Maurice Tobin, the Christian Brother who pleaded guilty to 25 sample counts of sexually abusing young boys at Letterfrack, was described in court by his barrister as being of below average intelligence. A cook at the Galway institution, it was stated that he did menial jobs all his life and took his frustrations out on the unfortunate victims. Could this be the same Brother Tobin who appears in internal Christian Brother reports as "sub-superior" or second-in-command of Letterfrack in the 1970s, and who had also held the senior post of "councillor" within the same community? Far from engaging merely in menial work, Brother Tobin had become a senior leading figure within Letterfrack.
The Christian Brothers have resolutely refused to release any of their voluminous archive on industrial schools into the public domain. They closely guard their secrets, making it difficult for even the Garda to discover such basic information as which Brothers served in particular institutions and schools at specific times. However, some years ago, I managed to get sight of some of the Brothers' Visitation Reports for Letterfrack. These were reports of a senior Christian Brother dispatched to the various institutions to give an internal annual account of their operations.
They typically contain comments on how the institutions were managed, their financial and physical conditions, and the moral and spiritual standing of individual Brothers. Particular attention was paid to how regular and punctual was their attendance at daily Mass. References to the boys were scant, and often concerned their performance at Christian doctrine. The now-convicted paedophile, Brother Tobin, appears from time to time in the Visitation Reports. He was at Letterfrack from 1959 until its closure in 1974, and was reported as being very devout. He was praised for his efficient stewardship of the kitchens. He was also in charge of the poultry farm, worked by the boys, which had at one stage almost 500 chickens. It was a small industry, with produce sold around the county.
There are no direct or clear reports of child abuse contained in any of these Visitation Reports, but then this is not surprising. In Australia, for instance, the evidence of awareness at the most senior levels of paedophilia there within the congregation comes only from the correspondence between the Australian leadership, containing graphic descriptions of child abuse, and their superiors in Dublin. What the Letterfrack Visitation Reports say about Brother Tobin (sometimes referred to as Brother Benan or Benedict) is that he exerts "complete control" over the boys. During the 1970s, when he had assumed his senior role within the Letterfrack community of Brothers, he is described as living "an almost hermetical life", supervising the boys' meals and eating alone.
Somewhat chillingly, in the context of Court testimony from his child victims, the report states that his other duty "is to supervise the boys' showers". The report continues: "He maintains good discipline though his methods may be a little crude at times". It is concluded that he "seems ripe for a total change of environment", and a transfer is recommended. Brother Barry Coldrey, the Australian Christian Brother who has written so honestly about the deep-seated problems of child abuse within the congregation internationally, has referred to a kind of obliquely coded language used in internal documents throughout the decades to indicate likely child sexual abuse. Although we still know little about most of the Irish documentation, it is unlikely that it should be any different in this regard. However, it is not clear whether any of the above references to Brother Tobin indicated any awareness at senior levels within the congregation that he was an active paedophile.
On the other hand, what is evident from the numerous accounts from industrial school survivors is that the children themselves were acutely aware of which Brothers were dangerous to them, and which were safe. In this context, it is difficult to credit that the Brothers themselves were not similarly aware. In sentencing Brother Tobin to 12 years in prison, Judge Harvey Kenny wondered "how such violent sexual assaults were allowed to go unchecked in Letterfrack". However, only a thorough examination of the complete internal records will reveal the full truth of any awareness or cover-up of paedophilia within the Christian Brothers in Ireland.
St Joseph's Industrial School in Letterfrack remains the location of one of the most haunting images to emerge from Ireland's 52 industrial schools. It is of small boys forced to run endlessly around a bare stone yard for hours in the wet and the cold, holding their sheets above their heads. These were the bed-wetters, and the idea was that they had to run until their sheets were dry. If they slowed or flagged, they were beaten. The problem, of course, was that in the persistent rain and mist of Connemara, the sheets just got wetter and heavier. But still the children were made to run for hours.
This kind of warped, sadistic cruelty was the hallmark of Letterfrack.
The compelling court testimony from the victims of child rape and criminal assault at the hands of Brother Tobin is the latest in a long line of accounts of the horrors of Letterfrack. One of the earliest reports of such abuse came from Peter Tyrell, who was detained there as a child during the 1930s. Tyrell was a member of a group called Tuairim (opinion), which produced in 1966 a report on industrial schools called 'Some of Our Children'. Tuairim had branches all over Ireland and published a series of pamphlets on a wide range of issues. It was, however, its London branch which tackled the highly sensitive subject of the industrial schools.
The Tuairim report was highly critical of the system. It made specific reference (unusual at the time) to the beatings received by boys within the schools. While it considered that such corporal punishment was "either unsuitable or excessive", it ultimately ducked the issue. In the absence of verification, it said, such reports of beatings "must be considered hypothetical". It also made an oblique and unclear reference to the undesirability of administering punishment to boys for what it called "sex offences". Peter Tyrell was reported to be disgusted by Tuairim's failure to expose the brutality of the industrial schools. He had described his own rape as a child by a Christian Brother at Letterfrack. He also spoke of how he had witnessed other boys being beaten naked for long periods. He told a priest in Confession at the time about the rape.
The priest's response was to ask him how dared he tell such lies about the Brothers, without whom he would not have a roof over his head.
Shortly after leaving Letterfrack, Tyrrell joined the British army and fought in the second World War. He was captured, but described the German prisoner-of-war camp as a tea party compared with Letterfrack. However, none of this appeared in the Tuairim report. Tyrrell had made several attempts to write a book about his own childhood in Letterfrack in an effort to reveal the truth about child abuse in the industrial schools. He believed that children continued to be abused within the schools. In 1967, with no indication that anyone had taken his accounts of brutality and rape in Letterfrack seriously, Peter Tyrell committed suicide by setting himself on fire in London's Hampstead Heath. He was so badly burned that it took London police almost a year to identify his body. They traced the unburned corner of a postcard in his pocket to his friend Dr Owen Sheehy-Skeffington, himself a noted campaigner for reform in this area. Sheehy-Skeffington was able to confirm that he had indeed sent the postcard, and that the body was that of Peter Tyrell.
When Letterfrack finally closed in 1974, the Secretary of the Department of Education sent a glowing letter of profuse thanks and praise to the Christian Brothers. The Department, he said, was deeply appreciative of the great care given by generations of Brothers to the boys at the institution. This letter would have made bitter reading for Peter Tyrell and indeed for all those who testified so courageously in court about the atrocities they suffered as children in Letterfrack.
Mary Raftery is the producer of the RTÉ documentary series, States of Fear, and co-author with Dr Eoin O'Sullivan of TCD of Suffer the Little Children - the Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools, published by New Island Books
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