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Chapter 1 — Institute of Charity

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Fr O’Reilly again acknowledged on behalf of his Order that the use of corporal punishment had led to physical abuse in its schools. He also accepted that children had been sexually abused, although he submitted that, amongst those in authority in recent times, there was not any knowledge of sexual abuse prior to the late 1970s. He added that, in the course of working for the Commission, the Rosminian Institute had become aware that sexual abuse had in fact occurred earlier than previously believed. He said that, while the Rosminians did not know by what standard to criticise their predecessors, they did not disassociate themselves from them. In giving evidence to the Commission, they intended to assume responsibility for the past, to account for it, to bear criticism for it and to learn from it.


Fr O’Reilly, in his Submission to the Investigation Committee, outlined the approach taken by the Order in its response to individual complaints made through the Commission: In our individual responses to the Commission, we have apologised and we have intended that our co-operation with the Commission should be seen as an act of apology. In some instances, our apologies have been qualified. In this, we have been fearful of betrayal of our members and shocked by allegations. But we do not challenge the accounts of survivors where we have no good evidence to do so, and we have resolved, where people have been injured in the past, to do no further harm by denial. We have witnessed and read of the courage and trauma of survivors, and it has affected us. We are determined that errors of the past should not be compounded by our conduct in the present.


During a preliminary hearing held in public on 18th June 2004, counsel for the Order focused on the approach to complaints being taken by the Order: We have resolutely declined to deny a case in which we have no evidence for denial. That is a reversal of all of the established legal procedures ... it has been a difficult task, but it has been, I have to say, a most emphatic decision of the Rosminian Order.


According to Fr O’Reilly, this decision was implemented even in situations where the Order found itself in a dilemma. There were instances where a complainant said that he was hurt or abused whilst in the care of a member of the Institute, and the complaints related to a member of the Institute against whom there was no objective evidence, and whose general reputation was that of a hard-working and respected member of the community. The decision was implemented even though it created a difficulty for the member concerned, or for his family.


Fr O’Reilly explained that the Rosminian Institute had decided to take this approach because of the ethos of the Order. They also desired to avoid an adversarial approach to the resolution of conflicts before the Commission. He said that in the past, the Order’s responsibility was to work for those who were in their care and that part of their job was to advocate for them before other bodies, before the Department and society in general. That was their ethos, and that was what the Rosminian Institute was about. For that reason, he said: We are not going to contradict that type of approach that we have had throughout our lives unless there is extremely good reason to do so.


He added that the avoidance of an adversarial approach was also driven by a desire to do no further harm. This was an objective promoted in the course of inquiries into abuse in other countries, such as Canada.4 Nevertheless, he explained, the avoidance of an adversarial approach presented its own difficulties and dangers when seeking to determine the extent to which abuse occurred.


The Rosminian Institute had taken the view that a strictly adversarial approach was unnecessary and inappropriate, and that it could create a distracting polarisation of views and obscure the truth. It believed that many of the individual allegations and complaints were beyond proving or disproving, and that such investigation was unnecessary, as the faults and limitations of the schools being inquired into would become apparent without the need to pursue every conflict of evidence.


This issue was revisited in the course of written Submissions furnished by the Rosminian Institute at the conclusion of hearings. They wrote: Many aspects are visible through time without confronting uncertainties of memory, or raising the divisive issue of recollection distorted by feeling or shared experiences. These points have some relevance, but can create a distracting polarisation of views and obscure the truth. For some allegations of serious or wilful abuse, this approach may seem like indifference to the truth, or to the reputation of our members. But there is a greater danger in thinking that any length of inquiry could prove or disprove many of the individual cases. We believe we must live with the uncertainty, and deal with matters as a whole.


The Rosminian Institute asserted that the confrontation of evidence in an adversarial way was also unnecessary because, in many instances, the complainants’ accounts of hardship, deprivation or neglect were not necessarily contradictory to the evidence given by members of the Order, who described trying to cope with conditions which were brought about by a shortage of staffing, training, and of resources that ought have been in place to facilitate the provision of proper care for the children in their charge. Both sides were describing essentially the same thing, viewed from different perspectives: on the one hand, the former resident was describing a deprived and neglected childhood, with real needs not being addressed; while, on the other hand, the overworked and under-resourced priest or Brother was describing their very real struggle to provide, despite inadequate resources, good care for the children in their schools.


At the first public hearing, counsel for the Rosminian Institute outlined their legal position. He submitted that whether boys resident in Ferryhouse were sexually abused was not in dispute, as it is accepted that such abuse did occur. What had to be addressed by the Investigation Committee was how pervasive sexual abuse was in the School, and the extent of that abuse during the time under investigation. In their statements of complaint, former residents from every era had made allegations of such abuse. While, in general, allegations of sexual abuse were not expressly denied in the Rosminian Statements, such allegations were not admitted either. For this reason it was submitted it would not be appropriate for the Investigation Committee to take the view that the absence of a denial should be deemed to be an admission of the truth of allegations, as may be the case in civil proceedings.


In an inquiry into an institution, the Rosminians submitted, it was not necessary or appropriate to decide on the validity of each complaint on an individual basis, but it was necessary to determine how widespread abuse was during the history of the Institution. He pointed out that a reasonable insight might be gained by looking elsewhere, beyond the allegations and counter-allegations, to see what was known at the time.


Part of the reason for taking this approach was to avoid causing further distress to the former residents of Ferryhouse and Upton. During the hearings, counsel for the Order examined witnesses sympathetically, and, even when evidence was being challenged, it was done with courtesy and care. The Investigation Committee was impressed by the number of apologies that were made. The following are examples: we have learned since your statement to the Commission came in that Br Lazarro5 did sexually abuse boys, I hope you will accept the Rosminian’s apology if that happened to you. We haven’t ever suspected it of [the other Brother] and I am sorry to ask you questions about it. I am ashamed to ask you questions about what you describe about Br Valerio6 (the questioning that followed was solely to elucidate how contact was made after the boy had left the school). I don’t want to ask you much at all because the hardship you have described deserves not to be investigated in any way or questioned. We accept what you have said, we trust the truth of it completely. There is one very big thing, which you have done today. [Your evidence] is a testament to the pain you suffered and others with you.


While many witnesses found it hard to accept the apologies made by the Rosminians for the pain and hardship they had suffered, it may have helped them to find that their evidence was treated by the Order in such a sympathetic way.


This approach facilitated investigation. Counsel for the Rosminians often brought out details that might have been missed. He elicited facts about school routines, practices and conditions, in order to gain as much information as possible from witnesses. Sometimes, they were asked to fill in gaps in the knowledge available to the Order. The Rosminians were correct in their submission following the Phase II hearings by stating that: the faults and limitations of the Schools become apparent without pursuing every conflict of evidence.


The official instrument used to administer corporal punishment was the leather strap. There were two kinds: one was a single piece of leather a ¼ of an inch thick (0.63 cm). It was about 19 inches long (48.2cm), and 2½ inches wide (6.3cm), with one end shaped to form a handle. It was used to slap the palm of the hand. It weighed 5oz (147grms).

  1. This is a pseudonym.
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  4. Law Commission of Canada: + Institutional Child Abuse – Restoring Dignity Pt II Responses ‘Guiding Principles’at p 7.
  5. This is a pseudonym.
  6. This is a pseudonym.