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.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

It's time we punished the Brothers for their crimes

A CHILD has his jaw fractured; another is beaten with a stick; yet another receives a black eye. Not the result of a gangland attack, but the result of "punishment" meted out by one man who rejoices in the title of "Christian Brother". And a contemporary colleague, a Brother Seamus Nolan who is a member of the Order's leadership team in 2006, says he "can't understand it".

There are other things Christian Brother Nolan can't understand: no sanctions were ever applied against the many Christian men who brutalised children in a manner that breached the then State regulations on punishment. A punishment book was supposed to exist: in St Joseph's Industrial School in Tralee, none existed at all. Christian Brother Nolan, a senior member of the order, agrees that children were "treated indefensibly" abused physically to the level just short of their having to behospitalised. It's the sort of thing that makes one understand why so many people think that the Brothers were and are a bunch of thugs, uneducated, brutal, sadistic and incapable of teaching children.

A senior member of the Order "can't understand" something that would be obvious to the average halfwit: that the Christian Brothers thought it their God-given right, indeed their duty, to reduce children to the level of terrified animals, incapable of independent thought or action. Members of the religious orders who ran our infamous industrial schools in the past have been giving evidence in public recently, and last week it has been the turn of the Christian Brothers. The public hearings are being held by the Investigation Committee of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

The Commission was set up following the State apology to the victims made in the Dail by the Taoiseach in May 1999. As part of that apology, the Taoiseach announced a Redress Board which offers some level of compensation to surviving adults who have had their lives destroyed by their childhood experiences at the hands of the men and women who were given control over them by the State. Since then, the Commission has been working quietly, slowly, and tortuously, hand in hand with the Redress Board. The module of the public hearings which concerns the Christian Brothers has been sitting during the week. It began with an interesting bang: Christian Brother David Gibson, Provincial of the Northern province, suggested that prior to the existence of the Redress Board, there had only been three complaints of abuse received by the Order. After the Order apologised to those who "may have" suffered abuse, there were a further nine complaints. After the Taoiseach's offer of redress, there were a further 449 complaints. "We must wonder at that," said Brother Gibson.

I'm glad I wasn't present at those hearings. I am a very well-trained journalist; but I also have a temper, and my gorge rises when there is a question of cruelty to children. Instead of wondering at the claims as Gibson suggested, what we might be rather more inclined to wonder at is why somebody didn't stand up at those hearings and shout "smug bastard" at Brother Gibson. He also suggested that the legal profession was "ambulance chasing" in taking up the cases of the victims. There was evidence, he said, that solicitors had organised meetings in pubs, handed out taped copies of RTE's States of Fear programme, and distributed lists of names of Christian Brothers who had worked in industrial schools.

I just hope somebody organised such meetings, instead of leaving the lost and lonely unsure about how to get redress. Equally, it doesn't seem to have occurred to Christian Brother Gibson that if people were motivated by the hope of some financial compensation for what they had been through, they were more than entitled to it. Then we had Christian Brother Michael Reynolds, current Deputy Principal of the Northern Province, who told the Commission hearings that it would not be fair comment to say there was a culture of excessive punishment in the industrial schools.

One can only wonder with a certain amount of malicious glee what Reynolds felt about his colleague Christian Brother Nolan who pulled the rug from under him only two days later, admitting on Wednesday that a brother who had committed serious physical assault was permitted to continue teaching. On another occasion, a Brother emphatically denied administering brutal punishment. He had "merely" beaten a child with a leather strap "on the bottom where nature intended it to be used".

And these beatings were administered to children committed to the schools because they were neglected, orphaned, or abandoned. They were sad, unhappy, disturbed little boys; not criminals, or embryonic criminals. Although we know that many of them grew up bitter, maimed, and illiterate. What was left for them but a life of crime? There is an alarming pattern emerging at the hearings, which will be resumed next Wednesday. The arrogant brushing-off of evidence that makes the blood run cold in favour of self-justification and self-protection bears the imprint of a concerted campaign.

There may be many possibilities.

One, those who betrayed trust and destroyed childhood do not accept that they or their colleagues did anything wrong.

Two, they still believe that the protection of the Church is their primary responsibility under Canon Law, and to hell (maybe literally) with everything and everyone else.

Three, the corporate Church has instructed them to start fighting back, using denial as their tool.

If the third is true, they don't need it in Ireland: we, unfortunately, have limited their financial responsibility for the crimes committed against children. In other parts of the world, notably the United States, the Roman Catholic Church is threatened with bankruptcy concerning redress for its crimes against children.

We have a long way to go in Ireland to pay for Church/State crimes against children. Let's start by forgetting the word "but" when we render judgement on the disgusting people who carried out these crimes.

Emer O'Kelly

Sunday Independent May 28th 2006

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