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Sexual abuse by clergy in Ireland

Roman Catholic sexual and physical
child abuse in Irish workhouses

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This essay is a continuation of an earlier report

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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:

bullet Tom Sweeney, 11, who had skipped school.
bullet Mannix Flyunn, 8, who stole a box of chocolates.
bullet 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 page report.

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'." 3

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." 2

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 misery..."

"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 from'." 1

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." 2

The children received little education. Instead they spent time in workshops, on farms or in laundries at unpaid labor.

Brief apologies:

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." 1

According to news reports, he did not comment on the decades of church cover-ups.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Child abuse horror stretched over generations," Kansas City Star, 2009-MAY-20, at:
  2. Bryan Coll, "For Ireland's Catholic Schools, a Catalog of Horrors," Time, 2009-MAY-21, at:
  3. "Schools abuse report rocks Ireland," The New York Times, 2009-MAY-24, at:

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 Home page > Religious Info. > Basic info > Clergy abuse > Ireland > here

or Home page > Religious conflict > Specific conflicts > Clergy abuse > Ireland > here

or Home page > Christianity > Roman Catholicism > Clergy abuse > Ireland > here

Copyright 2009 & 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2009-MAY-24
Latest update: 2011-JUL-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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