About eight years ago I had the chilling experience of visiting the Cemetery Memorial adjacent to the old School at Letterfrack. The cemetery is located in the beautiful setting of a small woodland but the epitaphs on the headstones quickly disperse any pleasant aesthetic associated with the place. Headstone after headstone record the sparse facts about those interred there, most children and all former residents at Letterfrack Industrial School for Boys run by the Christian Brothers from 1887 to 1974. The ages of the boys buried here are from 8 to 16, at rest at last from the savage beatings and brutality of the ‘religious’ regime at the school. Belatedly the little cemetery has been tidied up and little heart shaped black marble stones erected to bear witness to the terrible deeds represented by this forest resting place.
As I stood there reading name after name and registering the young ages etched on the stones ,it mutely testified not just to this local terror but to a national shame of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated against children by the religious orders of Ireland. Over 70 boys are buried here, suspected victims of the Brothers vile and barbaric discipline regime, in some sense these are the lucky ones, as the ‘survivors’ still live with the memories and scars each single day of their lives.
The memory of the Cemetery at Letterfrack came back to me this week as I read the Report of the Ryan Commission on Child Sexual Abuse in Ireland published after 10 years of interviews with the victims and judicial deliberation. The sordid truth contained in the 3,000 page report for once and for all firmly establishes how widespread and endemic the practise of abuse was amongst the Sisters , Brothers and Priests of religious orders entrusted with the care of children. It also shows how departments of government as well as ‘respected’ figures in the medical and the judiciary colluded with the mass internment of children behind the closed doors of facilities run by orders like the Christian Brothers and the Sisters of Mercy.
I myself attended a Secondary School (Ard Scoil Ris in Limerick) run by the Christian Brothers and I recall in particular one Principal there named Harry Cotter a violent and disturbed individual who took delight in administering punishment and doling out psychological abuse on the students. Because of my long hair at the time, ( ‘long’ by his definition!) he took particular delight in picking on me and ordering the classmate behind me to administer punishment by thumping me on the back. When requested to hit another student Brother Cotter accompanied the instruction by the command to “down the cripple”. This abuse was at the mild end of the scale and of course our involvement with the Brothers was confined to the hours of the classroom, to those in residential settings the violence and the sexual abuse was unremitting. The Ryan Report clearly says that these predatory religious men and women were not just a few bad apples in the barrel, in fact taking the Report in its entirety the whole barrel seems to have been falling apart. The litany of physical abuse is staggering, boys and girls raped, beaten, flogged , kicked, scalded, burned , held under water , forced to eat human excrement, as well as psychological torture inflicted through humiliation, expressions of contempt and the practise of incorrectly telling children that their parents were dead.
Someone has said that this is our Holocaust, the torture and maiming of young innocents by the collusion of an autocratic religious institution and a careless government regime. In one telling testimony a survivor said that they (the children) were abused every day except Christmas Day and that was because the Brothers were too drunk ! Inspectors from the Department of Education were plied on arrival and departure with ‘sherry’ and favourable reports ensued. When religion (any religion) enjoys such a cosy relationship with the State, corruption and abuse of power always ensue. Christianity was never intended to go down the Constantine road and become a hand in glove partner with the ruling authority. In fact the principles of governance and kingdom are entirely opposite, the one is based on power and subjugation while the other was intended to operate on the ‘servant to all’ principle and freedom in Christ. When the Christian church becomes entangled with the trappings of secular power, the gospel heart is suffocated and replaced with autocratic dogma.
This country’s once rich legacy for Gospel truth and scholastic brilliance became subsumed to Roman authority and in the process lost it true and dynamic spiritual heritage. For the victims in torturous thrall to the atrocities they have endured, only that Gospel comfort will provide the lasting remedy for their hurt and alienation. Understandably though many have assumed that the representatives of the Church who caused them such pain have also made ‘Christianity’ part of the problem rather than part of a solution. It is up to each and every person who has experienced the forgiveness of Jesus Christ in a real and personal way to stand up at this time and share our hope with our fellow countrymen and women who need that forgiveness and ‘new life’ The promise of Jesus is there for the believing, it requires no guru, no priest, no method merely a bowed heart and a desire to start again. The Master calls to the wounded and broken at this time…“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”
" I was eleven when I was sent to Letterfrack industrial school. Letterfrack in beautiful Connemara was this State's idea of a Special School for Special Needs. The only thing special about it was its exalted position as the monster terror hole of sub-human abuse of children. For me, it was a completely traumatic experience...
"It was like something out of Schlinder's List. You weren't just clipped on the ear, you were beaten until you were turned into whimpering simpletons," he says, "and to think that this was all enabled by the Gardai. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. The whole point for people to realise now is that hundreds of children were locked away in Letterfrack, hundreds of children were raped and murdered. It's a holocaust we're dealing with."