They trained captains of industry, Hollywood stars, even a succession of Irish prime ministers. But last week the Christian Brothers, one of the best-known Catholic teaching orders, admitted that the education they have been offering for almost 200 years is seriously flawed. Brother Edmund Garvey, Dublin-based head of the order, publicly asked for forgiveness from ex-pupils who had been "physically abused and sometimes even sexually abused in our care".
The unconditional and abjectly humble nature of Brother Garvey's apology may have raised eyebrows among ex-CB pupils such as John Birt, director-general of the BBC, and the impresario Sir Cameron Mackintosh, brought up in the strict atmosphere of the order's schools. But his description of a "harsh and at times cruel" regime will have been painfully familiar.
Success in turning out high-flyers - other old boys include film stars Liam Neeson and Gabriel Byrne, poet Roger McGough, aerospace chief Sir Brian Pearse, supermarket bosses Terry Leahy of Tesco and Kevin McCarten of Sainsburys, television presenters Laurie Taylor and Pete McCarthy and every Fianna Fail taoiseach from Eamon de Valera to Albert Reynolds - came with a physical and emotional cost.
Boys were prepared for passing exams by a combination of relentless study and remorseless use of the strap, an 8in-long leather baton which thrashed young hands, legs and bottoms with all the regularity of the chiming of the angelus bell.
And in some schools, this humiliation of youngsters went further. A series of court cases in recent years have exposed sexual abuse by Christian Brothers staff. Teachers from the order were convicted in 1990 of sexual abuse at Mount Cashel High in St John's, Newfoundland. One former pupil, Shane Earle, told the court: "I had encounters with five of them within a month of my arrival at six years of age. At Christmas I had the most gifts. I thought I was well-loved. I was given things after sexual encounters."
Similar cases in other Commonwealth countries where the order operates have cast what some ex-pupils would say is a disproportionate shadow over its achievements and form the backdrop for Brother Garvey's surprise statement last week.
While all religious orders have suffered a sharp decline in vocations in recent years, the Christian Brothers - who take vows of celibacy but are not priests and thus hover uneasily between clergy and laity - have suffered a classic third-party squeeze. In Ireland, home to 900 of the remaining 1,800 Brothers worldwide, there is now just one novice preparing for final vows. In the 60-strong English province, there are none.
A chapter in British educational history has already closed. The Brothers' remaining schools - two in Liverpool and one each in Birkenhead, Manchester, Stoke, Sunderland and Plymouth - now operate with lay heads and a minimal day- to-day involvement by the order. In Ireland, complete withdrawal is near at hand. Brother Garvey's candour has therefore been taken as a deathbed confession on behalf of his order.
After being taught in their school in Birkenhead, Peter Connor was one of the last vocations to the Brothers in England in the early 1980s. Like all his contemporaries, he has since left. Though he acknowledges some damage done by the allegations of sexual abuse, he puts the decline of the order down to other factors.
"They lost sight of the original vision of the founder, Edmund Rice, to teach the children of the poor, and ended up in the 1980s, after the demise of grammar schools, running private schools for the rich.
"It was a mistake, made because they had grown too comfortable and couldn't see beyond the schools themselves to find the contemporary context for Rice's vision."
By opting into the independent sector, Mr Connor believes, the Brothers shed what had previously been their distinct identity. "Orders like the Benedictines have never made any bones about wanting to cream off an elite and teach them. But the Brothers were always more egalitarian and idealistic."
And indeed the privileged Catholic set - the Norfolks, the Longfords, the Paul Johnsons - always preferred the cachet of the Benedictines of Ampleforth or the Jesuits of Stonyhurst, with their Establishment aspirations, to the more earthy, Irish, scholarship-boy ethos of the Christian Brothers.
Unable to staff their schools, the Brothers did belatedly try in the late 1980s to recapture their radical edge - moving into council houses in deprived areas, opening an Aids centre in Dublin, harnessing the enthusiasm of young people through the New Creation community initiative. But, though they were unstintingly generous with their physical and financial resources, it was too little too late. Numbers continue to fall and, without manpower, the Brothers face a bleak future.
At 45, one of the youngest of the order, Brother Francis Hall, deputy provincial of the CBs in England, refuses to be too gloomy. "Our focus is changing. We are still attracting vocations in West Africa, and while we are not a workforce in this country any more in terms of schools, we are still there in a back-up role, as trustees, governors, establishing an ethos, giving spiritual direction."
Recently an eight-point statement defining what is distinct about any school associated with the Christian Brothers was agreed. It stresses - alongside making society more just, compassion for the weak, and building up the community - the rich tradition of the order. Does that include the aspects Brother Garvey has been highlighting?
"Well, it certainly doesn't mean beating the living daylights out of pupils," says Brother Hall. He regrets the stereotypes of an education at the hands of the Christian Brothers and feels that the omnipresence of the strap has been overstated. "You have to see it in the context of a time when corporal punishment was routinely used in all schools. We wouldn't dream of doing it now."
Mr Connor says: "Weak leadership and weak management by the Brothers in the past allowed brutal teachers - both brothers and lay teachers - into classrooms when they should never have been allowed into the presence of vulnerable people, let alone children."
Yet, like most graduates of the CBs, he retains a large measure of affection for the order. He has continued teaching in its school in Sunderland and was even promoted after he had renounced his vows. Indeed, in all of its schools the order is spoken of by lay staff and headteachers with genuine respect as having established educational goals that remain challenging.
Sir Brian Pearse, one-time pupil of the CBs in Liverpool, ex-chief executive of the Midland Bank, chair of the Housing Corporation and boss of LucasVarity plc, is fulsome in his praise. "I have always regarded the education I received at Saint Edward's as one of the major platforms for my life."
The high standards the Brothers set were achieved painfully and with considerable human cost, as Brother Garvey has now admitted, but their long-term impact on society at large may well outlive the order.
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