State of shame

Report on schools reveals litany of abuse over 70 years

Kevin Flanagan, whose late brother suffered abuse, gestures after being denied entry to the press briefing yesterday. To his left is John Kelly of the victims group SOCA

The State stood idly by as thousands of children were subjected to a horrific litany of physical and sexual abuse in institutions run by religious orders.

The damning report by the Ryan Commission published yesterday found the Department of Education did nothing to prevent a cycle of abuse spanning more than half a century.

But the findings failed to satisfy many victims, who criticised the report for concealing the identities of abusers.

The report found government officials were aware of widespread physical, emotional and sexual trauma inflicted on children by Catholic priests, Brothers and nuns. But instead of tackling the problem, complaints were not properly investigated by the department.

The €60m report follows almost 10 years of work by the commission, which dealt with complaints from former residents of predominantly Catholic institutions dating back to 1936. More than 200 institutions and 1,800 reports of abuse were examined by the commission, chaired by Mr Justice Sean Ryan.

But the inquiry was hampered by the unexplained disappearance of files on almost three-quarters of the children admitted to the institutions under investigation.

The report found:

- More than 25,000 children were sent to 55 industrial and reformatory schools in the years between 1937 and 1978.

- Files relating to 18,000 children sent to these schools and other Church-run institutions are missing.

- Sexual abuse was endemic in boys' institutions. It was identified as a “chronic” problem in industrial schools in Artane, Dublin, and Letterfrack, Co Galway.

- Corporal punishment was widespread at institutions.

- The “deferential” and “submissive” attitude of the department towards religious orders allowed the abuse to continue.

- The most vulnerable children – the poor, the abandoned, the neglected – suffered “disturbing” levels of abuse.

The launch of the report was marred by chaotic scenes at a Dublin hotel, where some of the victims and groups representing them were denied access.


The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre described the handling of the event as “shameful and disgraceful”.

Christine Buckley, co-ordinator of the Aislinn Centre and a victim of abuse at Goldenbridge Industrial School, was also critical of the report's failure to name those responsible for the abuse.

Taoiseach Brian Cowen said last night: “We are all agreed that it is appalling the vista that will emerge, in respect of a bygone day that is no longer with us, thankfully.”

He said the recommendations would need to be taken on board by the State, with relevant departments given time to consider the findings.

He added: “While the Government can put in place procedures and measures for the protection of our children, we all in society must be alert to the dangers that exist and be vigilant to what is going on in our communities and have the courage to intervene when the welfare of a child is put at risk.”

Reacting to the report, Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe vowed the State would learn from the mistakes of the past.

The Christian Brothers, which had more allegations against them than all of the other male orders combined, last night said they were “deeply sorry for the hurt caused” and for covering up abuse allegations.


Primate of All Ireland Cardinal Sean Brady said he was “profoundly sorry and deeply ashamed that children suffered in such awful ways in these institutions”.

He added: “Children deserved better and especially from those caring for them in the name of Jesus Christ.”

The commission found the harshness of the regime in these institutions was ingrained in the culture of the schools and corporal punishment was the option of first resort for breaches of discipline.

“Prolonged, excessive beatings with implements intended to cause maximum pain occurred with the knowledge of staff management. Individual Brothers, priests or lay staff who were extreme in their punishments were tolerated by management,” the commission found.

The commission found that instead of investigating complaints, the department “sought to protect and defend the religious congregations and the school”.

Documents uncovered by the commission found that sexual abusers were often long-term offenders who repeatedly abused children.

When confronted with evidence of sexual abuse, the response of the religious authorities was to transfer the offender to another location.

The Conclusions

- Physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions.

- The congregations' failure to manage schools led to institutional abuse.

- The "deferential" and "submissive" attitude of the Department of Education towards the congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty to monitor schools.

- Financial "commitments" made by the religious congregations allowed the industrial school system to thrive.

- More kindness and humanity would have gone far to make up for the poor standards of care.

Physical Abuse

- Regulations regarding use of corporal punishment were disregarded.

- Industrial schools depended on rigid control by means of severe corporal punishment to survive.

- Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from.

- Children who ran away were subjected to extremely severe punishment.

- Complaints by parents and others made to the Department of Education were not properly investigated.

- Corporal punishment in girls' schools was "pervasive, severe, arbitrary and unpredictable".

Sexual Abuse

- Sexual abuse was endemic in boys' institutions.

- Long-term offenders repeatedly abused children wherever they worked.

- When confronted by evidence of sexual abuse, religious authorities responded by transferring the offender to another location where, in many cases, he was free to abuse again.

- Congregational authorities did not listen to or believe people who complained of sexual abuse in the past, despite extensive evidence to the contrary.

- Older boys sexually abused younger boys and the system did not offer the abused boys protection.

- A culture of silence prevented sexual abuse by members of religious orders being brought to the department's attention.

- The Department of Education dealt inadequately with sexual abuse complaints.


- Poor standards of physical care were reported by most male and female complainants.

- Children were frequently hungry and food was inadequate, inedible and badly prepared in many schools.

- Children went cold because of inadequate clothing.

- Accommodation was cold, spartan and bleak. Sanitary provision was primitive.

- The standard of education in industrial schools was consistently poorer than in outside schools.

- Industrial training served the institutions' needs rather than the children's.

Emotional Abuse

- Disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children were subjected to disturbing level of abuse.

- The system made it difficult for individual brothers, priests and nuns who tried to respond to emotional needs of children in their care.

- Witnessing the abuse of other boys and girls had a harrowing effect on children in the schools.

- Separating siblings and other restrictions on family contact were profoundly damaging for family relationships.