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Saturday, 18 September, 1999, 09:33 GMT 10:33 UK
Investigating child abuse in Ireland
The Republic of Ireland has been shocked by a torrent of child abuse allegations in recent years and soon an independent commission will investigate what really went on the country's children's homes.

The Christian Brothers religious order, which has been accused of mistreating children in its care, speaks exclusively to Branwen Jeffreys of the BBC Radio 4 programme Broadcasting House.

In a hired hall in Coventry, a small crowd stands to remember their school fellows with a minute's silence. This disparate group of men and women are here to share not fond memories but the recollection of an upbringing marred by sexual abuse and neglect.

The common thread, a childhood spent in Irish homes, orphanages and borstal style schools. After decades of silence and denial Ireland is facing up to a shameful and cruel mistreatment of thousands of children despatched into care by the courts.

'Abuse, deprivation and gross injustice'

As more people have come forward to talk about their experiences the numbers attending these meetings have grown. The support group Survivors of Child Abuse (SOCA) now claims 1,500 members in Britain. It is one small part of a diaspora now pinning their hopes on an independent commission about to begin work in Ireland.

"It's vital for justice, for those who went through the system. We hope our concerns are listened to, after the failure by Ireland to address the issues of abuse, deprivation and gross injustice," says Patrick Walsh from SOCA.

With other support groups they are lobbying the commission, which has just opened its offices in Dublin. It is the fulfilment of a promise by Bertie Ahern, the Irish Taoiseach, who earlier this year apologised to those who had been abused in institutions paid for by the state, but often run by religious orders.

In recent years the trickle of allegations that began in the 1980s has turned into a torrent. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is an unprecedented attempt to establish the scale of mistreatment of several generations. The panel of three independent experts is expected to spend a couple of years piecing together the story of a system which it's now recognised was often brutal and cruel.

'It was horrendous'

In north Dublin, the main building of what was Artane industrial school towers over the new housing estate built around it. Now an ordinary school, Artane was the largest borstal style school run by the Christian Brothers.

Its name is now associated with a catalogue of mistreatment as former pupils have come forward to talk about its harsh regime. Michael O'Brien was among the first to talk publicly about his experiences at a time when suggesting abuse in a Catholic institution was still a taboo.

Sixteen years later he is waiting to retell it to the commission. "I was invisible, that's how I used to think of myself. It helped me to cope."

In his Dublin flat he recalls his years in Artane in the 1960s, where he claims sexual abuse by several Christian Brothers began when he was 11.

"A brother might go through the sexual act, which could involve anything from pet sex right up to rape and then blame you the child for tempting him into the situation, taking it out on you, punching or using his leather strap. It was horrendous."

His allegations are among 250 complaints being investigated by a special team of the Irish police.

The Christian Brothers have spoken rarely about the allegations, but with the commission beginning its work they agreed to an interview at the offices of their PR company.

Did Brother Michael Murray recognise the vivid descriptions of former pupils of cruel and abusive institutions?

Pausing carefully to weigh his words he told me it was not recognised by some of the brothers who worked in the industrial schools.

"I have read victim impact reports and I couldn't deny that serious damage has been done to a large number of people." But Brother Michael cannot explain why abuse went unchecked.

"It's one of the puzzles, how could it go on for so long? It also leads us to believe it wasn't happening at the scale that's been said."

The order, which also apologised last year, is anxious to stress that it was part of a system which involved the government departments of education and justice.

In the next few weeks the Irish Government will announce what powers will be agreed with the commission.

If it is to investigate how much was known within the religious orders and by civil servants and ministers, many believe it should have the power to compel witnesses to attend and to demand access to documents.

But Education Minister Michael Martin believes its primary task must be to listen.

"I think there will be an issue about the balance between the therapeutic and investigative side, but on balance I favour the emphasis on the therapeutic. We are determined to give the commission the powers it needs to do the job it needs to do."

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Branwen Jeffreys reports on the child abuse allegations
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