Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Tuesday, December 04, 2001

The wounds of abuse will never heal if we betray the balanced view

The wounds of abuse will never heal if we betray the balanced view

04 December 2001 By Ronan Mullen

"WHAT can you get for 23p a day?" Anyone listening to RTE radio these days will recognise the station's campaign to justify its TV licence fee. To the sound of an apple being munched, we are told all about RT?'s good deeds - from concert orchestras to news on the web. The message is clear: if we're getting all this for 23p a day we're doing fairly well.

But are we? Watching last week's Prime Time special about the Christian Brothers and sexual abuse in Australia, Canada and Ireland, I had reason to wonder at the way our fee is being spent. It's not that I had any difficulty with the subject matter chosen by Mary Raftery (producer of the States of Fear documentaries) and presenter Mike Milotte. Institutions run by the Christian Brothers were places where young people suffered enormously. Hard labour, physical and sexual abuse were commonplace. The Laffoy Commission is investigating as many as 2,000 reports of physical and sexual abuse, many concerning Christian Brothers' institutions.

We are entitled to ask how Christian men could have perpetrated such abuse on innocent children and why nobody put a stop to it. We should examine the issue in its full context - whether abuse only happened in homes run by Irish religious orders or in secular institutions, whether it was connected with religion or, as is more likely, with an institutional mentality that failed to respect the rights of children. These questions should be teased out, and RTE should be talking to victims, the religious orders themselves, psychologists, sociologists and historians to help explain how such evil occurred.

But that's not what we got. Even the title, Betrayed: The Christian Brothers and Child Sex Abuse across Three Continents, suggested more interest in ratings than in a balanced treatment of complex issues. And that was how it turned out.

The head of the Christian Brothers had declined to talk to the programme. This is a communications problem which the Christian Brothers will need to address. But the tone of the Prime Time special - and the producer's near complete failure to provide balancing interviews - perhaps shows that he was right on this occasion.

Prime Time focused on the abuse perpetrated by Christian Brothers in Australia, and followed up with an assault on the legal strategy employed by the Christian Brothers in Canada to protect its schools in the face of compensation demands. They relied heavily on interviews with victims and their lawyers.

Lawyers shouldn't be fighting propaganda wars on television. They should confine themselves to legal work.

The Christian Brothers should be settling as generously as possible to avoid putting victims through the trauma of full court hearings. And they deserve criticism if they are hiding their assets to avoid paying compensation. But we were denied the necessary balance to make up our own minds on this.

RTE equated partial truth with the full truth. They failed to give any figures for compensation in Canada or to present any objective analysis on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable recourse to the legal system.

They also ignored another important question. Are adequate systems in place to protect against bogus claims? Columnist Breda O'Brien noted that in one school in Nova Scotia the number of former staff accused of abuse rose dramatically as soon as a compensation scheme was announced. In the end $38 million was paid to former residents of that school. In such circumstances, it would be hard to blame a religious order for trying to protect its assets.

Mary Raftery and Mike Milotte gave us no such careful analysis. They even allowed one lawyer to question, unchallenged, "whether the existence of the Christian Brothers was ever a good thing". I wonder what the family of Brother Noel Bradshaw would make of that. Brother Bradshaw was captured by rebels in Sierra Leone. He has spent over 10 years working in Makeni Catholic Mission where he has lived in a leper colony and worked with victims of war.

It is hard not to feel sympathy for the vast number of Christian Brothers who have given their lives in the service of others. It must be galling for them when RTE gives such uncritical coverage to suggestions that most Christian Brothers were in some way depraved, while providing no figures to put the number of abusers in its proper context.

It's also hard to be optimistic about RTE's future coverage of sex abuse. We've seen this imbalance before. States of Fear was justly criticised for failing to give historical context or balanced overview, but these criticisms were never accepted by Raftery and her team. The evidence from Prime Time was that they intend to give us more of the same.

Some days an apple seems like better value.

Saturday, April 21, 2001

Willie Delaney was a child slave in Ireland

Fintan O'Toole draws parallels between conditions in a Connemara reformatory 31 years ago and the continuing reality of child slavery on which the world's media focused this week

For a brief moment this week, the attention of the Western world's media focused on a story that is usually ignored. The strange voyage of the dilapidated Nigerian ship mv Etireno up and down the coast of west Africa with what was thought to be cargo of desperate children, forced us to notice that child slavery is a continuing reality. UN estimates suggest that about 200,000 children work as slaves in the region, many on the plantations that furnish the chocolate for the Easter eggs we gave our children while the Etireno was being sought.

