Brothers' move flies in face of public contrition


Oct 28, 2003
Mary Raftery
The Irish Times, Opinion

The Christian Brothers' statement signals a new determination to engage in a public battle with those who allege they were abused, writes Mary Raftery

In their recent statement, the Christian Brothers ask us to believe that child abuse was not widespread in their institutions. They also seek to imply that many of the allegations of abuse have no basis in fact, and are actually false.
These are serious charges, and are quite properly the territory of the Laffoy (now Ryan) Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

However, the Christian Brothers have also sought to severely curtail the ability of that commission to fully enquire into the extent of abuse, both physical and sexual, in childcare institutions in this State.

While unsuccessful in their High Court challenge to limit the remit of the child abuse commission, it is likely that the Brothers will continue to limit its activities. Their recent statement signals a new determination to engage in a public battle with those who allege they were abused as children by members of the congregation.

However, that is a battle which they have been waging in more private arenas for several years. In the civil courts, they have denied the substance of the cases brought against them, and have indicated their intention to have them struck out on the basis that they are statute-barred under the Statute of Limitations.

In the criminal courts, this activity has been mirrored by the repeated use of judicial review proceedings to have charges against individual brothers quashed on the basis of lapse of time.

The success of this entirely legitimate legal tactic has been so pronounced that there has been a marked decline in the number of cases in which the Director of Public Prosecutions is now even prepared to bring against Christian Brothers for child abuse at their industrial schools.

Victims are thus denied for technical legal reasons the opportunity to have their day in court, to testify publicly against their alleged abusers.

The fact that in the case of one Garda investigation - into Artane Industrial School - more than 500 individuals made statements alleging child abuse gives some indication of their overriding desire for justice to be done and, most importantly, to be seen to be done.

With their attempts to curtail the Laffoy commission, and the difficulties surrounding court hearings of allegations of abuse, the Christian Brothers now appear to be fully engaged in a process to limit any investigation of their past. But nonetheless, they ask us to believe that many allegations against them are without foundation.

All of this activity flies in the face of the public contrition expressed by the congregation over the past five years, contrition for which the Brothers have received much justified praise.

In 1998, the brothers published a fulsome apology in both Ireland and Britain. In the light of their statement over the weekend, it is worth recalling its exact words: "We, the Christian Brothers in Ireland, wish to express our deep regret to anyone who suffered ill-treatment while in our care. And we say to you who have experienced physical or sexual abuse by a Christian Brother, and to you who complained of abuse and were not listened to, we are deeply sorry."

However, these apologies were not accompanied by any degree of openness from the brothers in terms of allowing public access to their archives and records of their stewardship of industrial schools.

Some tantalising glimpses have occurred as to what might be found in these archives.

The most relevant of these to the issue of child abuse concern a series of letters written to senior Christian Brothers in Dublin from their colleagues in Australia.

These date from the 1940s, and are remarkably frank in their descriptions of the sexual abuse of boys by individual brothers. They emerged as part of a court case taken by victims of Christian Brother child abuse in Australia.

"Offences are becoming frequent among us," said one early report back to Ireland.

Another proclaimed that "the frequency is alarming".

A decade later, "such shameful betrayals" were still "on the increase".

The lack of urgency in dealing with abusers was a common theme, as was the frequency of repeat offences.

"Generally the dog returns to his vomit," one remarked damningly. Running through all the correspondence is the dread of public exposure and possible scandal.

We have little knowledge of the replies from the senior Irish leadership of the brothers. However, one glimpse of the tip of the iceberg was afforded to us through the court record. The brothers in Ireland wrote to Australia to say that "these things have been long going on".

The Christian Brothers' archive now appears to be safely lodged in Rome, far from prying eyes or Irish court discovery orders for release of documents. It would be interesting to know if Miss Justice Laffoy had sought its release to the commission on child abuse, and the nature of the Christian Brothers' response to any such request.

In the meantime, it is worth noting the conclusions of similar processes of inquiry into allegations of child abuse against Christian Brothers in other jurisdictions.

In 2001, the Australian Senate issued the findings of its investigation into the Christian Brothers, focusing particularly on their activities in Western Australia. The Senate report described a culture of "systemic criminal assault" perpetrated by "a large number of brothers over a long period". The report also dismissed the Christian Brothers' claim that those in charge were unaware of the abuse.

In Canada, where more than 70 boys were abused by Christian Brothers at an institution in Newfoundland, the congregation's local leader, Brother Lynch, expressed his deepest reservations about the nature of his own organisation.

The number of allegations against the Christian Brothers in Ireland vastly exceeds that of both Canada and Australia combined. The conclusions in both of those countries have been damning of the Christian Brothers.

It remains to be seen whether the brothers' attempts to curtail similar investigations in this country will prevent us from ever knowing the full truth of what occurred behind the high walls of our industrial schools.

Mary Raftery is producer of the RTÉ documentary series States of Fear, and is co-author of Suffer the Little Children - The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools


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