School of hard knocks
By Ailbhe Jordan
In 1957, the State took 11-year-old Tom Sweeney his family in Dublin and sent him to Artane Industrial School as punishment for skipping class. There, he endured three years of physical and mental torture at the hands of his Christian Brother caretakers. Again and again he tried to escape, until they sent him to another school in Galway, where he was sexually abused for a further two years.
When it came to discipline his own five children, violence was all Sweeney knew.
“My parents never touched me, I had a very happy childhood until I entered that place,” he said.
“When they were growing up, and one of them was bold at school, I’d drag them up the stairs and whip him. That’s the kind of discipline I learned.”
Between the 1920s and 1980s, an estimated 150,000 children like Sweeney were sent to Ireland’s notorious residential institutions, where many suffered horrific abuse and neglect at the hands of the Catholic clergy. Hard manual labor replaced education and substantial numbers of children left the institutions unable to read or write.
In the late 1990s, two RTE documentaries, “States of Fear,” and “Dear Daughter,” revealed the shocking truth about residential institutions in Ireland, forcing Taoiseach Bertie Ahern to apologize publicly for the State’s failure to intervene and leading to the establishment in 2000 of the Residential Institutions Redress Board in an attempt to compensate survivors of institutional abuse.
However, as the deadline for applications to the Redress Board approaches this December, awareness of its existence remains low. To date, the Redress board has processed just over 5,000 applications. It is estimated that up to 100,000 survivors fled abroad following their experiences at these institutions and yet 94 percent of applications come from within Ireland. Last year, just two percent of applications were from the U.S.
In the weeks following its setup, the Redress Board launched a television and radio campaign in Ireland and a print campaign in the UK to advertise its services. To date there has been no publicity to alert survivors in the U.S. or elsewhere.
“The redress board doesn’t appear to be making a genuine effort to inform people abroad,” according to Christine Buckley, who suffered years of abuse at the hands of the Sisters of Mercy in Goldenbridge Industrial School. Her story was the subject of the “Dear Daughter,” documentary.
Survivor groups like the Aislinn Center, founded by Buckley, have criticized the Redress Board as a deeply flawed system that is re-traumatizing rather than compensating victims.
Many of those who apply for compensation have complained of facing an adversarial and disbelieving audience as they tell their most harrowing stories. Applicants must appear before the board alone; even family members are not allowed to accompany them. Once they have accepted a compensation offer (which can be no more than €300,000, or $362,500,) they must sign a contract preventing them from disclosing any information about their claim. Breach of that contract can result in imprisonment and fines of up to €25,000 ($30,200).
Dr. Michael Corry, a consultant clinical psychiatrist in Dublin accompanied three of his patients to redress board meetings. He was so enraged with the treatment they received that wrote to The Irish Times newspaper last May calling for the board to be abolished.
“This board was set up by the Church to promote silence,” he said in an interview.
“No one is allowed to go in with these people, even though they are very fragile. They are treated very badly; their anxiety levels go through the roof.”
In his novel, “The God Squad,” Paddy Doyle described how he suffered 11 years of physical and medical abuse at an industrial school, where he was sent at four years of age following his father’s death. By the age of 10, Doyle was permanently disabled from a rare condition known as Dystonia. His website wwww.paddydoyle.com, contains numerous articles and personal writings about institutional abuse.
“It’s the equivalent of going into hell and being roasted alive — indescribable,” he said, recalling his experience of going before the Redress Board.
“You go into a room with a number of people you’ve never seen before. The judge has a bunch of personal information about you. It’s very intimidating. I’m lucky I did manage to get an education, but most people my age who were in these institutions got none. You’re vulnerable if you don’t have an education, if you can’t speak, if you can’t spell, if you can’t articulate yourself.”
Sweeney had waited five years for his case to go through the courts system, when his solicitor persuaded him to go to the Redress Board instead. He was not happy with the settlement they offered, but when he appealed, they slashed his compensation almost in half.
“I felt like committing suicide that day,” he recalled. “I felt like they were abusing me all over again.”
Sweeney went on hunger strike and protested outside Leinster House. After 22 days, he was close to death when the government finally agreed to allow him to bring his case to the High Court.
Since the Board’s inception, 75 survivors have taken their own lives. One man walked straight out of his meeting with the Redress Board and jumped into the river Liffey.
When contacted by the Echo, a spokesperson for the Residential Institute Redress Board said it does not engage with the media.
“Each individual case should go before a judge and the abuser should be named,” said Corry.
“These were concentration camps, if we were Jewish, we would be heralding these people, instead we abuse them further by dealing with them in secret. Nobody is punished, nobody apologizes. Perpetrators are not named. There’s no sense of closure. Really what we’re looking for is proper restorative justice, with proper witnesses, a proper court procedure and proper apologies.”
“The whole secrecy of the board needs to be looked at,” agreed Doyle.
“That’s how abuse thrives. The secrecy is established between the abuser and the victim. Let’s have independent judges. Lets end this secrecy. Technically speaking, I can’t even speak to my family about it.”
In the absence of any alternative, Buckley urges survivors to contact the Redress Board so that they can avail of the free counseling and educational grants that are available for themselves, their spouses and their children.
“Education is the best way forward, it’s terribly important for self-confidence and self-worth,” she said.
Three of Sweeney’s five children have spent time in prison. One of his sons suffers from alcoholism while another is battling a drug addiction.
“Education grants are no good to my kids, there’s no help for them,” he said.
“I know I wasn’t good to them growing up and I’d do anything to change that. But the damage is done.”
The Aislinn Center can be contacted at 353-1-8725771.
This story appeared in the issue of July 6 – 12 – The Irish Echo.