For most Irish people, news of the persistence of such barbarity in the modern world will have come as a shock. Our hearts were touched by the description of the plight of these children by Esther Guluma, the Benin representative of Unicef: "They work hard all day, you don't have to pay them very much and they don't complain. They are subjected to hard physical labour, they are uprooted from their families, they don't have any access to education. It has a real impact on their physical and mental development. Those trafficked as domestic servants, a lot of them are sexually exploited." Uprooted from their families, worked like dogs, deprived of a decent education, sexually exploited - this is the fate of child slaves. The only consolation to be derived from thinking about their lives is that all of this goes on far away in a savage but distant place. It belongs to the heart of darkness out there beyond the reach of civilised norms. Just as the Etireno was docking in Benin and the world's attention was wandering off the subject of child slavery, the remains of Willie Delaney were being disinterred at St Kieran's Cemetery in Kilkenny. The grim operation was part of a long-running Garda investigation into allegations of sexual and physical abuse of children at St Joseph's industrial school in Letterfrack, Co Galway. The hope is that a post-mortem on Willie Delaney will show whether he died of natural causes or as a result of a beating at Letterfrack.

Though it is not politic to use the phrase, Willie Delaney was a child slave. The conditions of child slaves in west Africa as described this week by UNICEF - hard labour, deprivation of family life, lack of education, sexual exploitation - are precisely those that prevailed at Letterfrack and throughout the industrial school system. For all the shocks applied to the national conscience by Mary Raftery's States of Fear series on RTE, that reality has still not been fully recognised.

When Willie Delaney was sent to Letterfrack as a 10-year-old in 1967, St Joseph's was essentially a labour camp for children. Until it closed in 1974, it advertised the extraordinary list of services quoted by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan in their book Suffer Little Children from the institution's letterhead: "Orders Received in Tailoring, Bootmaking, Carpentry, Bakery, Cartmaking, Smithwork. Also Wire Mattress, Hosiery, Hearth Rugs, Motors Repaired, Petrol & Oils Supplied." Though it was meant to be a school, the education of boys like Willie Delaney took second place to unpaid labour in the workshops that provided these services and on the large farm attached to the institution. While he was there, an internal Department of Education memo acknowledged the utter inadequacy of schooling, due in part to "pupils, particularly senior pupils, having to undertake tiring physical work in the afternoons due to (the) shortage of paid labour in the institution". The Christian Brothers, who ran St Joseph's, saw the children in their care as vital economic assets. The financial health of Letterfrack depended on securing as many as possible of what the Brothers' internal visitors' report for 1953 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. Declining numbers in the late 1950s seem to have led to operating deficits, but these would appear to have been reversed in the 1960s. By 1969, when Willie Delaney was there, Letterfrack had income of £19,131 and expenditure of £12,296, and by 1973, the school accounts show a profit of almost £12,000.

The child slaves who created these profits, like their counterparts in west Africa, were fair game for sexual abuse and physical violence. In the early 1970s, even the Christian Brothers' own internal reports were highlighting tension over "discipline". The 1972 report notes that the brother in charge of administering punishment was "over-rigid with the boys" and "scarcely a suitable person to hold his present position". Whether Willie Delaney's death had a bearing on these internal arguments is something that may only become clear when the extensive Garda investigation bears fruit.

IT IS tempting to think that all of this happened a very long time ago. Yet few regard the political events of the Arms Trial crisis in the same year as Willie Delaney's death as a mere historic footnote. Getting to grips with those events is seen as essential to any proper understanding of the way we are now. Acknowledging the reality of modern Irish slavery is, if anything, even more important.

Were he alive, Willie Delaney would now be just 44 years old. Thousands of Irish people now in early middle age should properly be regarded as survivors of child slavery, whose experiences at the hands of church and State are not fundamentally different from those that still prevail in west Africa. Even as we hand in our collection boxes for Trocaire's splendid Lenten campaign against slavery, we need to remember that the heart of darkness can be very close to home.

© The Irish Times