LIMERICK, Ireland — Five decades have passed since the abuse, and now the men, once classmates in a Catholic school, are between 58 and 60 years old.
Many still live around Limerick in western Ireland. They are security guards, factory men, retail workers. Some are unemployed. They get together now and then, and they’ve become better at talking about what happened to them.
But they are still coming to grips with how dark events from their boyhood have shaped their lives.
In the class taught by Christian Brother Sean Drummond — in a school, Gerald Griffin Memorial, where days started and ended with prayer — at least 19 boys were abused in 1967 and 1968, according to the men and accounts of court procedures.
Two have died, and at least two others tried to take their own lives. One said he became so terrified of school, he never learned to read or write. Almost all said their faith has been transformed. They had been born Roman Catholic in a country overwhelmingly tied to the Vatican. The vast majority of the former students say they no longer feel those bonds.
“I believe in God,” said Gerard Smyth, 59. “I don’t go to Mass.”
“We’re Christians,” said Thomas Hogan, 59. “But not Catholic.”
The deep scars left by abuse trace across the empire of the Catholic Church, most recently detailed in Pennsylvania by a grand jury report tying more than 300 priests to abuses as far back as 1947.
But it is Ireland — where Pope Francis arrives Saturday — that provides perhaps the clearest evidence about how decades of pervasive church-linked crimes and coverup can weaken the church and engender a sense of betrayal and defiance on a national scale.
Francis is planning to meet with some abuse victims, and he is under pressure during his two-day trip to acknowledge the Vatican’s role — which could be a starting point for the church to recover some ground in a nation where Roman Catholic roots run deep. But many in Ireland say the Vatican already has waited too long to act meaningfully, even failing to cooperate with Ireland’s own investigations. Whatever Francis says in Ireland, far fewer are now interested in listening.
“The Catholic Church — they need to burn down the whole rotten structure and start over,” said Christopher Rainbow, 60, one of the 19 from the primary school in Limerick.
The last time a pontiff visited Ireland — John Paul II in 1979 — an estimated 2.7 million people came out to greet him.
It has since become ground zero for the church’s declining authority across Europe. A series of lengthy, high-profile Irish investigations — predecessors to the Pennsylvania grand jury report — detailed abuse and complicity and helped to accelerate a social revolt.
Although Ireland nominally remains 78 percent Catholic, surveys suggest only a third of adults now attend church weekly. In the past few years, Ireland used referendums to approve same-sex marriage and end an abortion ban — all in the face of Catholic Church opposition.
What Ireland has been left to contend with are the tens of thousands of victims who faced sexual and physical abuse in parishes but also in the many layers of society where the church was involved, including orphanages, reformatories, and nun-run asylums and schools.
The poor and unwanted were often the most vulnerable. One report on church-run residential schools said physical abuse took place in “classrooms, offices, cloakrooms, dormitories, showers, infirmaries, refectories, the bedrooms of staff members.”
“We’re talking about abuse on an industrial scale,” said Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International in Dublin, who was abused as a teenager by a priest. “There is not a family or community in this country that hasn’t been touched by the crimes of the church.”
In Limerick, the men from the Christian Brothers school reached middle age saying almost nothing publicly about what had happened to them. One man would show up drunk to his job and never say why. Two former classmates lived side-by-side, raising families, and did not discuss the abuse. Another told his wife about the experience, only to become so disturbed by memories that he struggled to have sex.
Smyth, the 59-year-old who said he no longer goes to Mass, thought about the abuse in quiet moments, when he was with his kids, and couldn’t stifle the terrifying thought that child victims like him could grow up to become perpetrators themselves.
“Am I capable of doing this?” Smyth said. “I know I am not. But it’s like a psychological thing.”
Their school had been on Creagh Lane, in an era when even the gas stations closed on Sundays. Their teacher was a member of the Christian Brothers, a Catholic religious order. He wore a black robe and a clerical collar. He had more than 50 boys in the classroom. Some were abused. Others were not.
The abuse occurred in front of the group. What happened, they recounted, is that the teacher brought boys to a front desk and pinned himself behind them. He’d fondle them. He would ejaculate on their backs. He was their only teacher for the school year.
Their silence about the experience ended only because one classmate, David Phayer, started thinking more and more about Brother Drummond when his own daughter had her First Communion. He wondered: Were there other, newer victims? Phayer needed four years to steel himself. Then about 15 years ago, he went to the police.
“I was seeing a counselor at the time,” Phayer said. “He said it to me one morning: ‘Are you ready for this?’ I just couldn’t bear that there might be other children.”
It was his conversation with a detective that started yet one more investigation into the dimensions of abuse in Ireland. A detective started tracking down Phayer’s classmates, who later would continue to remember the feeling when they were asked to account for their whereabouts in 1967 and 1968. (“I got snow-white,” Rainbow said.)
In 2009, Drummond pleaded guilty to the indecent assault of 19 boys. This week, BishopAccountability.org, a clearinghouse for abuse data, released a list of 88 Irish clergy who’ve been convicted of sexually abusing minors. Drummond, who was sentenced to two years in prison, was one of nine Christian Brothers. Attempts to reach Drummond were unsuccessful.
The criminal process brought some of the classmates back together but also gave the events of decades earlier a certain rawness.
They looked back on what had happened with the awareness of adults, having heard from the detectives, having read Irish news articles. Drummond was just 18 or 19 at the time of the assaults. Why had the Christian Brothers been willing to place him in their school? And why had his time as a Christian Brother quietly ended in 1970?
“Someone had to have known,” said John Boland, one of the 19. “They didn’t take a young lad like that, just starting his career, and send him out [of the Christian Brothers] for no reason. I maintain the parish priest or bishop had to know. The state abandoned us, handed us over — the young poor of Ireland — to the care of the religious orders.”
According to an Irish Times account, a psychologist told the court that Drummond joined the Christian Brothers at 14 and was soon introduced to “the practice of self-flagellation.” A judge said the religious order had “inadequate schooling in matters of sexuality.”
Ireland has set up several systems to compensate abuse victims, but the government has resisted paying victims of abuse in non-boarding schools unless there were prior complaints about the teacher — in other words, a way for authorities to know there was potential trouble. That stance has come under criticism from some politicians, and some of the 19 have traveled to Dublin and European Union headquarters in Brussels to push the government to ease its stance.
“Children could never be expected to make a prior complaint,” said Maurice Quinlivan, an Irish parliamentarian representing Limerick. “And at the time, the church was so strong in the country. You didn’t say anything bad about a church person. You’re in a different Ireland now.”
Ireland has improved its safeguards, and a national board wrote last year that “evidence suggests that the amount of abuse of children within the Catholic Church in Ireland in recent years is small.”
But most primary schools in Ireland are still affiliated with the church. Rainbow, when he picks up his oldest granddaughter from school, thinks about his experience.
“She’s too young to know,” Rainbow said. “But for me, it’s in the back of my mind. I ask her, ‘How’d you get on in school? What was the teacher like today?’ ”