‘Humble plea for atonement must be answered’

It was Christopher Heaphy’s quiet dignity and his simple message that will resonate with the 100 or so people gathered at 11am Mass in Aglish Church yesterday.

You could have heard a pin drop as he slowly walked up to the pulpit in the small West Waterford church. Behind him he placed the five tomes that made up Judge Sean Ryan’s commission to inquire into abuse.

He also placed Pope Benedict’s pastoral letter alongside it and the pastoral response from the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.

“Both Church documents leave an awful lot to be desired. So much so, I wonder if the magnitude of the crimes, visited on us by the industrial schools system, has yet been appreciated by these clergy who are now the superiors of the perpetrators or miscreants of the cruel system,” he said.

Everyone in the village knows “Christy”: a Minister of the Word, a choir member and regular mass-goer. Word had spread he was going to speak at Sunday Mass about how the Church was still trying to shrug him and other abuse survivors off. As the pensioner spoke, his friend, Fr Gerry O’Connor sat quietly praying.

Dressed in a grey suit and a tie, there was little trace of the Cork accent which would belie Mr Heaphy’s birth on inner city Barrack St. Instead he had the diction of a man who had spent much of his adult life in Britain.

Over 17 minutes, Mr Heaphy told of his utter disgust at the failure of the country’s bishops to engage with him and fellow survivors since the Ryan Report was published. For the past 10 months, he said, they have refused to meet with any of the victims’ groups.

He is astonished they could believe survivors’ suffering and need for affirmation could end with the publication of the Ryan Report.

He also directed sharp criticism at the State for their failure to protect children in the schools.

“This denunciation of our nation puts us in the company of monstrous superrace regimes, racist inspired geneticists, exterminators, fascists, and slave traders.

“We did this to our own, the most vulnerable in our society, the most deserving and the least demanding.”

And so, Mr Heaphy cannot move beyond his belief that the abuse that took place must never be forgotten.

“The Irish people pride themselves on being compassionate, sensitive and generous. I believe they are. But they must prove this now and grasp with both hands this notion of an annual day of atonement, when all the victims of industrial schools will be remembered and honoured, and which will be an everlasting annual reminder for everyone, that such disgraceful treatment of the weakest in our society, must never again be allowed to happen,” he said.

Mr Heaphy said he wrote a letter to the Pope in February where he spoke of the “enormous cruelty, pain and hardship” inflicted on him. “There was hope in my heart as I awaited a reply. But there was no reply. A deafening silence. Even though I had hand delivered my epistle to a bishop, requesting that it be delivered to the Pope. But we are not going away. The future history books of Ireland will tell our sad story.”

Mr Heaphy described the children who attended the industrial schools as “helpless, homeless and a truly hopeless sub-class of innocent Irish children, who were stigmatised, isolated and incarcerated”.

“This system of Irish gulags was masterminded and instituted by politicians and civil servants representing the Irish people and administered efficiently, I’m sad to say, by mostly Roman Catholic orders of men and women who might have been expected to know better.”

Mr Heaphy was five when he was sent to Greenmount Industrial School in Cork. His older brother Liam was seven. Their little brother, Sean, was just three. For years, he’s grappled with the damage inflicted upon him and his brothers for “the crime of being poor”.

“We, all survivors, now seek atonement for what has happened to us, from the State, the Irish people, and the Church. The time for talking is over,” he said. He accused the Church, through the suffering of children at the industrial schools, of having “crucified again the Son of Man and made a mockery of him”.

“The full brunt of man’s inhumanity was visited on Christ, but out of it came our redemption. This fore-shadows what happened to us, and for that reason what happened to Jesus strikes a deep chord in our hearts. Is there light at the end of the tunnel? There can be, but only if the perpetrators of our misery answer our humble plea for atonement.”


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