Ireland Still Coming to Terms with Legacy of Schools' Abuse
Elderly Victims Grew up in Church-Run Facilities

By Glenn Frankel
Washington Post [Ireland]
March 26, 2004

BALTIMORE, Ireland -- It's been nearly 60 years, but John Griffin said he still remembers many horrible things about his time at the Baltimore Industrial School here -- the lice-infested bedding and clothing, the smell, the rats, the beatings and the sexual abuse. But what he recalls most vividly is the hunger.

"We were starving all the time," said Griffin, now 71, "and we were begging for food. Anything to keep alive."

Baltimore was one of the most brutal of the youth institutions operated by the Roman Catholic Church with Irish government funding throughout much of the 20th century -- places where orphans, children born out of wedlock, those from broken homes and those convicted of crimes were held until they turned 16. The boys sent to this small harbor village on Ireland's south coast were supposed to learn fishery skills. Instead, according to a report released in January by a public commission of inquiry, they were subjected to "appalling conditions and deprivation," including "widespread and pervasive sexual abuse" by adults in positions of authority.

When tales of persistent abuse at Baltimore and many of the 70 other state-sponsored institutions first emerged five years ago, officials issued long and seemingly heartfelt apologies, promising restitution to the survivors among the estimated 130,000 former residents of the schools, the last of which was closed in the late 1980s. The government established the commission to investigate and report on what seemed a bygone, Dickensian chapter in Ireland's history.

But the past is not so easily buried. More than 1,700 former pupils have lodged formal complaints seeking compensation, while the judge who chaired the commission resigned in protest last fall, alleging that the government and the church had failed to cooperate with investigators. Justice Mary Laffoy has refused to comment publicly since stepping down, but her report, released in January, alleged that the department of education "has not adopted a constructive approach to dealing with its role in the inquiry" and that most of the religious orders accused of abuse "have adopted an adversarial, defensive and legalistic approach."

While Laffoy's report adopted a dry, legalistic tone, some of its passages betrayed her sense of frustration that time is running out because so many of the former victims are elderly. "Of what relevance will a report of the commission which is published in 10 years time be?" it asked.

Prime Minister Bertie Ahern swiftly appointed a new chairman and pledged renewed cooperation. "My agenda and my only agenda in this is to try to find a way to help these victims," he told the Irish Independent newspaper.

But critics argue that despite these sentiments, the government has been too slow to acknowledge the extent of the abuse and too quick to exonerate the church for its role in the scandal. "It's an extraordinary situation now where we need an inquiry into the inquiry," said Colm O'Gorman, director of One in Four, a Dublin-based group that counsels abuse victims.

John Griffin, a diminutive and soft-spoken man who lives in the nearby town of Skibbereen, said he could understand why it is difficult for Irish society to come to terms with what happened at Baltimore and elsewhere. He himself has spent the greater part of his adulthood seeking to understand it.

He was born in Dublin in 1934, the youngest of five children in a family that was split up by the authorities after his father died. John, who was 3 at the time, spent the next eight years in a church-run institution in Dublin, and then was transferred south to Baltimore, far from his remaining family members.

That first day, the authorities shaved the heads of the new pupils, leaving only a tuft of long hair at the front. It marked the pupils in case anyone tried to escape. It had another purpose as well -- "to hold you for a beating," said Griffin.

He remembers frequent punishments. Those who wet the bed or who were caught stealing food or lying were beaten with a leather strap or cane in front of the other pupils by staff members.

"There were six of them, and they had no pity," he recalled. "They could inflict pain anytime, day or night, but they'd often wait until we were in bed at night. I was fortunate. My mattress had a hole in the middle and I would dive inside and hide. I called it my little submarine."

The boys were preyed upon sexually as well, he added. "Three or four did the raping," he said. "The lay staff, not the priests."

Besides the physical abuse, hunger was the one constant. Each boy got one slice of bread for breakfast, a thin soup for lunch and dinner. They stole food from garbage bins, raw vegetables and clover from farmers' fields and sour milk from the troughs where cows ate. When fishing boats pulled into the harbor after a two-week voyage, the boys would gather at the pier to beg for leftover scraps of meat and moldy bread.

