sanction and no apparent concern for those abused.

David Gibson of the Christian Brothers said sexual abuse had been proven in just two cases in Letterfrack, in which the abusers had been convicted. Helena O'Donoghue of the Sisters of Mercy said "excessive" physical abuse had never happened in Goldenbridge. Michael Reynolds of the Christian Brothers said Artane was "overall... not an abusive institution".

David Gibson said the Christian Brothers believed "quite a number" of the 449 complaints of abuse that had been made since the Taoiseach's apology in 1999 were "motivated by redress". He claimed that solicitors had distributed thousands of copies of RTÉ documentaries about the industrial schools, by implication saying that this had encouraged fraudulent claims and "contamination of evidence".

He offered no evidence that such videos had been distributed. Groups representing former residents rejected his claims: public meetings were indeed held, they said, with solicitors, gardaí, and counsellors in attendance at some, and these served to inform people of their rights to make a complaint and to apply for redress.

The Redress Board, which awards compensation to former residents who were abused, has made awards to over 2,000 people so far. Just six people have been refused awards. It is open to the religious orders to challenge applicants for redress. The Christian Brothers have done so in just two cases (although they have made written submissions denying abuse in many more).

David Gibson said it was possible for boys to report abuse to the school authorities, and where abuse was reported, action was taken. Yet Maurice Tobin, a serial abuser in Letterfrack between 1959 and 1974, was never reported. Maurice Tobin was charged with 140 counts of buggery and indecent assault and convicted on 25 sample charges in 2003. Passing sentence, Judge Harvey Kenny wondered "how such violent sexual assaults were allowed to go unchecked". "Nobody was listening then", the judge concluded.

Counsel for the Commission and for the former residents of the Christian Brothers' institutions quoted document after document from the order's own archives which demonstrated that the order's leadership had known that abuse was a crime, had known that they had repeat abusers on their staff, had transferred known abusers to other schools in order to avoid "shame" and "scandal". Abuse by brothers was never reported to the Garda Síochána. In case after case, the leadership's chief concern was for the reputation of the institution and the order, and for the abuser's own welfare and position within the order. There was nothing to indicate any concern for the victims of abuse; in cases where brothers were known to have a history of abuse, no apparent attempt to identify previous victims had been made.

In the case of Goldenbridge, counsel for the former residents quoted from an internal document prepared by the Sisters of Mercy in 1996, which said it was "evident that children experienced physical and emotional abuse" and that there was a "strong ethos of fear" at Goldenbridge. The document was a summary of a report commissioned by the order from Ger Crowley, now the assistant chief officer of the Health Services Executive Mid Western Area.

Helena O'Donoghue, the provincial leader of the south-central province of the order, whose name appeared on the document, refused to endorse it at the Commission. She said she had since talked to two of the senior sisters who were quoted in the report as being heavily critical of Goldenbridge (and now deceased), and they were not happy with how they had been quoted.

She said Goldenbridge was "a reasonably effective and caring institution, according to the standards of the time". She said there was no "excessive" corporal punishment at Goldenbridge and no beatings that had "caused physical harm or injury to anybody".

David McGrath, counsel for former residents, asked her why, then, had the order previously apologised. Helena O'Donoghue said they apologised "for the fact that we were in some way inattentive to the needs of the children".

David Gibson told the Commission sexual abuse "was seen more as a moral weakness than actually a criminal offence". Yet in 1932, a senior Christian Brother wrote of a known abuser: "he is a very great danger to us. Two Brothers were hanged in Canada within the last two years for murder of their victims after such an offence".

And in 1942, a letter from the order's leadership instructed the Superiors in the order's "houses of instruction" to "speak in the plainest terms of the offence", at least monthly, and to tell trainee brothers "that it is punishable by civil law and unfits a man for the profession of his teaching".

Faced with these documents, David Gibson accepted they showed that sexual abuse was seen by the order as a crime. He said he was "not sure if (he) had those documents" when writing his statement to the Commission.

Michael Reynolds told the Commission "the recidivous nature" of abuse was "not well understood at the time".

He said that instances where brothers who were found to have abused children went on to have senior positions in the order happened where "the system of checking through the years had fallen down".

Yet, in 1958, the Superior of a school who admitted to abuse (referred to in the document cited as "indiscretions" with students) was transferred to another school as Superior. The man had a good record in improving discipline at the school, and the order's leadership felt that this may have led to some of the complaints against him being exaggerated, so "it would be only fair to give the brother a chance as Superior in another house". A further letter noted that the transfer would ensure that "his character would be amply safeguarded".

At earlier hearings of the Commission, in June 2005, David Gibson explained the policy of moving brothers between schools following complaints of abuse by reference to "the whole theology of sin and occasion of sin".

"If you move the person from the occasion of sin then he would be less inclined to re-offend", he said.

"One thing I can say is they didn't try to cover it up. They removed the person from the scene and they tried to ensure that he wasn't involved in another set-up, but unfortunately that did happen." The Commission heard a litany of examples where "that did happen".

