Unholy Union

Abuse in Ireland’s Reform and Industrial Schools

By Derek Quizon

For nearly 70 years, the Irish government turned a blind eye to allegations of physical and sexual abuse in residential schools run by the Catholic Church. Now, after a long government investigation, survivors are finally telling their stories.

Christine Buckley, one of over 14,000 survivors of child abuse in Ireland’s Reform and Industrial Schools. Photo by Bianca Tuma.

Christine Buckley, one of over 14,000 survivors of child abuse in Ireland’s reform and industrial schools. Photo by Bianca Tuma

Standing no more than 5-foot-2, Christine Buckley doesn’t look like a fighter. She is a tired, frail 62-year-old woman, overworked from years counseling traumatized abuse victims and overwhelmed by the violent memories she deals with as a victim herself. But for the past 25 years, she has fought death threats, personal anguish and a religious institution unwilling to acknowledge its own mistakes to make her story known to the Irish public.

Buckley is one of more than 14,000 people in Ireland who say they were abused physically, psychologically and sexually in the country’s reform and industrial schools. These government schools were run by 18 religious orders within the Catholic Church, including the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy. Until the 1980s, the Irish government sent children who were abandoned by their parents or were deemed too unruly for normal schools to industrial schools, and sent juveniles convicted of criminal offenses to reform schools, both of which were run by members of the church.

After a 25-year struggle with the church and the government, the stories of Buckley and thousands of other survivors were made public by the Ryan Report, released in May. The report is the result of an almost decade-long investigation by a government commission led by Judge Sean Ryan, into abuse of children in the country’s religiously affiliated industrial and reform schools. More than 3,000 pages long, it details incidents in 216 of these schools from 1936 to the mid 1980s, when most of the schools were shut down.

Buckley, who was abandoned by both her Irish Catholic mother and her Nigerian father, lived the first 17 years of her life in these institutions. All but four were at Goldenbridge Industrial School in Inchicore, run by the Sisters of Mercy.

“I think it’s terribly important that we were all vindicated. I don’t think any of us have had the comfort to celebrate that,” Buckley said at the headquarters of her child abuse counseling service, the Aislinn Centre, in Dublin. “But it will take quite a long time for people to recover from the whole thing.”

The report claims that the staff running these facilities, made up of both clergy and laypeople, created “A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment.”

Survivors of the schools said those punishments included a wide range of practices that were both physically and psychologically taxing. Oliver Bark, a 54-year-old counselor who was incarcerated in the St. Joseph’s Industrial School from age 11 to age 15 for assault, said the Christian Brothers used a combination of humiliation and physical beatings with leather straps to keep the residents under control.

“They beat you regulary [sic] for the least thing and it was common to be punched and kicked also,” Bark wrote in an email. “Quite often these beatings with the leather were done whilst you were naked.”

Buckley shared similar stories of being beaten for such infractions as not tying her shoelaces properly and failing to meet a daily quota of 600 rosaries in the school’s rosary-making industry. She also said the school failed to educate the students.

“School was non-existent,” she said. “They kept interrupting, calling children out [to work].”

The Ryan Report also acknowledges rampant sexual abuse, particularly in the boys’ schools. The religious orders running the schools often responded to allegations simply by transferring clergy members or ignoring the complaints altogether.

According to the report, an Irish member of the Brothers of Charity known by the order to have abused children in England was transferred to the Lota residential school for Boys with Special Needs. There, he admitted to sexually assaulting numerous students. “The circumstances of his return to Ireland and the handling of the allegations against him whilst in Lota are a serious indictment of the Brothers of Charity,” the report reads.

None of the male survivors interviewed, including Bark, singer-songwriter Don Baker and local politician Mannix Flynn, would talk in detail about the abuse they experienced. Flynn did not wish to speak on the record. But Michael O’Brien, the former mayor of Clonmel, a town in southeastern Ireland, shocked the Irish public in late May when he confronted government officials and criticized them for their handling of the investigation.

“[Clergy members] raped me every Saturday night, and I got a merciful beating after it,” he said to Transport Minister Noel Dempsey on Irish public television’s “Questions and Answers” program. “And then he came along the following morning and put Holy Communion in my mouth.”

Life after the institutions

The abuse was only the beginning of survivors’ problems. Bark said the transition from life in the industrial school to normal society was extremely difficult because he was temperamental, unwilling to trust others and unable to share his experiences. He went through two failed marriages, both of which he attributes to not being able to speak with his partners honestly about his past, before meeting his current wife.

“[In the institutions], you had to become like an animal to survive,” Bark said. “When I was released back into normal society, I struck out at anyone and trusted no one.”

Baker said he struggled with alcoholism for 17 years before seeking treatment and counseling. “When you’re the victim of abuse…the effect it has on you is that you’ve got a lot of shame, you feel like it’s your fault, you feel like you don’t belong. I didn’t really force [the memories] out until I was about 40 years of age,” he said in a telephone interview.

Survivors said Ireland’s historically devout Catholic population was also reluctant to accept the idea that members of the clergy could be responsible for such abuse. Buckley, who finished secondary school and enrolled in a nursing program, said she tried to seek help immediately, but the therapists she saw wouldn’t believe her. After going into graphic details about her abuse with one therapist, he suggested she was delusional and might need electroshock therapy.

“My story was just so bizarre that it couldn’t be true,” she said. “The horrors were just so unbelievable.”

