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Column We must stop claiming that 'we never knew' about child abuse at Catholic institutions

It’s a common refrain that widespread abuse was only exposed in recent decades – but the real story is very different, writes Fin Dwyer.

This article was originally published 26 October 2012

OVER THE PAST two decades the issue of child abuse has dominated the Irish political agenda. Harrowing as the various reports have been Irish society has yet to deal with one of the most challenging and complex aspects of the abuse; how much did wider society in Ireland know?

A frequent response to this question has been that the vast majority of people never knew about child abuse until the 1990s. This does not hold up to scrutiny. Historians such as Diarmaid Ferriter have have pointed out that evidence in newspapers, court reports and government files indicate many people on all levels of society had varying degrees of knowledge of the abuse of children.

As early as 1931 the Cumann na nGaedheal government had conclusive evidence of widespread child abuse in Irish society when they received ‘The Carrigan Report’, findings of a committee that examined ‘Criminal Law Amendment Acts and Juvenile Prostitution’.

The then Garda commissioner Eoin O’Duffy had testified to the committee that there had been over four hundred reported cases of abuse of girls under the age of 18 between 1924 and 1929 including an “alarming… number of cases of interference with girls under 16 and with children under 11 years of age”. O Duffy estimated that these reflected at most 15 per cent of the actual crimes being committed.

Tarnished image

In what became an all too frequent response in Ireland those in authority were unwilling to act when presented with the findings of the Carrigan Report. Ireland’s nationalist leaders had long argued that the country’s ills had been caused by the British presence on the island. The publishing of such a report after nearly a decade of Independence would directly contradict this. It would also tarnish Ireland’s image as a Catholic country.

Many also struggled to believe the testimony of children, something that the reporting of child abuse was dependent on.

In this context the report was treated with hostility. The Department of Justice memo on the report in 1931 called it ‘practically without value’. Through 1932, two successive government cabinets, a secret Dáil committee representing all parties and the Standing Committee Of Irish Bishops viewed the report. Disturbingly the report was suppressed and none of these people who had seen its shocking details raised the disturbing findings in public.

All agreed that the best way to deal with the report was through as little public debate as possible on issues surrounding sexual immorality. Perhaps most worryingly they even failed to call for further examination into O’Duffy’s statistics or further monitoring of abuse cases.

Black and blue

Despite the Carrigan Report’s suppression, evidence of the abuse of children surfaced in public from time to time. Between 1924 and 1960 Irish circuit courts heard 1,500 cases regarding sexual offences of which 81 per cent were regarding victims seventeen or younger. As well as the discussion these cases must have provoked in local communities, many were also reported in the press. Even though the term paedophilia would not be commonly used until the 1990s, references to terms such as ‘indecent assault against a young girl’ left the reader with a fairly clear idea of the nature, if not the detail, of the crime.

While the Carrigan Report and court prosecutions dealt with abuse in wider society, abuse in church run institutions was not completely unknown either. For example in 1935, 15-year-old John Byrne was killed in Artane Industrial School. He had been beaten by a teacher which was reported in The Irish Times. Although the coroner reported that the boy had died of disease, the Communist Party newspaper The Workers Voice interviewed the boy’s father who said his son’s body “was black and blue”. The Communist Party called for a public inquiry as early as May, 1935.

Mary Raftery and Eoin O Sullivan have pointed that knowledge of the regimes of abuse in Irish industrial schools was also held in communities adjacent to these institutions. Communities close to the Christian Brothers School in Salthill, Co Galway frequently heard the screams of children at night as did those living beside a similar institution in Daingean, Co Offaly.

In the summer of 1946 the issue of institutional abuse was widely debated in the Irish papers when Fr Edward Flanagan, a native of Roscommon and well known US priest visited Ireland. He had earned widespread fame through his progressive institution Boystown which was the subject of a 1938 Oscar winning film. As he travelled across Ireland Flanagan was critical of the regime of physical abuse he witnessed in some of Ireland’s institutions.


He directly attacked youth prisons in public saying “your institutions are not all noble, particularly your borstals which are a disgrace.” When addressing a crowd at a public meeting in Cork he encouraged people to help children “by keeping your children away from these institutions”.

When Flanagan returned to the US his criticism was reported in the American press and a prolonged debate on the issue continued in Ireland through the late summer and autumn of 1946. Nothing was done as the government denied the charges. Similar criticism was widely reported in 1963 when eight girls who had escaped an institution in Bundoran had their heads shaved when they were caught and returned to the institution run by the Sisters of St. Louis. The story was covered in the British newspaper The People under the headline “Orphanage horror”.

Rather than provoke protest, the phrase ‘Bundoran haircut’ entered popular parlance in the north-west to threaten misbehaving children – reflecting the uncaring attitudes pervasive in Irish society toward children in these institutions, who were for the main working class children and the children of single mothers. For those concerned taking action against abuse was not easy. When people did complain they were ignored by politicians and department officials who time and again believed the church who denied allegations.

As a society, Ireland needs to address this fact that many knew of the abuse of children, and ask why they did not or could not act. This will involve looking at the historic role of the Catholic Church in shaping ideas around morality and sex which made discussion of sexual abuse very difficult. Likewise we must look at the role played by the highly authoritarian and conservative governments of the state who were more concerned about the country’s image than children suffering abuse.

Fin Dwyer is a historian, blogger and archaeologist. Find out more at, or on Facebook.

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