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Ireland's 30,000 stolen childhoods


Eleven-year-old Tom Sweeney kept skipping school. Eight-year-old Mannix Flynn got caught stealing a box of chocolates. And Christine Buckley, barely a month old, was found guilty of being the child of an unwed mother.

Such sins were sufficient to land all three children — and more than 30,000 others throughout the 20th century — in Irish workhouses for girls and boys run with an iron fist by Catholic religious orders.

A 2,600-page report, published Wednesday after a nine-year investigation, paints a damning portrait of a system that protected child-molesting church officials while consigning generations of Ireland's poorest children to misery.

The investigators said overwhelming, consistent testimony from still-traumatized men and women, now in their 50s to 80s, had demonstrated beyond a doubt that the entire system treated children more like prison inmates and slaves than people with legal rights and human potential.

The five-volume report concluded that church officials shielded their orders' pedophiles from arrest amid a culture of self-serving secrecy.

"A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys. Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from," Ireland's Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse concluded.

Victims, who lobbied long and hard for an official investigation, say that for all its incredible detail, the report doesn't nail down what really matters — the names of their abusers.

"I do genuinely believe that it would have been a further step toward our healing if our abusers had been named and shamed," said Buckley, now 62.

She spent the first 18 years of her life in a Dublin orphanage where she said children were forced to manufacture rosaries — and were humiliated, beaten and raped whether they achieved their quota or not. She didn't track down her parents, an Irish mother and Nigerian father, until her 40s, when she became one of the first to break silence and demand justice for her stolen youth.

"I didn't have a childhood," said Buckley, who recalled being constantly cold and hungry. She was severely beaten by a nun for trying to smuggle out a letter detailing the abuse, she said — which included being forced by nuns to have a "date" with a pedophile on staff.

The Catholic religious orders that ran more than 50 workhouse-style reform schools from the late 19th century until the mid 1990s offered public words of apology, shame and regret Wednesday. But when questioned, their leaders indicated they would continue to protect the identities of clergy accused of abuse — men and women who were never reported to police and were instead permitted to change jobs and keep harming children.

The Christian Brothers, which ran several boys' institutions deemed to have harbored serial child molesters and sadists on their staff, insisted it had cooperated fully with the probe. The order successfully sued the commission in 2004 to keep the identities of all of its members, dead or alive, unnamed in the report. No real names, whether of victims or perpetrators, appear in the final document.

The Christian Brothers' leader in Ireland, Brother Kevin Mullan, said the organization had been right to keep names secret because "perhaps we had doubts about some of the allegations."

"But on the other hand, I'd have to say that at this stage, we have no interest in protecting people who were perpetrators of abuse," Mullan said, vowing to "cooperate fully with any investigation or any civil authority seeking to explore those matters."

The Irish government, which in 1999 apologized for its role in permitting decades of abuse and established the commission to nail down the full truth of the matter, has tried to use money to bring closure to the victims.

A government-appointed panel has paid 12,000 survivors of the schools, orphanages and other church-run residences an average of $90,000 each — on condition they surrender their right to sue either the church or state. About 2,000 more claims are pending. Irish Catholic leaders cut a controversial deal with the government in 2001 that capped the church's contribution at $175 million — a fraction of the final cost.

Some victims emphasized that nothing — not even criminal convictions of their long-ago tormentors — would ever put right their psychological wounds and make their nightmares go away.

Sweeney, who spent five years in two Christian Brothers-run institutions where he was placed for truancy, says he suffered sexual abuse and beatings. He also has bitter memories about more everyday humiliations — such as being forced to wrap his urine-stained sheets around his neck and parade in front of other children when he'd wet his bed.

"It's something you'll never forget, the way you lived in these industrial schools," he said.

Ireland's 30,000 stolen childhoods 05/20/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 20, 2009 11:07pm]
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