In spite of that, Buckley continued writing letters to the Sisters of Mercy, asking them to speak with her and review the allegations. The order never responded, and Buckley said she occasionally received anonymous death threats. She continued to lobby for recognition of child abuse victims, inspired, she said, by the birth of her first son in 1980.

“I just thought, ‘If anything happens to me or to my husband, what will happen to our children?’” she said.

She finally captured the public’s attention in 1992, when she was interviewed on Ireland’s RTÉ public radio station. The interview immediately prompted response from callers all over the country, who shared their experiences in the schools as well. Her work on the 1996 documentary “Dear Daughter,” along with a series of exposés by broadcast journalists in Ireland, most notably Mary Rafferty’s “States of Fear,” pressured the Irish government into publicly apologizing in 1999. The following year it launched a massive investigation into the patterns of abuse in industrial and reform schools.

The Aftermath

The investigation seems to have provided Ireland with more questions than answers. Although it acknowledges the widespread abuse and condemns religious orders for their behavior, the Ryan Commission is also struggling with ways to deal with the survivors. In 2002 the government made an indemnity deal with the Roman Catholic Church, signed by then-education minister Michael Woods, in return for cooperation and a fine of €128 million to go toward restitution. The deal gives the church immunity from legal action, civil or criminal, with very few exceptions. The government has also agreed to pay the victims about €500 million in restitution, although it’s currently fighting to have the church pay a larger percentage. Buckley and other activists have demanded upward of €10 billion —half of the Irish church’s budget—to go toward counseling and other services for the survivors. Buckley said the money should come out of the church’s pockets, not the taxpayers’, but the indemnity deal makes that all but impossible.

The Irish Bishops Conference, the National Catholic Communications Office and the Conference of Religious in Ireland (CORI) all declined to comment about the ongoing scandal. CORI deals with media inquiries for all of its 80 member congregations. In a written statement released on May 25, CORI said the 18 religious orders embroiled in the scandal, including the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy, are conducting individual investigations into the abuse, although it doesn’t give any indication that CORI will review or oversee those investigations.

“All of us accept with utter humility that mistakes were made and grave injustices were inflicted on very vulnerable children,” the statement reads. “No excuse can be offered for what has happened.”

The Sisters of Mercy, through the CORI communication office, also issued a public apology to the survivors in the days following the release of the Ryan Report.

“We accept that many who spent their childhoods in our orphanages or industrial schools were damaged while in our care,” the statement reads. “We take this opportunity to renew our unconditional apology to all who suffered while in our institutions.”

Losing the Faith

For victims like Buckley, Baker and Bark, the findings of the Ryan Commission have provided long-overdue vindication but have also opened up old wounds. Buckley said she’s still haunted by the prospect that she could have saved lives if she had spoken out sooner, as many of her fellow survivors ended up on drugs, in prison or committing suicide.

Bark echoed the sentiment of many survivors that his experience made him realize the Catholic Church is flawed and corrupt – closer to the people they counsel than the God they worship.

“I have no problem with my faith in God,” Bark wrote, “but I have no faith in those who claim to represent him, particularly in the Catholic faith.”

Baker agreed, saying people in Ireland put too much faith in the church, a manmade institution as fallible and vulnerable to temptation as any other institution. He calls himself a spiritual man, but not a religious man.

“There’s a great deal of confusion in this country over the difference between religion and spirituality in this country,” Baker said.

Baker also said he tries not to pay close attention to the controversy surrounding restitution or the government’s deal with the Catholic Church. The most important thing for victims to do, he said, is to seek therapy in order to make peace with themselves and their tormentors.

“If we’re angry, we’re still giving them power over us. The trick is to give them relief,” Baker said. “Not today or tomorrow, but I think the nation needs to forgive. And when I say ‘forgive,’ I don’t mean ‘exonerate.’ It’s just something you do for yourself so that you’re not angry any more.”


2 Responses to Unholy Union

  1. Auntie M says:

    Just finished reading “Unholy Union”.
    What a powerful story and these incidents are echoed all over the world in every religious sect. Bark’s comments about his faith in God –
    while I’ve never been faced with such atrocities in my lifetime, and certainly have faith in God, I do question the Catholic Church and their “don’t ask questions” policy. I grew up with that policy and never really understood it’s power until I was an adult. We live in a culture, here in the US, that encourages questioning everything. I think that scares the church or any religious organization and there’s the key – organized religion, a tool created to keep people under control – scare the crap out of them, make everything a sin, and that creates power.
    My faith in God is deep within me; it guides me through the day. I seek it when I’m faced with a challenge and need comfort. I do go back to
    my childhood and those prayers I keep – they are always a source of comfort. I don’t need the arrogance of the clergy or the penance of another human being. I confess my self to God, not to a man who’s face and lifestyle is screened from reality. So, thanks again, for this powerful report.

  2. arsoto says:

    [“I have no problem with my faith in God,” Bark wrote, “but I have no faith in those who claim to represent him, particularly in the Catholic faith.]

    Such a powerful quote.

    Derek, you did an excellent job in putting the pieces of this story together. I know how massive the information was, and I commend you for working it out and making it understandable for the many people not familiar with the Ryan Report or Catholicism’s hold on the Irish people. The quotes you used were spot on and gave the story and the horrific subject matter a voice. You did every victimized party involved justice. Although the church didn’t comment, you were very objective and tried to tell the story from all angles. It was also really well written and organized. Good job!

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