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Clerical Child Sexual Abuse (Letters in History Ireland, Winter 2000)

Sir,—In the course of his article ‘A Church in Crisis’ (HI Autumn 2000) James S. Donnelly Jr reviewing the situation of the Irish Catholic Church today discusses the impact made on the Irish public by the RTÉ television programme States of Fear (April-May 1999). He says:

For their thoroughly researched set of programmes the editors of this powerful series...interviewed more than a hundred people who had come through the industrial school system...Mary Raftery estimated in April 1999 that there were as many as 40,000 people still alive who had been inmates of the system at one time or another. Sexual abuse occurred all across the system. Virtually no industrial school where there were boys over ten declared Raftery, has not had or is not having a Garda investigation into sexual abuse, and this includes the schools for the blind, the deaf, [and] the mildly handicapped. In absolute terms the offenders among the religious teachers and custodians were numerous. Referring to the now notorious Sister Xaviera of Goldenbridge in Dublin, Raftery insisted: ‘Every place had one, two or three Xavieras. The brothers had hundreds’.

I did not see all of the RTÉ programmes to which James S. Donnelly refers, nor am I a statistician, but I cannot help being puzzled by some of the statements he quotes in the short passage above. They read so like personal opinions, but we are told they are the fruit of research. I would expect anyone with the skill and opportunity to do research, to give me clear answers to a few questions:

     How exactly was that figure of 40,000 arrived at?
     How many institutions were included in the research for States of Fear?
     How many former inmates of each institution were interviewed?
     How many people altogether were interviewed? ‘More than a hundred’ is very vague.
     What evidence implicates hundreds of brothers in child sexual abuse?
     Was Sister Xaviera among the alleged perpetrators of child sexual abuse? My recollection is that she was not. If she was not, why is she mentioned in a context which suggests that she was?

     Child sexual abuse is such a serious matter, that subjective and inaccurate statements about it are particularily inappropriate. They just make the protection of children that much harder. So far as memory serves me, those who edited States of Fear did not present any comparison with the incidence of child sexual abuse in institutions in Europe or America. One might easily get the impression therefore that the appalling happenings described only took place in Ireland, and that the sole perpetrators anywhere were members of Catholic religious  communities. As a social worker of twenty years experience I know this not to be the case. James S. Donnelly goes on to say that, inspired by this programme, the Irish government brought in new legislation to deal with the abuse of children. Again, my understanding is that Irish childcare legislation  had to be reviewed and updated anyway to come into line with European Community requirements, and that this had been going on for some years before States of Fear was made.

     What concerns me is the apparent readiness on the part of James S. Donnelly to accept as authoritative on such an important subject the views of editors of a TV documentary. It leads one to speculate about the factual basis of some of his other conclusions.

Yours etc.,

County Cork

Author’s reply

Sister Xaviera of St Vincent’s Industrial School in Goldenbridge has not been accused of child sexual abuse. I sincerely regret if readers have come away with that impression. She has been accused of severe physical abuse. Sister Xaviera has denied the charge. Her main public accuser, Christine Buckley, intends to give evidence before the Laffoy Commission to Inquire into Childhood Abuse. Ms Kahn questions my reliance on the award-winning TV documentary series States of Fear. Mary Raftery, who wrote, produced and directed this series, followed it up last year with a 424-page book, Suffer the Little Children: the inside story of Ireland’s industrial schools, co-authored with Dr Eoin O’Sullivan of Trinity College, Dublin (listed in the ‘further reading’ at the end of my article). This book provides answers to several of the questions raised by Ms Kahn.

Yours etc.,

University of Wisconsin-Madison