Did colleges turn a kind eye to abuse?



One thing is certain about clerical child sex abuse, like the latest allegations of historical abuse by the Spiritans at Blackrock College and other schools in their charge: a reaction of public revulsion. Much less certain are the questions surrounding the crime, for the sexual abuse of minors is like a dark secret wrapped in a conundrum.

Clerical sex abuse began to hit the headlines in Ireland in the 1980s, with cases and cover-ups by the Catholic Church emerging from different dioceses into the Noughties and with investigations like the Ryan and Murphy reports. Given the glare of publicity, it might seem odd that these latest claims abuse by a number of the Spiritan brothers, formerly the Holy Ghost Fathers, have only emerged now. They might not have done so had it not been for RTE’s Documentary On One when the revelations by two brothers who were victims of abuse prompted an outpouring of 70 further allegations followed the programme.

The reasons for this omerta lie partly in a Gordian knot of questions. Child abuse is generally referred to as paedophilia which involves prepubescent children whereas ephebophilia, abuse of adolescents,  is far more common. Abuse occurs throughout society especially where adults are in a position of power over vulnerable children but there is a difference where priests or religious are concerned when cases are up to four times more likely to involve adolescent males, whereas in the community most cases involve females.

Why this should be is a chicken and egg question, could the answer be due to ease of access or is it due to homosexual leanings on the part of perpetrators? It seems more likely to be a matter of availability looking at the example of homosexual activity in prisons among prisoners who are normally heterosexual. Research finds that most clerical offenders declare as heterosexual. Another question is whether the requirement of chastity, curbing one of the strongest human drives, plays a role in driving the offence. Hard to say conclusively, as some studies find that there isn’t a causal link but seminarians have said that they received little preparation for chastity.

Considering the way abusers are found in other areas of society involving children like scouting or swimming, it does seem that some individuals are drawn to occupations where they have access to and control over adolescents, giving them opportunities to exercise their perversion.

There is the wider question too, of how so much sexual predation remained unchallenged and was allowed to continue within institutions. Probably shame, fear instilled by perpetrator, of being disbelieved or upsetting parents, kept victims understandably silent.

But talk to men of middle age and beyond and often they will remember teachers or brothers known to be ‘pervs’ or ‘shirt lifters’ who  were to be avoided. Such things were known about, even joked about, by pupils but not admitted by those who should have been responsible for policing them. Which in turn raises a sinister question: was a culture of paedophilia involved in some cases?

This was undeniably so in the scandal surrounding the Kincora Boys Home in East Belfast, which emerged in the early ‘80s to headlines like ‘Sex racket in children’s home’.  The abuse was organised by and involved prominent individuals and there were allegations that police and state collusion were also involved. This was an extreme case at one end of the spectrum of abuse but a moral climate where paedophilia or ephebophilia are tolerated or ignored also allows abuse to continue.

The failure of accountability by the Catholic Church over past decades is well documented and currently the question of whether there should be an inquiry is being debated. A specific investigation into what has happened at Blackrock and other Spiritan schools would show up the way an institution, where perversion had been known about but was allowed to continue, failed in duty of care to children.  Maybe we should ask ourselves if such institutions are fit to continue in their role as educators?

So far only three of the 78 plus Spiritan brothers accused of abuse have been convicted, only one has been defrocked, although the congregation has reportedly made 80 financial settlements to victims since 2004.

Meantime restorative justice hearings — which allow victims to confront perpetrators — have been proposed. This allows victims to be heard and where admissions and apologies of wrongdoing can bring comfort. That said, most would now have to come from beyond the grave since most of the brothers involved are deceased ..

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