An official report into abuse – physical, sexual and emotional – in Catholic schools in Ireland produced a harrowing picture yesterday of ill-treatment which it described as endemic.
The long-awaited report, nine years in the making, blamed church leaders for doing nothing during decades of abuse but also blamed the inactivity of the Irish education ministry which it said was aware that brutality was common but had failed to act on it.
The government-appointed commission's inquiry covered industrial schools, workhouses and orphanages run by the church from the 1930s to the 1990s.
It found "a substantial level of sexual abuse of boys in care that extended over a range from improper touching and fondling to rape with violence".
"Perpetrators of abuse were able to operate undetected for long periods at the core of institutions," the report said.
Sexual abuse has been revealed in numerous cases over the past decade and many priests and religious brothers have been imprisoned but the scale of the problem was yesterday regarded as freshly shocking.
At almost 3,000 pages, the report represents a monumental judgement on what has been exposed as a monumental problem. About 30,000 children were taken into the care of church-run institutions between the 1930s and 1990s, often for minor acts of truancy, petty theft or for being unmarried mothers. The inquiry identified more than 800 individuals as having suffered physical or sexual abuse in more than 200 mostly residential institutions.
Physical abuse was found to be commonplace in boys' schools, with "prolonged excessive beatings with implements intended to cause maximum pain occurring with the knowledge of staff management."
Sexual abuse was less common, taking place in secret rather than openly. Those who complained were often punished while the perpetrators were allowed to continue their activities, sometimes at a different school.
The report concluded that corporal punishment in schools for girls was "pervasive, severe, arbitrary and unpredictable, leading to a climate of fear amongst the children."
Sexual abuse of girls was not systemic, though it did occur, often when they were sent to host families for weekends, work or holiday placements.
But girls in some institutions "were humiliated and belittled routinely and treated with contempt by some staff members. Corporal punishment was often administered in a way calculated to increase anguish and humiliation for girls."
Overall, the report will deal another crushing blow to the image and authority of the Irish Catholic Church, which over the years has taken a battering as a stream of revelations has detailed abuse by priests and others.
Earlier this year, an Irish bishop stepped down from his post after allegations surfaced that he had not adhered to church promises to do everything possible to co-operate with the authorities in abuse cases. One of the church's original lines of defence, that only a comparatively small number of "bad apples" was involved, has been swept aside by the report.
So too has the argument that the church itself was largely in ignorance of this misbehaviour by its servants.
The commission uncovered a file held in Rome that referred to an industrial school in County Cork. Covering a 30-year period, it contained 68 documents detailing that seven known sexual abusers had worked at the school.
The commission presented a grim picture of everyday life in some institutions. Witnesses described "pervasive abuse as part of their daily lives," the report said.
"In addition to being hit and beaten, witnesses described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked and otherwise physically assaulted, scalded, burned and held under water. There were many reports of injuries, including broken bones."
Much of the report concentrates on schools run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers, which was the largest provider of residential care for boys and the institution most associated with rough treatment of pupils.
Disturbingly, the report found that children with special needs, learning disabilities or physical and sensory impairments, as well as children who had no known family contact, were especially vulnerable. It said: "They described being powerless against adults who abused them. Impaired mobility and communication deficits made it impossible to inform others of their abuse or to resist it. Children who were unable to hear, see, speak, move or adequately express themselves were at a complete disadvantage."
Witnesses said their adult lives had been blighted by memories of fear and abuse; about half had been counselled.
"Witnesses described lives marked by poverty, social isolation, alcoholism, mental illness, sleep disturbance, aggressive behaviour and self harm.
"Approximately 30 per cent of them described a constellation of mental health concerns such as suicidal behaviour, depression, alcohol and substance abuse and eating disorders, which required treatment including psychiatric admission, medication and counselling."
Colm O'Gorman, who was abused by a priest for more than two years and has led the victims' campaign for justice, said the report was "no surprise" yet "horribly, horribly shocking".
"There were church leaders more concerned about the cover up of these crimes than about the welfare of children and that extended all the way to the Vatican," he said.
Cardinal Sean Brady, the leader of Ireland's four million Catholics, acknowledged that "great wrong and hurt were caused to some of the most vulnerable children in our society".
The report had documented "a shameful catalogue of cruelty: neglect, physical, sexual and emotional abuse". He said: "I am profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed that children suffered in such awful ways in these institutions."
Taoiseach Brian Cowen said that everyone in society had to be "vigilant to what is going on in our communities and have the courage to intervene when the welfare of a child is put at risk."
Catalogue of shame: 'Floggings were inflicted for minor transgressions'
The following excerpts from the report highlight the conditions in two notorious institutions. The activities of one Christian Brother are also detailed
Christian Brothers' school, Letterfrack, County Galway:
"The school was founded in 1885 and was situated in a remote hillside location in Connemara... It was an inhospitable, bleak, isolated institution... Physical punishment was severe, excessive and pervasive and by being administered in public or within earshot of other children it was used as a means of engendering fear and ensuring control. Sexual abuse was a chronic problem."
Daingean Reformatory, Co Offaly:
"The physical abuse of boys in Daingean was extreme. Floggings which were ritualised beatings should not have been tolerated in any institution and they were inflicted even for minor transgressions. Children who passed through Daingean were brutalised by the experience and some were damaged by it.
"Apart from a cruel regime of punishment, Daingean was an anarchic institution. It was run by gangs of boys who imposed their rules on the others and the supervision by the religious Brothers and Priests was minimal and ineffectual."
John Bander: Taught children in the primary and secondary school sector in Ireland for 40 years. He was eventually convicted of sexual abuse in the 1980s. He began his career as a Christian Brother and after three separate incidents of sexual abuse of boys, he was granted dispensation from his vows. [The report] goes on to describe this man's progress through six different schools where he physically terrorised and sexually abused children in his classroom. At various times during his career, parents attempted to challenge his behaviour but he was persistently protected... moved from school to school.
Fall of the Irish Catholic Church
3 The number of priests who were ordained in Dublin, Ireland's largest Catholic diocese, in 2008.
100 The number of priests who were ordained in Dublin in 1986.
56 The percentage of Irish Catholics who attend church once a week. In 1986, the percentage was 63.