The debate on institutional child abuse in Ireland has been distorted by a striking absence. Because the religious orders at the heart of the saga have refused to release their archives, it is almost impossible to understand the structures that engendered abuse in spite of the best intentions of many humane and selfless people.
This week, however, I have been able to read a tiny sliver of the hidden archives. I've had access to the so-called "visitation reports" for the Christian Brothers' industrial school in Letterfrack, Co Galway, from 1952 to 1973. These are the annual reports of the order's own "visitor", essentially an internal inspector from the provincial's office. They begin to sketch the outlines of the controlling mentality.
The reports throw up, for example, reminders that the Brothers themselves were closely watched and forbidden normal human contact with members of the opposite sex. The document for 1959, in its section on diet, notes: "I was told that Brothers N. and D. are frequently in the kitchen talking to the maids. I have told them that such a practice must end."
In 1970, the visitor reports that "two young, frivolous girls, constituting the kitchen staff, are not suitable. Superior says that one of them will be given notice to leave this week and that the other, the cook, will soon be dispensed with."
Another obvious feature is the way the institution acquired a financial stake in the survival of a brutal system. The financial health of Letterfrack depended on securing as many as possible of what the 1953 report calls "these children who mean so much financially to the institution".
The report for 1952 notes that the brother in charge of the farm "is ever on the outlook for boys in all the centres he travels to in securing stock and supplies. To his credit goes the goodly numbers that are generally maintained in the school."
The more inmates sent by the courts, the more profitable was the Letterfrack operation. In 1955, the Letterfrack visitation report complains that numbers had declined and were creeping up only gradually "owing to the fact that one of the Dublin judges sends convicted boys to the Cork industrial schools. He is a Corkman. This matter will require attention soon if the establishment here is to remain financially sound."
Declining numbers in the late 1950s seem to have led to operating deficits, but these would appear to have been reversed in the 1960s. The 1960 accounts showed "a surplus of 172 pounds". By 1969, Letterfrack had income of £19,131 and expenditure of £12,296, and by 1973, the school accounts show a profit of almost £12,000.
As for the inmates, there is a blithe assumption that all is for the best. The 1952 report says that "the boys seem to be quite happy in their dealings with their teachers. There seems to be very little punishment." The following year's visitation results in a judgment that "a splendid spirit of harmony and co-operation exists".
In 1961, "the happy community spirit is reflected in the life of the boys" and "each of the classrooms presented a picture of happy and contented boys". Yet there is no attempt to square this aura of happiness with the fact that, in the words of the 1967 report, "the boys . . are liable to run away at any time". Break-outs are noted in the most matter-of-fact tones. The 1959 report, compiled at the end of February that year, speaks of the fact that "since Christmas, 11 boys ran away at different times".
The subject is raised, not as a cause for alarm, but as an explanation for the failure of one of the brothers to attend regularly at early morning prayer: "He says he had to take the car and follow [the escapees] or that he got word from the guards that they had been captured and that he had to collect them and sometimes was not home with them until 1.30 a.m."
The documents do show an occasional awareness of the poor conditions in which the boys lived. The 1959 report complains quite strongly about the bad food: "I understand they get bread and tea for dinner three days a week. They get very little meat and the cooking and serving of it is not satisfactory." Breakfast on most mornings was a "saucer full" of porridge. "The only redeeming feature is that they get two sausages each on two evenings of the week." These complaints then cease, presumably because they were acted on.
The most important feature of the documents, however, is that they reveal a clear struggle between reform-minded brothers on the one hand and institutional power on the other.
By the early 1970s, there is tension over "discipline". The 1972 report claims that two of the eight brothers have "great difficulty getting on" with the brother in charge of administering punishment. This latter brother is stated in the report to be "over-rigid with the boys" and "scarcely a suitable person to hold his present position".
His two critics "disagree with his method of carrying out his duties as disciplinarian . . . so there is a troubled situation, a sort of cold war in the school, sometimes heating up in the presence of the boys".
The following year's report fills in some of the causes of these tensions. The younger brothers, it notes, are now rejecting "traditional" approaches and "believe that the boys should be given much more freedom, that greater attention should be paid to their emotional problems". This, according to the clearly disapproving visitor, has caused them "to be soft with the boys".
This same report reveals a quite extraordinary distortion of spiritual priorities. One of the brothers is noted for his kindness to the boys in his care, among whom he is "very well liked". He "spares no effort to add some little happiness to these unfortunate boys". He has "a great understanding . . . and genuine sympathy for them".
Yet the report actually suggests that this brother is the wrong man for the job. Why? Because he is not sufficiently assiduous in attending to his religious exercises in the morning. "His limitations as a religious . . . makes one doubt if he is a suitable person to have in charge of these boys." Since his name does not appear on the following year's list of the members of the Letterfrack community, it seems that he was in fact removed. There, perhaps, lie the seeds of an explanation of the powerlessness of the good people.