Irish child abuse: The Ryan Report cover-up


Richard Moore

Irish child abuse: The Ryan Report cover-up

By Steve James 

26 May 2009

For all the details of sadistic physical, sexual, emotional abuse, neglect and brutalisation of children in Ireland’s industrial school system, the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) is a cover up. Nine years of hearings, the probing of hundreds of childhood hells, have resulted in a huge report—five volumes and 3,000 pages—which will not lead to the prosecution of those individually or collectively guilty of crimes against thousands of children.

Neither has political responsibility been attributed. The report by Judge Sean Ryan continues to obscure the role of the Catholic Church, which is an essential element of the Irish state, and successive governments in operating a cruel workhouse system through which at least 170,000 children passed through in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

Even the publication of the report was characterised by official arrogance, contempt and indifference to former inmates who braved hearings and interviews, including cross examination by representatives of the religious orders in whose schools they were incarcerated and brutalised. Paddy Doyle, wheelchair bound, attempted to attend publication of the report last week in the Conrad Hotel, Dublin and was confronted by locked doors, PR and security men. When other victims of abuse managed to force their way into the hearing, police were called.

Co-ordinator of the campaign group Survivors of Child Abuse, John Kelly, told the press from the steps of the hotel, “There is nothing by way of justice in any means significant in this report, nothing…We were encouraged by this commission and by the former Taoiseach to open our wounds. We did this and they’ve been left gaping open.”

The Irish state has consistently refused to take any real action against the perpetrators. This is not only because it is complicit, by its silence, in the abuses. More fundamentally, it was dependent upon the Catholic Church to force submission onto numerous poor children exploited as cheap labour in its industrial school system.
The report was only commissioned in 1999 following decades in which the appalling conditions in the industrial religious schools were common knowledge. From as early as 1961 news broadcasts, films, plays and countless personal experiences led to numerous complaints being filed against schools. Yet only in 1999 did then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern commission the CICA inquiry under Judge Mary Laffoy. Laffoy published interim reports and reportedly won respect from the survivor groups, but found her investigations hampered by the Department of Education and the Church. Laffoy resigned in 2003 and Judge Sean Ryan was appointed.

In 2004, Ryan struck a deal to ensure continued participation from the religious orders, agreeing not to name those accused of abuse. The hundreds of religious brothers, nuns and lay persons accused of abuse have been given pseudonyms in the CICA report. Only those previously convicted of child abuse are named. Another deal in 2002 limited the financial liability of the orders to compensation claims to a maximum of €128 million.

The CICA report nevertheless does make clear the horrifying crimes of the child-care system. Dealing mainly with the period between 1930 and 1970, the commission interviewed 1,090 former residents of 216 schools, reformatories and day schools—90 percent of whom said they had been physically abused and over 500 sexually abused.

Compiling other information from the Department of Education, the Vatican and the schools themselves, the commission concluded that some 800 individuals were identified as having physically or sexually abused children in their care.

Nothing more clearly condemns the political system that emerged from the partition of Ireland, the accommodation reached between the Irish bourgeoisie, the Catholic Church, and the former imperialist master in Britain, than the protracted existence of a children’s gulag intended to provide cheap pliant, unskilled, largely agricultural, Catholic labour. Ireland maintained the industrial school system, run by various Catholic, orders until the 1970s.

Journalist Bruce Arnold wrote in the Irish Independent, “The report contains nothing about the steady flow of reform in the British system of childcare, begun by Winston Churchill when he was Home Secretary and continued throughout the grim period in which Tomas Derrig was our Minister for Education. From 1932, Derrig placed an iron fist on top of the smouldering drum of industrial school illegality and did nothing at all. Irregularly, cases came up in the court, the press and in the Dail. They cried out for investigation. Derrig always refused. Investigation was generally refused by other ministers. Nothing is said of this in the report.”

Arnold also noted that the report contains no serious assessment of the role of the District Courts, from which children were committed to the schools. The young people forced into the system—some 1.2 percent of the childhood population between 1936 and 1970—were from the poorest backgrounds. At any time between 5,000 and 6,000 were held in around 50 or so boarding institutions.

