Jess Casey: Abuse inquiry must be wider than Spiritan order

Jess Casey: Abuse inquiry must be wider than Spiritan order

Since the broadcast of the RTÉ documentary, An Garda Síochána received 32 contacts in relation to sexual abuse at six schools run by the Spiritan Education Trust. Picture: Brian Lawless

Often when there is media coverage on childhood sexual abuse, the charity One in Four receives an increase in calls to its helplines.

In the weeks since brothers David and Mark Ryan first spoke publicly about the abuse they suffered as students at Blackrock College, the charity has seen a “huge influx”, mostly from men, disclosing experiences of abuse at schools across the country, often for the first time.

One in Four typically receives on average three or four new contacts a week. “At the moment, we’re getting at least six to eight new clients a day,” said advocacy director and deputy chief executive Deirdre Kenny.

The stories shared by survivors have resonated with people. “But also the shame and the secrecy that they experienced tends to resonate and that’s what they talk about mostly, and about not knowing what to do, and knowing that other people they were in school with were also affected," said Ms Kenny.

“That’s what would point to the importance of an inquiry. It's an opportunity for people to tell their stories and for the truth to come out.” 

At the beginning of November, David and Mark Ryan told RTÉ's Documentary on One and RTÉ Radio 1 about the abuse they suffered at the hands of Father Tom O’Byrne at Blackrock College in Co Dublin.

Both Blackrock College and Rockwell College in Tipperary are under the trusteeship of the Spiritan Education Trust.

Other schools under its trusteeship include Templeogue College, St Michael’s College, and Holy Family Community School.

The number of people who have come forward alleging abuse at schools run by the Spiritans, formerly known as the Holy Ghost Order, initially stood at 233 but the order has since confirmed it has now risen above that, to around 300.

"A spokesman for the order said that not all allegations may have been flagged directly with it. The numbers logged with the independent expert on Restorative Justice reached 50 earlier this week."

To date, at least 78 members of the order have been accused of historical abuse.

In the wake of the revelations, John Coulter, a member of the survivors’ group from Blackrock College and Willow Park, told reporters that around 21% of the Leaving Certificate class of 1979 came forward to a Facebook group to report they had been abused.

It is understood from talking to people who are close to some of the survivors at Blackrock that they have been taken aback by the scale and level of responses from other people who have had similar experiences.

They also experienced an outpouring of support from friends and acquaintances who might not have known they were carrying this burden.

Blackrock College past pupils John Coulter, Corry McMahon and Louis Hoffman. Mr Coulter said around 21% of the Leaving Certificate class of 1979 came forward to a Facebook group to report they had been abused. Picture: Brian Lawless
Blackrock College past pupils John Coulter, Corry McMahon and Louis Hoffman. Mr Coulter said around 21% of the Leaving Certificate class of 1979 came forward to a Facebook group to report they had been abused. Picture: Brian Lawless

The men who came forward are currently “catching their breath” while they consider what comes next.

Education Minister Norma Foley told the Dáil on Thursday there will be an inquiry, but what shape that takes is still under consideration.

Since the broadcast of Blackrock Boys, An Garda Síochána had received 32 contacts in relation to sexual abuse at six schools run by the Spiritan Education Trust.

This includes Blackrock College, Willow Park, Rockwell College, St Mary’s College, St Michael’s College, and Templeogue College.

There were 27 contacts from survivors, three from witnesses, and two from people on behalf of survivors, with reports relating to alleged incidents dating from 1954 until 1991.

“Every survivor who has spoken with me has spoken of how they have entered into this stage or entered in the past into engagement with the order, or with the gardaí, or other legal avenues entirely unsupported and how difficult that has been," said Ms Foley.
“For them there is no doubt but that a significant body of work lies ahead. The next steps will be important."

An inquiry reasons needs to be focused on what happened, but also take into account the trauma that people have suffered, according to Ms Kenny.

“Any inquiry that does take place needs to be informed by what we know around about how sexual abuse impacts people," she said.
“We know that people who have to give evidence in the criminal justice system, that can be quite traumatic.
An inquiry needs to be cognisant that it's not easy for people to come forward and tell their stories. If it's an onerous legal process that’s going to cause more trauma for people.

Ireland has had its fair share of reports into human rights violations and clerical abuse, including the Ryan Report, the Murphy Inquiry, Ferns Report, Cloyne Report, McAleese Report into Magdalene laundries, and the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation.

“While it was important people had their say, people did find it difficult,” Ms Kenny said.

“Without due attention and care being given to the trauma that they suffered, they’ll cause more harm and that’s not ok.” 

One in Four is advocating for an inquiry to be much broader and encompass other schools outside of the Spiritan Order. 

“Certainly, people are disclosing abuse in national and secondary schools," she said. 

Professor Conor O’Mahony, former special rapporteur on child protection and director of UCC's Child Care Law Clinic, said the most important next step is bringing the survivors to the table.

This whole process ultimately is for the survivors so if you don’t design it with them in mind, then why are you doing it? If it’s not for them, then who is it for?
“The reality is that the reason we are here once again is because over the years there hasn’t been sufficient effort made to fully involve survivors in these processes,” he said.

“It’s also why we’ve ended up in a number of instances, none more obvious than the Mother and Baby Homes Report, where you end up with a report at the end of the process which doesn’t seem to satisfactorily deal with the issues.”

“That’s the first step that really needs to be taken, to put in place a proper consultative process that people can say that they’ve felt they’ve have been heard.” 

Decisions will have to be made around whether Government will opt for a commission of investigation or a non-statutory inquiry, whether the terms of reference will be limited to the Spiritans, or if the net is cast more broadly.

Professor Conor O'Mahony, director of UCC's Child Care Law Clinic, said the most important next step is bringing the survivors to the table. Picture: Tomas Tyner/UCC
Professor Conor O'Mahony, director of UCC's Child Care Law Clinic, said the most important next step is bringing the survivors to the table. Picture: Tomas Tyner/UCC

“I don’t think you can make those decisions without first having proper, meaningful consultation," said Mr O'Mahony.“You have to get that part right because everything else flows from that.“Whatever we do it’s so important that we don’t fall into the same trap that we have so many times in the past of carving up these issues into small chunks and then leaving other things behind which come back to the surface again in the future.“If we are going to do this, it's in everybody’s interest, Government included, to design it in such a way that this sort of lances this boil once and for all, so that we don’t see in another 10 years' time more people coming forward to say ‘we’ve been left behind, we weren’t covered by the scope of this’.“It would be much better broader in scope now and deal with it properly, rather than just dealing with a little piece of the picture, leaving all the other parts there festering away.” 

Louise O’Keeffe, who secured a landmark judgment against Ireland for failing to protect her from the abuse she suffered as a primary school student, told the Irish Examiner that any inquiry into abuse in schools must examine the State’s own accountability.

“Can they really confine it to an order who provided education in one, two, three, or four schools?" she asked. "Can they really confine it to one order? Because the abuse happened in schools, and the schools are legislated for by the State.

Louise O’Keeffe, who secured a landmark judgment against Ireland for failing to protect her from the abuse she suffered as a primary school student, said any inquiry into abuse in schools must examine the State’s own accountability. Picture: Dan Linehan
Louise O’Keeffe, who secured a landmark judgment against Ireland for failing to protect her from the abuse she suffered as a primary school student, said any inquiry into abuse in schools must examine the State’s own accountability. Picture: Dan Linehan

"The curriculum is set by the State, the inspectors inspect the schools on behalf of the State, the State provides all the rules and regulations for the running of the schools. They pay the teachers their salaries, they pay them their pensions when they retire," she said.

“To me, the responsibility for not just the schools run by the Spiritans but for all schools, is held by the State.”
From the Ryan Report, we are very much aware of the fact that the State did know of sexual abuse in schools as far back as 1941 and they did nothing. Why did the State do nothing? That is the biggest question of all.
“When the department became aware of abuse at any one school in the country, that should have caused alerts; it should have had the department screaming for solutions as to what to do, and it didn’t. The question is why not?
“Why, why, why? It doesn’t matter whether it was 1930, 1940, 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980. They must go back and look, they must inquire, they must find out why did the State do nothing. I think that has to be the start of it.
“That’s the biggest question of all, and it hasn’t been answered at all. It hasn’t even been attempted to answer. They haven’t even given a waffle of an excuse as to why they didn’t do anything.”

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