Schools abuse report rocks Ireland

The New York Times/May 24, 2009

Tens of thousands of Irish children were sexually, physically and emotionally abused by nuns, priests and others over 60 years in hundreds of Catholic Church-run residential schools meant to care for the poor, the vulnerable and the unwanted, according to a report released in Dublin this week.

The 2600-page report paints a picture of institutions characterised by privation and cruelty.

"A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions," the report says. In the boys' schools, it says, sexual abuse was "endemic".

The report, by a state-appointed commission, took nine years to produce. It has infuriated many victims' groups because it does not name any of the hundreds of individuals accused of abuse and thus cannot be used as a basis for prosecutions.

It was delayed because of a lawsuit brought by the Christian Brothers, the order that ran many of the boys' schools and which successfully fought to have the abusers' names omitted. The commission's first chair man resigned in 2003, saying Ireland's Department of Education had refused to release crucial documents.

The report covers a period from the '30s to the '90s, when the last of the institutions closed. It exposes how the government and the church colluded in perpetuating an abusive system.

The report singles out the Department of Education, meant to regulate the schools, for running "toothless" inspections that overlooked glaring problems and deferred to church authority.

The report is based in part on old church records of unreported abuse cases and in part on the anonymous testimony of 1060 former pupils from a variety of 216 mostly church-run institutions, including reformatories and so-called industrial schools.

Most of the former pupils are now 50 to 80 years old.

About 30000 children were sent to such places over six decades, the report says, often against their families' wishes and because of pressure from powerful local priests.

They were sent because their families could not afford to care for them; because their mothers had committed adultery or given birth out of wedlock; or because one or both of their parents were ill, a drunk or abusive. They were also sent because of petty crime, like stealing food, or because they had missed school.

The report lists the physical abuse suffered in the boys' schools: "Punching, flogging, assault and bodily attacks, hitting with the hand, kicking, ear pulling, hair pulling, head shaving, beating on the soles of the feet, burning, scalding, stabbing, severe beatings with or without clothes, being made to kneel and stand in fixed positions for lengthy periods, made to sleep outside overnight, being forced into cold or excessively hot baths and showers, hosed down with cold water before being beaten, beaten while hanging from hooks on the wall, being set upon by dogs, being restrained in order to be beaten, physical assaults by more than one person, and having objects thrown at them."

Some of the schools operated essentially as workhouses. In one school, Goldenbridge, girls as young as seven spent hours a day making rosaries by stringing beads onto lengths of wire, looping the wire and cutting it with pliers after each bead. They were given quotas: 600 beads on weekdays and 900 on Sundays.

Girls slaved away at menial tasks and were physically abused if they fell short. Misdemeanors included "not getting fires lit in time to heat water, scorching clerical vestments and religious habits, cutting themselves while slicing bread, dropping crockery, not chopping enough sticks or carrying enough coal, getting their clothes dirty while carrying coal, dropping trays while serving visitors in the parlours and burning bread in the bakery".

Girls who were ill had their mouths pried open to make them eat; one testified that she was forced to eat her own vomit. They were punished if they wet their beds and if they bled on their sheets or underwear during menstruation. And they were routinely sexually abused, often by more than one person at a time, in "dormitories, schools, motor vehicles, bathrooms, staff bedrooms, churches, sacristies, fields, parlours, the residences of clergy, holiday locations and while with godparents and employers."

The Vatican had no response. Leaders of various religious orders issued abject apologies, taking care to frame the problem as something that was now behind them.

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