The Safety of Children Was Not a Consideration

by Tommi Avicolli-Mecca on May 27, 2009

To say that the Vatican must not be happy about the latest report from Ireland is an understatement. The island nation’s Commission on Child Abuse just released its findings (2,600 pages worth) from a nine-year investigation into abuses by nuns and priests in Catholic-run industrial schools and orphanages and concluded that rape, beatings and humiliation were rampant from the 1930s until those institutions closed in the 1990s.

Upwards of 30,000 children, who were truants, thieves or otherwise in trouble with the law or simply born of single mothers, ended up in some 250 institutions run by the church. The report had the input of former officials from the schools as well as 2,000 adults who were incarcerated in them as children.

According to the study, molestation and rape were “endemic” in the boys schools, while assaults and humiliation were the norm in the facilities for girls: “In some schools a high level of ritualised beating was routine … Girls were struck with implements designed to maximize pain and were struck on all parts of the body. Personal and family denigration was widespread.”

Church officials who became aware of the abuse merely transferred the offending party to another location without any punishment. The investigation found that “there was evidence that such men took up teaching positions sometimes within days of receiving dispensations because of serious allegations or admissions of sexual abuse. The safety of children in general was not a consideration.”

The Christian Brothers, the religious order that ran the majority of the schools for boys, filed suit against the investigation, delaying it for a year. They dropped their legal action once they had obtained a deal that priests guilty of sexual abuse would not be named in the report.

A spokesperson for the Irish Survivors of Child Abuse (ISOCA) said that Pope Benedict XVI should now “convene a special consistory court to fully investigate the activities of the Catholic religious orders in Ireland.”

John Walsh, a member of ISOCA and a survivor of the schools, said that the report is inadequate because “there is no criminal proceedings and no accountability whatsoever.”

“The little comfort we have is the knowledge that it vindicated the victims who were raped and sexually abused,” Walsh added.

The question that many are asking, of course, is how could it happen, and yet no one said anything? The answer is obvious. Not only was the Irish church powerful in those days, as it still is, but the kids in question were not considered the creme de la creme of society.

As John Banville, who grew up in an Irish Catholic school run by the Christian Brothers, wrote in his op ed in the New York Times last Sunday, “What happened to them within those unscalable walls was no concern of ours. We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today.”


Tommi Avicolli Mecca is co-editor of Avanti Popolo: Italians Sailing Beyond Columbus, and editor of Smash the Church, Smash the State: The Early Years of Gay Liberation, which will be published in June by City Lights Books. His website:

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