Children would be referred by the courts for begging, having no visible means of subsistence, no obvious guardian, being in the charge of parents who were in prison, or had criminal or otherwise dubious reputations. Others were referred for petty offences including non-attendance at school. Young girls who had been raped were sent to reformatories.

Most of the industrial schools held around 250 children. The largest, Artane near Dublin, held around 800. They were universally characterised by violence, fear, neglect, hunger, poor clothing, cold and miserable conditions, bullying, poor education, emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

The greatest numbers of industrial schools were run by the Christian Brothers, which opened its first school in Dublin in 1870 and expanded operations to the UK, Australia, Canada, Gibraltar, India and the United States and still operates in 26 countries.

The Christian Brothers recruited young, often badly educated men from the age of 14 onwards, who took permanent vows of chastity and silence from the age of 25. They were entirely untrained, learning only by the primitive and brutal practice of their elders. The report notes, “The Christian Brothers became a powerful and dominant organisation in the State and were responsible for providing primary and post primary education to the majority of Catholic boys in the country.”

Industrial Schools were funded on a per-capita basis, encouraging the orders to cram in as many children as possible. The section on Artane notes reasons for committal between 1940 and 1969: 1,374 children were committed for “improper guardianship”, 1,045 for bad school attendance, 720 for destitution, 227 for being homeless, 220 for larceny, 90 for other crimes.

These children were plunged into a medieval environment, with the report compiling a vast litany of atrocities. A few examples are enough.

A letter from the head of the school warns Brother Beaufort, “You are passionate in your dealings with the boys. In fact at times you show so little control of your temper that you are in danger of inflicting serious bodily harm on the boys by your manner of correcting them.”

One victim was picked up and thrown around a class by Brother Beaufort, knocked unconscious, and was only saved by the intervention of another Brother. The child suffered lacerations, broken teeth, eye and neck injuries.

All the staff carried leather straps which were freely used on children. A Brother Oliver repeatedly beat children with particular violence. One victim reported, “I was running trying to get away from him. He hit me, it didn’t matter where, legs, back, head, anywhere…”

Oliver forced one 12-year-old child to lick excrement from his shoes.

Instruments of punishment included rubber from a pram wheel, hurley sticks, hurley balls, fists, finger nails and fan belts. One child’s hand was held in boiling water. Boys were repeated pulled around by the hair, punched, strapped for crimes such as being left handed, being slow, tearing a blanket, having worn out shoes.

Another inmate commented, “You don’t seem to understand, the place was built on terror, regular beatings were just accepted. What you’re hearing about is the bad ones, but we accepted as normal run of the mill from the minute you got up, that some time in that day you would get beaten.”

Sexual abuse was rife. Artane’s staff hosted a number of Brothers who had repeatedly been warned for “embracing and fondling” boys. Two such paedophiles went on to be hung for child murder in Canada. Others accused of rape, beat or bribed their victims into silence. Accused Brothers were invariably excused, lightly admonished or, typically, moved to other institutions where they were free to continue abusing children for decades.

The children provided cheap labour for running the institutions. A 1957 report by the Department of Education complained, “These lads really make the running of Artane possible yet in all the apartments devoted to the farm and the trades there is not a single toilet or wash-basin for these boys. They come into their meals in a shocking condition, hands, faces and clothes are covered with the grime of the trades, boots, stockings and portions of the trousers often soaking from working in the cowhouse or the manure pit.”

St Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge featured in two broadcasts, “Dear Daughter” and “States of Fear”, which undermined the official silence on the schools. Run by the Sisters of Mercy, young girls were held in conditions of neglect and near starvation, subject to repeated beatings. One victim summed up the lasting impact of their experience. Their comments could apply to the entire system.

“The screaming of children, the screaming of children will stay with me for the rest of my life about Goldenbridge. I still hear it, I still haven’t recovered from that. Children crying and screaming, it was just endless, it never never stopped for years in that place.”

The report is available from here: