May 28, 2009
"Witnesses described pervasive abuse as part of their daily lives.... In addition to being hit and beaten, witnesses described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked and otherwise physically assaulted, scalded, burned and held under water."
Guantanamo? No. Irish orphanages and reform schools.
Last week, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, appointed by the Irish government, issued its final report after nine years of investigation: 2,600 pages of evidence from the files of over 200 institutions and the testimonies of both staff and residents. The document focuses on the state of these schools over a 60-year period, from the 1930's until the last of them were closed in the 1990's, but traces the history back through the mid-nineteenth century.
Though funded and ostensibly overseen by the government, they were owned and operated by Catholic religious orders, primarily the ironically named Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy. According to the report, instances of abuse, both physical and sexual, were "endemic." They were also kept hidden from the eye of the world by a tight compact of secrecy between the government and the Catholic hierarchy. But as John Banville, who attended middle-class Catholic day schools in Dublin in the 1950's (schools outside the scope of the report), wrote in the New York Times, in Ireland "everybody knew" — or rather, as he said in his closing paragraph, "We knew, and did not know."
What could have brought about this sad narrative? After all, the religious orders that staffed those schools were founded by people appalled by the cruelties visited upon orphaned and abandoned children. Edmund Rice established the Irish Christian Brothers specifically to provide a free education to the poor in a caring, supportive atmosphere. "He was adamant," the report states in its background study, "there should be no physical punishment, which he found contrary to his own spirit. In 1820 he wrote, ‘Unless for some faults which rarely occur, corporal punishment is never inflicted.'" Catherine McAuley founded the Sisters of Mercy in 1831 for similar reasons.
Beginning with the potato famine of 1845, the number of poor and orphaned children increased exponentially, and the number of religious Brothers and Sisters, young men and women themselves seeking refuge from destitution, did too. The British government, hoping to avoid entanglement in Catholic-Protestant rivalry, chose not to operate orphanages and reform schools directly but rather to fund denominational organizations to take care of their own. With money flowing, such institutions proliferated, and the policy was continued by independent Ireland in the twentieth century.
As with all institutions, these congregations of Brothers and Sisters may have veered from their founders' visions because of the pressures of rapid expansion. With lopsidedly disproportionate student-teacher ratios — over a hundred to one in many cases — the schools shifted emphasis from personal care to sweat-shop management, enforcing order by regimentation and the rod. What developed, insidiously and mostly unintentionally, was a culture of cruelty that perpetuated itself from one generation to the next. Ideals of Christian Mercy were buried in the same kind of Victorian expediency that Dickens described in Oliver Twist. Uneducated and unenlightened, newly-professed religious were thrown into packs of wolves — and soon became wolves themselves.
Isolated in their schools, away from the "temptations of the world," they found their own temptations in their own world. And bound by their vow of obedience to their superiors, they disclosed nothing.
There was another element, too — the influence of Jansenism on the Irish religious mentality. A Catholic version of Calvinism propounded by Cornelius Jansen in the seventeenth century, it asserted the essential depravity of the human race and the predestination by God of some to heaven, others to hell. Though condemned as heretical by the Catholic Church, this theology crept into the bones of the Irish and found telling expression in the schools. As Banville writes: "The doctrine of original sin was ingrained in us from our earliest years, and we borrowed from Protestantism the concepts of the elect and the unelect. If children were sent to orphanages, industrial schools and reformatories, it must be because they were destined for it, and must belong there. What happened to them within those unscalable walls was no concern of ours."
They knew, and did not know.
Banville acknowledges but does not cite "some notable exceptions" to this attitude. I'll give you one of my own in the next column.