"We were like a pack of wild animals," Griffin said. "If you found a bone, you didn't bury it like a dog, you took it back to your bed and kept it."

When Griffin turned 16, he was released into the custody of a local farmer, and worked for several years as a laborer. He was functionally illiterate but slowly taught himself to read and write. But his letters of complaint to the police and to the education department went unanswered. No one listened, he said, until a broadcast journalist from the state-run RTE network named Mary Raftery contacted him several years ago.

"Baltimore was not the worst in terms of abuse," said Raftery, whose three-part television documentary on the industrial schools in 1999 and follow-up book, "Suffer the Little Children," was the first to expose the dimensions of the scandal. "But it was unusual in terms of the filth. The squalor of Baltimore was in a league of its own."

Raftery's documentary provoked widespread outrage and helped lead to Ahern's public apology and to expressions of regret from church officials. A typical statement came from the Irish Sisters of Mercy, which had operated several institutions. It apologized unreservedly but claimed its orphanages had been under-funded and understaffed and had coped as best they could. "In these circumstances many sisters have given years of dedicated service," it said. "Notwithstanding these facts, clearly mistakes were made."

While government officials were pledging restitution, the department of education was secretly negotiating with the church, resulting in an agreement two years ago that limited the church's liability to about $140 million. "The church was seen to be putting an enormous effort to get themselves off the hook," Raftery said. "No financial responsibility, no moral responsibility."

But the documentary also helped trigger a wave of new groups and organizations founded to represent victims and their families. More journalistic reports and the feature film "The Magdalene Sisters" have helped spread knowledge of what happened at the institutions. The state has helped fund many of the groups, and has also established a counseling service for abuse victims that even critics concede is innovative. One of the most prominent of the groups was Right of Place, based in the southern city of Cork, founded by a dozen survivors of the nearby Upton school.

Tony Treacy, one of Right of Place's founders, spent much of his childhood at Upton, where he said he and his fellow pupils were routinely abused. "The state and the church conspired to totally neglect us," he said. "They neglected to educate us, they even neglected to feed us."

The Baltimore school was one of the first to be examined by the Laffoy commission. It heard testimony from Griffin and 20 other former pupils. The life they described, said the report, "was so harsh and deprived by the standards of today as to verge on the unbelievable." It concluded that their accounts were credible.

According to the report, the state inspector in charge of monitoring the school gradually realized how deplorable conditions were. "It is easily the worst of all the schools and stands alone for inefficiency, slackness and neglect," wrote Anna McCabe in her 1946 report. Yet the school continued to operate for four more years until the state finally closed it down. Indeed, right up to the end its overseers were seeking to have more pupils sent there to increase its state subsidy.

The commission awarded an average of 110,000 euros -- roughly $135,000 -- in compensation to Griffin and other former residents. One of those who testified, Christy Sutton, now 77, said the money was not enough. "I should have gotten three times as much for what we went through," he said. "Every day I was beaten and crippled."

John Griffin said he still goes back to Baltimore for an annual reunion with fellow ex-pupils, although each year their numbers decrease. The main hall has been turned into a wing of a hotel. These days it houses a swimming pool.

"In my mind I still see it the way it was," Griffin said. "I don't see the swimming pool. I see the dorms upstairs and the rectory and the dirt and filth."

Griffin has written an 89-page account of his time there. It is a vivid portrait. Describing how one overseer beat boys who were tardy in leaving their beds on a cold morning, Griffin wrote, "They jumped like fish caught in a net."

On the wall of his modest kitchen in Skibbereen is a grainy black-and-white photograph of a dozen young boys standing outside the school during the winter of 1947. The boys look like black shadows in the snow -- they are wearing shorts, and all of them look painfully thin. Griffin calls them "matchstick boys."

"When the prime minister apologized, I felt at last that someone had heard us," he said. "But we can never be compensated. Our innocent lives were taken from us. We were made to suffer for the sins of our parents, and pay we did."