It is time the Christian Brothers faced up to their wicked past, writes Ronan Fanning
AS I WATCHED Mary Raftery's Betrayal: the Christian Brothers and Child Sex Abuse across Three Continents on Prime Time last week I remembered episodes from my own days at the Christian Brothers' College in Monkstown in the 1950s. Although my middle-class background protected me from the physical abuse visited upon less fortunate classmates (most typically the sons of widows) and although I personally saw nothing comparable to the horrific abuse inflicted by the Brothers upon orphans, my days in Monkstown were stormy and I despised the many Brothers for whom thuggery and bullying were a way of life. I knew exactly what one Australian orphan meant when he spoke of the madness in the eyes of the Brother beating him I had it in the eyes of Brothers beating my classmates.
There were, of course, honourable exceptions, most notably a Brother Houlihane who taught me Mathematics and English for the Leaving Cert. He was a sensitive man, pale and thin with chronic illness; I'd sometimes notice his trying not to wince with pain and I still think of him whenever I read Yeats's poem The Fisherman. He died soon afterwards, and I went to his funeral. After they slid his coffin into a narrow hole in the Brothers' burial ground in Baldoyle, my former Brother Superior at Monkstown came across and shook my hand. There were only a handful of past pupils there and he was obviously surprised at my presence which, he rashly suggested, was proof of the high regard in which, despite all our past differences, I held my teachers in the old school. No, I replied, I'm here because I liked and respected Brother Houlihane; as for many of the rest of you, I hope you rot in hell. And with that I walked away.
I tell the story because as I watched Mary Raftery's programmes, that same surge of rage I had felt in Baldoyle 50 years ago swept over me again and again, especially when I heard the judgment of one Australian victim: "Down below that's where the bastards belong that's where they'll get their justice."
There seems little point in rehearsing the global catalogue of depravity so graphically depicted in the programmes, not least because, even in these permissive days, much of the detail is unsuitable for publication. What is important is that the Irish Christian Brothers must not now be allowed to dissociate themselves from responsibility, as one of their spokesman so blatantly tried to do in last week's Sunday Independent.
Just as horrendous, in a different sense, was the account of the financial and legal strategies adopted by the Brothers in Australia and Canada when, in the words of a Canadian lawyer, they squirmed and weaselled like the greediest corporation in order to minimise the payments to the abused. Thus in Australia the Brothers paid their own lawyers twice what they paid their victims. In Toronto, the Brothers, with the approval of their Irish counterparts, went into voluntary liquidation claiming their assets had shrunk from $100m to $4.3m within five years to minimise their liability.
The buck stops here in Dublin because the Irish Christian Brothers knew what was happening and did nothing about it. The decisive witness in this regard is Dr Barry Coldrey, the distinguished Australian historian, whose Faith and Fatherland: the Christian Brothers and the Development of Irish Nationalism remains the definitive work on the subject. Dr Coldrey is a Christian Brother but he is also an honest man, and his secret report on the abuses in Australia, Reaping the Whirlwind, delivered to Rome in 1994, concluded that a sex-ring had been operating in the order's institutions in Australia for 75 years. The response from the Irish headquarters was chilling in its lordly callousness: "These things have long been going on the dog returns to its vomit."
What is now at issue in Ireland is whether the Government will tacitly endorse the Brothers' attempts to slither away from responsibility, and it will be put to the test when the Laffoy Commission on child abuse in Ireland gets under way in the new year. The choice is simple: adopt transparency or try to brush as much of the filth as possible under the carpet by holding the hearings in private.
There is no case for private hearings because, in the words of John Prior of Tralee, if the victims have no problem going public, then the perpetrators must go public. Otherwise the apology proffered on behalf of the State to the victims in 1999 by the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, will be no more than yet another hypocritical Irish solution to an Irish problem; only in this case it is a problem which, courtesy of the Christian Brothers, we exported all over the world.
Ronan Fanning is Professor of Modern History at UCD.