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Ireland deeply shocked by abuse revelations

Report implicates 800 brothers, nuns and lay people in decades-long abuse of institutionalized children.

A crow flies past the Papal Cross in Phoenix Park in Dublin, May 20, 2009. (Cathal McNaughton/Reuters)

DUBLIN — Irish newspapers struggled on Thursday to convey the enormity of the horrors inflicted for decades by religious orders on the country’s most vulnerable children following the release of a long-awaited official report.

The usually restrained Irish Times headlined its editorial, “The savage reality of our darkest days.” The Irish Independent’s splash headline read “State of Shame.” The Irish Examiner front page said simply: “Shattered Lives.”

The shattered lives were those of more than 1,700 people who gave evidence of shocking treatment as children at the hands of Christian Brothers and nuns to a government-appointed Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

Irish people had some knowledge before this of the obscene depravity that permeated the industrial school system that existed in Ireland until the 1980s. The commission began gathering evidence in 2000 after a series on RTE (Irish national television), called "States of Fear," provided documentary evidence of the reign of terror in institutions for homeless, abandoned and delinquent children. And some victims of abuse, like the writer and actor Mannix Flynn, who "served time" in St. Josephs Industrial School in Letterfrack after he stole a bicycle, published compelling accounts of their mistreatment more than 10 years ago.

However the revelation this week of the full extent of the “savage reality” of life in these schools has come as a profound shock, and raised disturbing questions about the kind of society that existed in Ireland for most of the 20th century.

Violence in almost all Irish schools was once the norm. (De La Salle Brothers in the high school I attended in the 1950s used a hammer handle and straps to administer punishment.) But even by the standards of the time, the treatment meted out to the nation’s most defenseless children was vicious and inhumane.

The report of the commission, chaired by Judge Sean Ryan, undermines any defense that ill-treatment of children was the exception, or that the industrial schools were essentially benign institutions. It detailed abuse, much of it sexual, some of it physical, in 216 institutions and implicated 800 brothers, nuns and lay people.

In a typical victim testimony, a boy recounted how “one brother kept watch while the other abused me (sexually) … then they changed over." He added, "Every time it ended with a beating. When I told the priest about it in confession, he called me a liar.”

Ireland has a long record of "running away from the appalling truth of the physical and sexual torture experienced by so many children,” commented Mary Raftery, producer of the "States of Fear" television series, in Thursday’s Irish Times. No one could now plead that just a few “bad apples” were responsible or that it was all in the past, she wrote, nor could anyone make “snide suggestions” that those revealing their abuse were motivated by the prospect of financial compensation.