Children of the house of pain

Last week a nun was found guilty of raping a 10-year-old girl in her care. This week four Christian Brothers faced 55 charges of sexual abuse of boys in Tralee. The Catholic Church in Ireland is in the grip of a nightmare from which it may never awaken
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
There are moments these days in Ireland when it seems that the once-omnipotent Catholic Church is slowly imploding. In the living-room of his neat Dublin flat, Michael, 45, has been remembering the day he was first summoned at school to a Christian Brother's private room. He was 10 and had spent a year at Artane "industrial school" - a home for 1,200 boys run by the religious order on behalf of the state, for orphans and children from broken families. What took place was horrific. "This brother beat me and raped me until there was blood everywhere," says Michael.

When the crimson flow could not be stemmed, Michael was taken to the order's private infirmary. No questions were asked about his appalling injuries, and when he was healed it was only so that he could be abused again. Over the next five years, he says, he was raped and sexually assaulted by seven Christian brothers.

As Michael tells his story, the faces of four elderly men flicker on to the television set. Four Christian brothers, aged 59 to 81, the newscaster announces, have just been charged with 55 sexual abuse crimes between 1952 and 1970 at another industrial school, St Joseph's in Tralee.

The current shaming of the Catholic Church is relentless, and seems continuous, with former residents queuing up to describe the brutality of the religiously run schools. Last week, Nora Wall, formerly Sister Dominic, became the first nun to be convicted of child sex abuse. Wall, 51, was found guilty of raping a 10-year-old girl in her care in 1988. She pinned the girl by the ankles while a homeless schizophrenic raped her at St Michael's, a home run by the Sisters of Mercy in Waterford. Wall was its director.

The girl had been sent to St Michael's when she was six, following allegations that her father had sexually abused her. Wall began sexually abusing the child soon after she arrived. The rapist, Paul McCabe, 50, was a former resident who met Wall while looking for his mother, who had left him at St Michael's as a child.

Amazingly, what has been exposed so far is probably just the beginning. Hundreds of former residents of children's homes are preparing to sue religious orders and the Catholic Church. A police investigation into abuse at Artane, for example, has received 230 complaints against 75 priests. More than 40,000 children passed through the industrial schools between 1950 and the Seventies and thousands more through the "enlightened" regimes that replaced them. Michael, it is now clear, was far from alone.

Christine Buckley was the first to break the silence in the mid-Nineties when she exposed the horror of her years in Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin, run by the Sisters of Mercy in the Fifties. Miss Buckley says children were subjected to hard labour and beaten every day. The nuns stole their names from them on entry and gave them a number. Miss Buckley remembers babies strapped to potties and girls not knowing their names or the day they were born. Not that it mattered. Birthdays were not celebrated. Bernadette Fahy, 45, also a Goldenbridge pupil, says: "It was just like a concentration camp. That is no insult to people sent to real concentration camps. The only thing they did not do to us was send us to the gas chambers."

The avalanche of abuse allegations has forced Church and state into a corner. And there is hard cash at stake, as well as reputations. Which may explain the current vogue for saying sorry. Over the past two years the Sisters of Mercy, the Christian Brothers and the De La Salle Brothers have gone so far as to make public apologies to those who "may" have been abused.

Last month, propelled partly by States of Fear - a three-part television expose of the industrial schools - the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, offered a surprise "sincere and long overdue" apology to the victims of abuse, and for "a collective failure to intervene". He was not being magnanimous. States of Fear exposed official files that proved that the state had known about, and ignored, allegations of abuse.

Ahern also announced an independent commission into abuse, the primary focus of which would be to provide a forum for victims to tell their stories. Interestingly, both Church and government claim that recognition, not compensation, is the victims' main concern. That looks like being wishful thinking.

Josephine Baker, who runs a support group for 200 male supporters of the industrial schools, snorts. "Once the apologies are sorted out, compensation will, in fact, be a primary aim," she says. "It is only fair because the kids' labour and allowances went into the order. The kids subsidised the growth of the Catholic Church." Her next sentence will chill Irish bishops. "And for the number of compensation claims, the sale of Church land and property is not just a possibility but a necessity."

Mrs Baker's own husband Don was beaten by Catholic Brothers at a reformatory school. She argues that the brutality pushed victims to the fringes of society, into alcoholism, drug addiction, criminality and psychiatric wards. Compensation may just bring some back.

She says the government's proposal to relax the conditions under which victims can sue for sexual abuse - but not for physical abuse - is simply an attempt to restrain costs. But once the ball is rolling, she says, the government may be forced to reconsider.

Miss Fahy agrees that compensation must be paid and suggests that the Irish government does not realise the forces it is unleashing with the commission. "Most of these kids left school practically illiterate. There was a class element to it all. They were raised to be labourers, domestics and cleaners, even for the religious orders."

The commission must also present a complete picture of the causes, nature and extent of child abuse. Explaining the endemic brutality will not be easy, but those whose childhoods were destroyed have their theories.

Jim Cantwell, a Catholic Church spokesman, said this week that industrial schools had been poorly funded and under-staffed and amounted to "childcare on the cheap". But Miss Fahy says that does not explain the abject cruelty. That had everything to do, she argues, with the history and ethos of a "political, bullying and controlling" Church whose influence then reached into every area of Irish life.

"The Church was about oppression," she says. "In their schools they tried to kill the spirit of a child and they called that moral formation. At Goldenbridge we were meant to strive to be little nuns, completely submissive and obedient and virginally pure in body, mind and spirit."

Miss Fahy, who has just published a book about Goldenbridge, says that the nuns were obsessed with all things sexual, taunting the girls that their mothers were prostitutes, and disgusted by any signs of sexual development or identity.

Michael now believes that he suffered at the hands of a paedophile ring. He thinks word spread among the Brothers that he was a perfect victim: shy, withdrawn, terrified and unassertive. And he thinks that there must surely be a connection between what they did to him and their own repression. The Brothers, he points out, entered seminaries in their early teens, lacking any sexual experience. And since sex, and even masturbation, was sinful, it is not surprising that so many of the sexual attacks he suffered were accompanied by violence.

The Catholic Church has promised to co-operate fully with the commission and claims to want "all the cards laid on the table". Victims' organisations, meanwhile, fear a partial whitewash and an assumption that the bad old days are over. Many would like to see all childcare responsibility removed from religious orders.

Miss Fahy believes that much of the abuse took place simply because it was allowed to. No one dared to question the Church and there were few outside checks on the schools. And most children had no outside adults to turn to. Even if they had spoken out - and a few tried - who would have believed that the pious brothers and the saintly sisters could be so cruel?