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Victims accuse Irish government of obstruction as its inquiry into brutality against children in industrial schools bogs down
By Angelique Chrisafis
February 4, 2004 / The Guardian
For decades, they were Ireland's dirty secret: children locked away, starved, beaten, sexually abused and forced to slave without pay in hundreds of orphanages and industrial schools. Now survivors' groups have turned on the Irish government after a report found that a national child abuse inquiry - set up to uncover the truth behind 60 years of state denial - is being obstructed by the department of education and science and the Catholic orders who ran the notorious institutions.
About 150,000 children were interned in such institutions between the 1920s and 1980s. They ranged from orphans to boys caught begging and girls regarded as "sexually aware". More than half of them eventually fled Ireland, most to Britain, and hundreds of UK residents are now seeking compensation from the Irish state. When the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, made a public apology to the survivors in 1999, he offered the hope of closure by setting up an inquiry run by the child abuse commission.
The clamour for justice was accelerated by the international success of Peter Mullan's award-winning film, The Magdalene Sisters, which showed how girls were incarcerated for decades in the Magdalene laundries.
But survivors' groups in Ireland and the UK have condemned the inquiry as a whitewash. Even the commission's former chairwoman, Ms Justice Laffoy, denounced it as "devoid" of independence. She resigned last year, complaining of delays and a lack of resources and cooperation from the government. In a recent report, she found that the department of education, which was responsible for the institutions, had not adopted a "constructive approach" to the inquiry, which it controls. She also criticised many of the Catholic orders which ran the institutions for contesting every point. Opposition politicians have called for the inquiry to be removed from the department of education, but the education minister has refused.
John Kelly, of Irish Survivors of Child Abuse, which distances itself from other survivors' groups funded by the government and religious institutions, said: "Credibility in this process has long gone. The department of education has rigged the deck from day one. We always predicted it would be a whitewash. The department cannot be allowed to investigate itself."
In the three years since it was launched, the commission has cost the Irish state more than €10m (£7m), but the investigative branch has heard only 40 cases. It faces over 2,000 complaints relating to 267 institutions. The confidential arm of the inquiry - set up to record testimonies - has heard from 771 survivors, but will not complete its work until May next year.
The Irish government has admitted that if the commission continues in its present form it will cost the state €1bn and take 11 years to report, by which time many of the survivors will be dead. The commission's new chairman, Judge Sean Ryan, has suggested accelerating the process by grouping cases, but some fear that stories will not be properly heard. The redress board, set up by the government to pay compensation, has thousands of cases still to process.
Colm O'Gorman, director of One in Four, which helps survivors of sexual abuse, said: "I have seen religious congregations shift position from apologising in 1999 for what happened and showing remorse and regret, to a more adversarial, denying approach. They are trying to do a damage-limitation exercise. Their response has been to stonewall, even when they have been indemnified by the state against financial or legal repercussions."
Mick Waters, of Survivors of Child Abuse UK, accused the department of education of "skulduggery".
The only complete report to be published, on the Baltimore Fisheries School in west Cork, which closed in 1950, found levels of starvation, physical and sexual abuse so "harsh and deprived _ as to verge on the unbelievable". Boys endured systematic "gross sexual abuse" by at least one serial abuser. Clothes and bedding were infested with fleas and soaked in urine. The pupils endured the winter of 1947 - one of the coldest of the last century - in light clothing in buildings with no heating. They were "literally starving" - forced to steal vegetables and eat barnacles from the shore to stay alive.
Tony Treacy, of the Cork-based victims group Right of Place, who was interned in a different school, said: "The delays are unacceptable. We want closure. I was sexually abused for four-and-a-half years. I spent three days in hospital when they broke my arm. I have a perforated eardrum as a result of a beating, and they totally failed to educate me. I just want an apology and the abusers to be named and shamed. I want to be able to say: 'Look at this report, I was telling the truth'."
'I was given a number and never referred to by name'
Joe (not his real name) spent more than five years in an Irish industrial school which cannot be named. He moved to London in the late 1950s as a teenager and has lived in England ever since.
"I was 10 when my father was told to deliver me to the children's court. I didn't know why. The judge said I was there for mitching school [playing truant]. I was told I was being sent away to 'pick myself up'.
"I didn't know anything about the place I was driven to. I was taken into an office, my clothes were taken, my head was shaved and I was given a number and never referred to by name again. They take your identity away from you. I didn't see the outside world. I wasn't allowed a visit for almost two years. They told my parents a visit would upset me. By the time a relative did come to see me, I couldn't tell her what was happening.
"I would be woken in the night from the dormitory and sent to the Brothers' room. Three or four of them would be waiting to get their way. The sexual abuse would continue for four- to five-month periods. You were always alone with them and sent back to your bed alone. I was naive, I didn't understand it at the time how the night watchman knew to wake me. Years later, I realised the Brothers were tying a towel to my bed, like the boys who needed to be woken for the toilet in the night. It was all planned.
"They ruled totally by fear. They wanted to break you down. When they beat you, you could see them frothing at the mouth, their faces went ashen white, they would keep beating and beating, shouting. They broke bones, they broke ankles with hurley sticks. They would inflict any punishment to condition you. Children were breaking down, wetting the bed, soiling the bed, trying to run away because we were terrorised mentally. They tortured us emotionally, sexually, physically.
"There was no education, we worked - cooking, cleaning, sewing, doing repairs, making clothes, shoes, farming, feeding the animals. We were badly fed, always hungry, eating anything we could, grass, animal feed, red berries that grew in the grounds.
"I just want to have my day to tell my story so nothing like this can happen again."
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