Sexual abuse by clergy in Ireland
Roman Catholic sexual and
abuse in Irish workhouses
The Roman Catholic church operated a series of more than 200 workhouses for
orphans, delinquent children, and children of single mothers in Ireland between
the 1930s and 1990s. They housed some 30,000 children, were funded by the state,
and run by Roman Catholic orders such as the Christian Brothers and Sisters of
Mercy. Some examples of "delinquent" children were:
|Tom Sweeney, 11, who had skipped school.|
|Mannix Flyunn, 8, who stole a box of chocolates.|
|Christine Buckley, 1 month old, who was guilty only of being born to a single
mother. Now 62 years of age, she was one of the first victims to break her
silence and demand justice. 1|
Exposure and investigation:
It was a documentary film series "States of Fear" broadcast on Irish TV by
journalist and campaigner Mary Raftery that brought the allegations of systemic
abuse in reform schools and other institutions to public awareness. The
resultant outrage led to the creation of a Commission to Inquire Into Child
Abuse led by Justice Sean Ryan.
The commission conducted a nine-year investigation that heard from almost
2,000 witnesses. On 2009-MAY-20, the Commission produced a five volume, 2,600
Previous to the report, abuse had been mainly blamed on a few misbehaving
clergy. However, the commission report revealed "... an entire system that was
rotten at the core and showed scant regard for the welfare of the children
placed in its care." 2 It revealed a
massive church cover-up extending over decades.
According to The New York Times:
" '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 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'. ..."
"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, parlors, the residences of clergy,
holiday locations, and while with godparents and employers'."
Mary Raftery said:
"I'm delighted about the report. For years, we were the lone voices. We
lived through decades in this society where people just refused to believe
that nuns and priests could behave in [this] way. ... I don't see how [the
religious orders] can ever recover from this. Not just from the way they
responded to the knowledge of abuse, [but also] from their continuing cover-up
of it over the last decade, when people were trying to get answers."
As in other cases involving abuse within Catholic institutions, the abuse was
not reported to the police, and the perpetrators were often transferred to other
institutions where they were able to attack entirely new groups of children.
According to the Kansas City Star:
"At such schools ... children were beaten, sexually abused and emotionally
terrorized for more than half a century."
"A 'culture of silence' protected victimizers rather than the children in
their care, consigning generations of Ireland's poorest children to
"Through it all, the report said, government inspectors failed to stop what
was going on. That neglect came despite attempts by some individuals to bring
their abusers to account in an effort to lessen the trauma that victims
suffered for years afterward and that still haunts many today."
"Chronic, excessive and arbitrary punishment created 'a climate of fear' in
which students at schools administered by Catholic religious orders lived
'with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming
One of the religious orders that was investigated by the Commission won a
court order that suppressed the names of the alleged perpetrators. This makes
the chances of criminal prosecution extremely slim. However, "to date, more than
$193 million has been paid by the Irish government in compensation to victims of
abuse in residential institutions." Many more victims are expected to initiate
criminal prosecutions in court.
Time magazine writes:
"The report also criticizes the 'deferential and
submissive attitude' of the state toward the religious orders. It says
inspections of the industrial schools carried out by the Irish Department
of Education were inadequate and that despite claims by young people of
mistreatment, the government continued to send children to the schools for
decades. In some of the most shocking cases detailed in the report, boys who
reported sexual abuse by priests or lay staff members were physically beaten
for speaking out, while their abusers continued to work at the school."
The children received little education. Instead they spent
time in workshops, on farms or in laundries at unpaid labor.
The New York Times comments:
"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." 3
Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of Ireland's 4 million Catholics, offered a
brief, approximately 20 second-long, apology"
"I am profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed that children suffered in such
awful ways in these institutions. Children deserve better and especially from
those caring for them in the name of Jesus Christ."
According to news reports, he did not comment on the decades of church cover-ups.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- "Child abuse horror stretched over generations," Kansas City Star,
- Bryan Coll, "For Ireland's Catholic Schools, a Catalog of Horrors," Time,
- "Schools abuse report rocks Ireland," The New York Times, 2009-MAY-24, at:
Copyright 2009 & 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious
Originally written: 2009-MAY-24
Latest update: 2011-JUL-28
Author: B.A. Robinson