Irish Panel Documents Physical, Sexual Abuse at Schools From 1930 to 1990

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A fiercely debated, long-delayed investigation into Ireland's Roman Catholic-run institutions says priests and nuns terrorized thousands of boys and girls in workhouse-style schools for decades. Video by AP

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By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 21, 2009

LONDON, May 20 -- Thousands of children were physically and sexually abused by priests and nuns in orphanages and reform schools in Ireland from 1930 to 1990, a government commission said Wednesday in the first official accounting of the full magnitude of a scandal that has wrenched the deeply Roman Catholic nation.

The 2,600-page report, which capped a nine-year investigation, said rape and sexual abuse were "endemic" in boys' institutions funded by the state but run by the church. "A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys," it said.

More than 300 people who now live abroad, including in the United States, returned to Ireland to testify at 166 hearings on what happened to them in schools and group homes. In all, more than 1,000 people, most now in their 50s or older, described rapes, molestation, floggings, scaldings and other abuse.

The closest the United States has come to a similar accounting was a 2004 report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It found that 5,000 priests -- more than 4 percent of all those who had served in the United States since 1950 -- had been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors. More than 12,000 Americans have reported being abused by priests, and a deluge of lawsuits has cost the church more than $1 billion, bankrupting several U.S. dioceses.

For decades, Ireland educated tens of thousands of orphans and other children 5 to 16 years old -- including some with disabilities and others born to unwed mothers or with histories of petty crime and truancy -- in more than 200 crowded, 19th-century institutional homes that had largely been shut down by 1990. Although the government paid for them, religious orders ran them.

The commission was set up by the Irish government and headed by High Court Justice Sean Ryan. Already worried about declining church attendance, many priests had warned parishioners in recent Sunday homilies that the report would "shock us all," as the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said last month.

"I am profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed," Cardinal Sean Brady said after the report was released Wednesday in Dublin. "Children deserved better and especially from those caring for them in the name of Jesus Christ."

The commission said documents found at the Vatican showed that religious orders knew of numerous abuse complaints but covered them up, worried more about scandal than about protecting children.

The Christian Brothers ran many of the residential boys homes in Ireland, and more allegations were made against it than against all the other male religious orders combined. The Christian Brothers successfully sued the commission in 2004 to keep its members unnamed, noting that many of the brothers were dead and could not defend themselves.

In the end, no priest or nun was named in the report -- a fact many of the victims groups decried, because the findings would not aid those pursuing criminal prosecutions. "It's deeply flawed, incomplete, a whitewash," John Kelly, coordinator of the Survivors of Child Abuse, an Irish victims group, told reporters in Dublin.

"Omitting the names of the accused clerics is a fatal flaw," said Anne Barrett Doyle of Bishop Accountability, a Boston-based group that has collected data in the United States and abroad on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy.

John Walsh, who described himself as a victim of abuse, told Irish reporters that he was "very angry, very bitter" that no priests were named. "I feel cheated and deceived. I would have never opened my wounds if I'd known this was going to be the end result."


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