The Shame of Ireland

The Shame of Ireland

Irish Child Abuse: the Particular Sufferings of the Disabled

The Times (United Kingdom)
June 12, 2009

Earlier this week, as David Sharrock reports, thousands marched through Dublin in protest at what is turning out to be one of the darkest chapters in the history of Ireland and the Roman Catholic Church. Soon after the Ryan report was published, David Sharrock, who writes for The Times in Ireland, wrote a powerful column. He reported the appearance of Michael O'Brien on the RTE show Questions and Answers, the Republic's equivalent of the BBC's Question Time. Michael listened patiently to the answers given by politicians to his question about whether the assets of religious orders found guilty by a commission report of systemic, endemic child abuse should be frozen. Then he let rip. 'I went to the commission and had seven barristers there questioning me, telling me that I was telling lies when I told them that I got raped of a Saturday, got a merciful beating after it and he then came along the following morning and put Holy Communion in my mouth.

'You are talking to a Fianna Fáil man, a former councillor and mayor that worked tooth and nail for the party. You got it wrong. Admit it and apologise, because you don't know the hurt I have. My God, seven barristers throwing questions at us non-stop. I attempted to commit suicide. They brought a man over from Rome, 90-odd years of age, to tell me I was telling lies and that I wasn't beaten for an hour non-stop by two of them from head to toe without a shred of cloth on my body.

'For God's sake, try to give us some peace and not continue hurting us . . . Don't say you can't change it. You are the Government, you run this state. So for God's sake, stop mealy-mouthing because I am sick of it.'

One of the aspects of the Ryan report that has not received much attention has been the suffering of children with disabilities.

In an attempt to address this, Margaret Kennedy of Macsas has written this report for Articles of Faith.

Margaret writes:

'Ireland is in outrage following the publication of the Ryan report. This is understandable and right. For too long has child sexual abuse been hidden in this alleged 'Garden of Eden of Catholicism'. More and more for reasons others have speculated upon Ireland seems to have had its very own unique deviance amongst Catholic Clergy. I leave the exploration of that to others.

'My concern is for the victims. After twenty-plus years in the field of disability and child protection I can spot the flaws in this document. Most of us by common sense can recognise that disabled children are especially vulnerable. They may be in institutions far from family. They may not understand what is happening to them therefore unable to tell. This will be compounded by speech difficulties or learning disability.

'The Ryan Commission was set up to study the abuses within industrial schools. Though the reports on disabled children did not concern industrial schools they were included after many reports to the commission. The report covers 'Our Lady of Good Counsel, Glanmire, Cork, a learning disabled residence and school, and Renmore Galway, a school for learning disabled children, both run by the Brothers of Charity.

'Ryan covers 18 hospitals, not named, where there were allegations of abuse of sick or disabled children.

'It also covers three deaf schools, Mary Immaculate School for Deaf Children, boys, run by The Daughters of the Cross of Liege, St Josephs School for Deaf Boys, 'Cabra', run by the Christian Brothers and St Mary's school for Deaf girls, Cabra, run by the Dominican Sisters.

'Chapter 13 covers special schools and residential services and records witness reports from 58 witnesses from 14 different special needs schools and residential services, not named. It is unclear whether these victims are different to the former mentioned.

'The abuse of disabled children does not engender the same media response as abuse of non-disabled children.

'We can speculate that openly discussing the very vulnerabilities of this group of children is painful for parents and there has been a tendency to believe such children will not be targeted, that somehow we 'feel sorry for them' and that their very impairments give added protection.

'Far from it. Deaf children are four times more likely to be sexually abused than hearing children, with 50 per cent of deaf children experiencing sexual abuse. For learning disabled children we can estimate 50-90 per cent of all learning disabled children and adults have experienced sexual abuse. These are American statistics since Britain and Ireland have not researched the prevalence of such abuse here. Anecdotal evidence suggests the figures are about right for Britain and Ireland also.

'So what did the Ryan inquiry find? It is difficult to summarise, the report being long and complex. However it is clear that many, many disabled children were sexually, physically and emotionally abused. In chapter 13 it notes that a higher proportion of disabled witnesses were in their 20s and 30s suggesting abuse was relatively recent, not 'historical'.

'Many spent most of their childhood in institutions. Forty-one of 58 witnesses reported abuse over a 35 year period prior to 1970, 17 related to the 1970-1990s. There were 20 witnesses from the deaf boys school and 21 from the deaf girls schools comprising three pages in the report. Two and half pages describe the institution, with 20 lines allocated to the abuse there. Another chapter concerns another deaf school examined by written reports only, though 20 written statements were furnished. Despite the 20 written statements only four pages cover this school with one page taken up by two photographs of the institution, while one page only covers the abuse experienced.

'There is no reference to the 150 deaf people who submitted to the commission before the deadline but many more were not aware of the process and missed the deadline. Nor is there any reference to the 135 learning disabled victims from the Brothers of Charity Galway. So that it is apparent that the Ryan Report is discussing only the 'tip of the iceberg'.

