Tuesday 26 March 2019

Nobody dared to break down the great grey walls of secrecy

John Cooney

ARTANE. Daingean. Goldenbridge. Letterfrack. Seemingly innocuous placenames. They can still send a shudder of cold fear through the hearts of Irishmen and women of a certain age.

It was in these dark and sinister institutions that bad boys and wayward girls would disappear.

Society handed over responsibility for its children to an immensely powerful and authoritarian Catholic Church. The great grey walls of these institutions were surrounded by even higher walls of secrecy.

They were described variously as reform schools or industrial schools. The "reform" we now know was brought about by a regime of terror, and the "industry" was hugely exploitative. Children worked long hours and the schools made a handsome profit on the state subvention they were given.

The children entered these schools at the age of eight and generally left on turning 17.

But only now are we beginning to realise just how menacing and unforgiving these corridors were.

Institutional state and Church silence has meant that these bastions of brutality have been slow to yield their horror stories. It is finally becoming apparent that the State, Church and society as a whole turned its back on these forgotten children.

PEOPLE bought into the notion that these Victorian-style buildings were worthy places where orphaned children, or children with parents who could not afford to clothe and feed them, were sent by order of the courts for their welfare and education.

But from the late 1930s Catholic bishops such as Archbishop John Charles McQuaid of Dublin, parish priests and devout members of the one true flock were reporting to the Department of Education and to the courts the names of children whose parents might be always quarrelling in an alcoholic daze, or a Catholic widow who was living in sin with an unmarried Protestant partner.

Probation officers, often accompanied by what novelist Liam O'Flaherty called the 'soutaned bullies of the Lord' and zealous members of Frank Duff's Legion of Mary, would knock on the door.

They would then whisk away those children who came before the courts and were allocated to one of the 100 institutions of clerical detention.

What really happened behind those closed walls is now revealed in the first major inquiry conducted by a state which abdicated to a clericalist Church corrupt with power.

More than 90pc of all the victims who gave evidence to the Ryan Commission reported being physically abused while in industrial and residential schools or out of home care. About half of the inmates were subjected to brutal sexual abuse.

Inspectors from the Department of Education who should have been whistleblowers were meanwhile deferring to the clergy. Some of these inspectors had studied for the priesthood before joining the civil service and were only too happy to sit at table with fine food and wine in the parochial halls of their former colleagues, forgetful of the lack of food, nutrition and clothing of the incarcerated children.

The Ryan Report has opened our eyes to the evil done in the name of religion. The abusers were not just a few bad clerical eggs -- it was a monstrous and iniquitous system.

The Ryan Report, even more than the Ferns Inquiry and the preliminary Cloyne probe, has dealt another damaging blow to the standing of the Catholic Church in Ireland.

And worse is to come next month with the publication of the Murphy report into abuse in the biggest clerical cauldron of all -- the archdiocese of Dublin.

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss