The report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, published in Dublin last week, is the map of an Irish hell. In devastating detail it reveals the systematic abuse of tens of thousands of children perpetuated by the Catholic Church – with the knowledge and collusion of the state.
The statistics alone are extraordinary. From 1914 to 1991 more than 170,000 children were incarcerated by the state in orphanages, schools and prisons run by the Catholic Church.
In 261 institutions some 8,000 religious people were involved in the maltreatment of 35,000 children. More than 1,700 men and women gave evidence of the abuse they suffered as children there, with over half reporting sexual abuse. More than 800 priests, brothers, nuns and lay people are directly implicated.
Reading through the 2,600 pages you begin to get some idea of what life must of have been like in the institutions controlled by the holy men and women of Ireland – the ritual humiliations, beatings, rape, hunger, cold, forced slave labour, and the endless psychological brutalisation.
The commission also revealed how a cosy cartel developed between Church and state, where children were the commodity and profit the motive. The state paid the Church to run “industrial schools”.
In turn, the Church siphoned-off a portion of the money given to them and spent it
on their mainstream schools instead. Children in the industrial schools were used as slave labour in commercial farms, laundries and, in the case of one institution, a rosary bead factory.
The common connection between the children in the industrial schools and other such institutions was not that they were petty criminals, but that they were poor.
“What are they but illegitimates and pure dirt,” one Christian Brother remembered being told by his superior. The children were constantly told that their families were “scum”, “tramps” and “from the gutter”.
The commission’s report was ten years in the making and during that period both the Church and the state systematically obstructed its work.
The Christian Brothers delayed the investigation for more than a year with a lawsuit that successfully defended their members’ right to anonymity, even in cases in which individual Christian Brothers had been convicted of sexual and physical attacks on children.
There have been carefully moderated expressions of “regret” for the pain caused to children. But all this rings hollow. There will be no criminal prosecutions as a result of the report and the state has taken upon itself to indemnify the Church from liability.
In return, the Church agreed to give the government property worth £112 million – much of it already used, refurbished and maintained by the state. Even so, the Church is yet to settle up in full, and is haggling over the final £30 million.
The bill for compensation for the victims is likely to surpass £1.1 billion. If full redress were made the figure would be far higher.
Following the report there has been a huge outcry against the deal with the Church and the government is under pressure to renegotiate. But their answer is to blather legalistically that it cannot be revisited.
Strangely, they had no such legal problems when reopening the pension arrangements of every Irish public sector worker earlier this year.
All of which goes to show that what we are witnessing here is a shabby arrangement designed to stop the bankruptcy of religious orders that were involved in the child abuse, while covering up the role of the state that did everything in its powers to hide those crimes from public view.
Sinead Kennedy is an activist from Dublin