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."
Some church defenders suggested that victims may have exaggerated their claims. But many Irish commentators portrayed the report as a devastating indictment of both the church and the state. The Irish government has paid compensation to 12,000 abuse victims, and more claims are pending.
The report strongly criticized the Irish Education Department for lack of oversight, describing how a state inspector could be responsible for as many as 50 schools and would typically announce his visits in advance and neglect to talk to children.
In general, the commission found, the severe physical and sexual abuse that occurred in boys' schools was absent in girls' schools. But it said "emotional abuse," including humiliation and denigration, was common in institutions for girls. Also, it said, in some girls' schools "a high level of ritualized beating was routine," and "girls were struck with implements designed to maximize pain and were struck on all parts of the body."
At Dublin's Artane Industrial School, which had 800 boys, sexual abuse was "chronic," and physical punishment was "excessive and pervasive and, because of its arbitrary nature, led to a climate of fear among the boys," the commission found. In a County Galway facility, it said, two abusers were in charge of children for 14 years without any authorities taking steps to remove them.
In part because of a deferential attitude to the clergy, Education Department officials often failed to investigate claims of abuse, the commission noted. "The management did not listen to or believe children when they complained of the activities of some of the men who had responsibility for their care," it said, adding that in the worst cases, children who complained were "blamed and seen as corrupted by the sexual activity and punished severely."
But the commission said that victims also recalled kindnesses by priests, nuns or lay employees: "Many emphasized the enormous difference that just a kind word or gesture made to their daily lives."
Then-Prime Minister Bertie Ahern authorized the investigation after issuing an apology to the nation in 1999. One of the commission's recommendations is the creation of a memorial bearing Ahern's apology "to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue."