Ireland must learn from child abuse

May 30, 2009

The harrowing and gut wrenching stories of physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children detailed in the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse should not have surprised us.

After all, many children growing up in the 1960s and 1970s were told that, if they did not behave, they would be sent to Letterfrack or Artane.

Irish society knew – or at the very least, was aware – of the hell on Earth being inflicted on defenceless children in religious institutions. Yet, what was their crime? In the main, it was poverty. Tragic circumstances of birth resulted in many children from lower socio-economic backgrounds being received into care and being systematically abused and exploited to expand the coffers of the religious institutions.

The legacy of our shameful indifference is illustrated in this important report that indicates there were 800 known abusers in more than 200 institutions over a period of 35 years. We must learn from it.

The report stated that the deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the [religious] congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools. Clearly, the state did not shout stop, but neither did anyone else. Sexual, physical and emotional abuse of children was systematic – in particular, sexual abuse of boys was endemic in religious-run institutions.

The scale of abuse of thousands of children in institutions run by religious congregations implicates all of Irish society. When the Kennedy Report was published in 1970, an awareness and concern was created for the first time as to what was hidden behind the euphemistic words residential child care. A chilling feature of the accounts of children who were in care in Ireland prior to the report emerged. So did the unquestioned – and apparently unquestionable – moral authority of the care providers, and the reckless disregard for child welfare.

The last few decades have seen an upsurge in the reporting of cases involving victims of abuse in institutional settings. Many such incidents came to light during the 1990s, revealed by the Madonna House inquiry and RTEs documentary series States of Fear. The systematic physical and sexual abuse of children in care institutions became an area of national concern.

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