In 1938, a complaint of sexual abuse was made against a brother teaching in Cork. A senior brother wrote that he had feared the "inevitable" in this brother's case for the previous four years, as "he had no control over his hands". The abuse consisted of "fondling" boys, and there were conflicting opinions as to whether the brother had "meddled with the boys in their private parts".

"Knowing him as I do, as we do, I thank God he did not do worse", the senior brother wrote, saying the brother was "more to be pitied than censured". The brother was given a canonical warning and was told to say a decade of the rosary each day for the remainder of Lent as penance. He was transferred to a school in Limerick, and later to Artane.

In this case, the abuse only emerged when a boy's mother complained after the boy had himself been expelled from the school. "It is a case of a woman's revenge and shows that the less we have to do with outsiders the better", the senior brother wrote.

Another brother was accused of "immodest handling of boys" in Clonmel in 1950. The order's leadership judged this offence to be "more imprudent than grave" and allowed the brother to continue in his teaching role. Five years later, there was a further, similar complaint. This time, it was judged "grave" by the Council. The brother received a canonical warning (a warning that he would be expelled following further offences).

In 1972, a brother applied to leave the order, after 22 years, because of being unable to keep his vow of chastity. A letter accompanying his application, noted that he was "known to have interfered with boys in his class". The brother himself wrote: "There have been many instances where I have caused anxiety to my major Superiors, but they have been good enough to give me the benefit of the doubt. I know I have caused much scandal".

The brother's "dispensation" (from his vows) was duly approved in Rome. However, at the time of his death, in 1995, the brother was still a member of the order and had remained working and living in the Christian Brothers houses throughout. Michael Reynolds said he could not explain how this had happened.

According to a document from 1953 cited at the Commission, the leadership of the Christian Brothers in Dublin wrote to all their residential schools with the instruction: "Should it be a custom that Brothers, teachers or night watchmen take boys out of bed at nighttime and beat them, that custom is to cease, I am now forbidding it".

In the hearing dealing with St Joseph's industrial school in Tralee, counsel for the former residents, Mark Connaughton, outlined the case of one brother who continued teaching in Christian Brothers schools for more than a decade despite, on separate occasions, having fractured a boy's jaw, beaten a boy with a stick, and given a boy a black eye. Seamus Nolan, who represented the order at the hearing, said he could not explain the "leniency" shown to this brother.

In another incident at Tralee, in 1969, a father complained that his son had received "brutal punishment" from the Resident Manager for having "absconded" from the school. The Resident Manager replied, in writing, that he had "used a leather strap as the instrument of correction" on the boy's bottom, "because I maintained that's where nature intended it to be used". The Resident Manager further said: "there is no question of the strap having been put around his neck or anywhere near his neck for that matter... I have examined the boy's neck and could find not the slightest sign of any mark or bruise." This was the same man accused of the abuse, inspecting the victim for signs of the alleged abuse, and reporting back that there was none. Seamus Nolan of the Christian Brothers told the Commission this incident happened during an "interim period" when the Resident Manager was also acting Superior, and was "rather confused" about who should investigate the complaint.

A document from 1942 showed how an earlier incident of physical abuse in Letterfrack was covered up by the leadership, following a report by a health inspector. The inspector reported that a boy who had a black eye said he had been hit for talking in class. The school's Resident Manager explained the circumstances to the inspector in a letter: "The brother, while remonstrating with his class, happened accidentally to strike the boy who stood behind him, with his elbow in the face." David Gibson agreed with counsel that this was not a "plausible" explanation.p

Child sex abuse counselling helpline underfunded

The only organisation in Ireland dedicated to supporting and helping those affected by child sexual abuse receives just €57,000 Government funding annually. The Children at Risk in Ireland (CARI) organisation offers support, counseling, advice and a helpline to those affected by child sexual abuse. The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland report, 2002, reported that one in five women experienced sexual abuse in childhood, and one in six men.

They have received €57,000 from the HSE for the last few years. However, the HSE money is not guaranteed and CARI are not told whether they will be granted funding again until late in the year, when existing funding has almost run out. Caroline O'Connell, National Director of Development at CARI says they have "nothing in writing" and therefore "no real security" from the HSE money, leaving them in a "panic-situation" every year. They will not be told whether they are to receive money for 2007 until September.

Caroline O'Connell says as a result of this they are unable to develop services as they have no guaranteed baseline funding. Due to the lack of resources they can only open the CARI helpline Monday-Friday, 9.30-5.30. Caroline O'Connell says that this is totally unsuitable as many people are calling about a sensitive issue and would be unable to do so during working hours. Last year CARI's helpline received 1,145 calls – 58 per cent of these calls related to abuse within the family.

CARI's helpline provides a vital service. The SAVI report recommended that the Government provide a national helpline to provide information on sexual abuse. To date this still has not been done. Last year 27 per cent of the calls CARI received were information request. They also provided 1,568 hours of therapy to those affected by child sexual abuse.

The most recent Annual Report shows that CARI received €150,000 from the Family Support Agency and a once-off grant from the Department of Health and Children of €150,000 in 2005. Caroline O'Connell says the Department of Health and Children money only came in the final weeks of the year because they were "desperate".

Emma Browne