'It is clear the commission had great difficulty putting in place sufficient resources for deaf people to give evidence. Reference to these difficulties were noted by Ryan. The principle difficulty was in obtaining statements of complainant witnesses. Protracted correspondence and discussion failed to produce agreement as to arrangements for taking statements that would be considered satisfactory. It is unclear who was to be 'satisfied', the deaf victims or the commission and here lies the nub of the issue.

'From reports I've received, the commission apparently did not rise to the required standards of interpreting. This is far from satisfactory in an era where disability rights would allow for 'the freedom of expression' under Human Rights legislation. It certainly means there is a huge gap of knowledge to interview deaf abused victims, which needs to be addressed if they are to be protected today.

'Ryan seems reluctant to tell us more about these difficulties. The Ryan report fudges the issue on oral verses sign language use for deaf children in education by arguing this debate takes place elsewhere. This is despite the fact the European Union has requested all states to recognise the Sign Language of its Deaf citizens. The political right to a language has not been endorsed for Deaf people in Ireland so in essence this abuse can not been appraised objectively, even after the victims' evidence of forced oralism - only speaking, not signing. This is cowardice and an omission of justice.

'Thirty-one witnesses gave evidence concerning hospitals. Regarding Lota's learning disabled victims, there are no statistics on number of witnesses. Chapter 13 does tell us that 37 witnesses were intellectually disabled but not the institution they came from. Nineteen witnesses were sensorally impaired but this is a different number given in the deaf chapters and does not say how many blind or visually impaired witnesses there were or from where.

'Two witnesses reported abuse in schools and residences for physically impaired children that were not named. The numbers of witnesses were 33 in relation to 18 unnamed hospitals, with four abused in other institutions as well. It is unclear exactly how many were interviewed. As for the abuse suffered by disabled children, all described unbearable fear of beatings, sex abuse, and were subjected to a variety of unimaginable horrors. Descriptions of physical abuse included being hit or beaten with sticks, brushes, kitchen implements, wooden coat hangers and rulers.

'They also reported having their heads held under water, being put in cold baths, having their hair cut and pulled, being forcibly fed, being locked in outhouses, sheds and isolated rooms.

'Witnesses with sensory impairments described the particular fear and trauma associated with being physically abused when they could not see or hear abusers approaching them. Deaf children described being punished for sign language use. Sexual abuse was evident in nearly all institutions where disabled children were. It is astonishing that the Brothers of Charity positioned a known sex offender from an English primary school in Ireland. It is not said whether this establishment was for learning disabled pupils. However the police were involved but the Brothers brought him back to Ireland and placed him with learning disabled children in Lota, in 1951, where he stayed until 1984.

'Was it that the Brothers of Charity believed abusing learning disabled children 'did not matter'? Brother O'Shea told the committee the trajectory of this man's history using interesting terminology as if coached by his legal team such as; " I would feel that maybe…", "my sense is…", "we would have acted upon…". "I suppose…" Such evidence is 'weaselesque'.

'As for the Brothers of Charity Galway, this institution was completely omitted from this statutory Commission of Inquiry. The fact Dr McCoy produced a report on the Brothers Galway, which was a non-statutory review by the Western Health Board, now the western Health Service Executive HSE, seems to have allowed this establishment to slip out of the Ryan radar, which means that what happened there will not receive the due inspection that only a public inquiry can now deliver.

'This is a terrible omission as this institution had prolific sex-offending Brothers. One Brother abuser was spirited away from Galway to Belmont Waterford and thence to a learning disabled establishment in Britain where he was to become a 'committed' sex offender. He was convicted and jailed in Britain in 1999.

'Neither McCoy or Ryan sufficiently focused on the movement of Brother/Clergy/Nun offenders in its own right.

'It would seem that various inequalities surface regarding disabled witnesses.

a) The confusion and failures on how to facilitate Deaf peoples' evidence,

b) The anonymising of the institutions they were in except for some select few that were given individual chapters.

c) The omission of the real numbers of those who came forward but not included. The overall effect is to minimise the numbers of disabled victims and to protect the anonymous institutions.

d) The lack of analysis concerning the deliberate movement of offenders from one establishment to another. (A mapping exercise would have been helpful),

e) The lack of any analysis of learning disabled victims in Tingwall Hall Liverpool, who were abused by two brothers of Charity sent from Lota, and Galway. (Are not the Brothers of Charity and the Commission responsible for them too?)

f) Rigorous analysis was afforded institutions for non-disabled children, but not disabled schools.

It is not the place of this short article to re-visit the atrocities against disabled children as it is all contained in the report. What is necessary is to raise the profile of disabled adults who endured these schools and institutions for by their very impairments they may not have the opportunity to raise their voices themselves. That they were targeted and disregarded, and often deliberately put at risk by senior religious in the various orders, points to the depravity of both offender and the religious management entrusted with a 'duty of care to protect'. We now have a duty to ensure that all schools and institutions for disabled children are at a level of humanity and safety that we demand.

Thank You for Reading!

Suggested Reading

“Disabled People In Ireland”

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