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Chapter 3 — Ferryhouse

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Fr Stefano, therefore, had three Prefects to call upon to take care of over 150 boys. His other staff, although involved in the running of the School, were not directly involved in the day-to-day care of the boys. Throughout its history, Ferryhouse used only a small number of staff to take care of the boys. It is a fair estimate that less than 20% of the religious Community present in Ferryhouse had a direct role in the provision of care to the boys:
Year Number of boys resident Total number of Rosminian Community Number of prefects Prefect/boy ratio
1930 193 9 2 96/1
1940 189 9 2 94/1
1950 182 10 2 91/1
1960 205 12 2 102/1
1970 160 12 3 53/1

Physical abuse


As far back as 1990, on the occasion of the public opening of a new school in Ferryhouse, the Provincial spoke of the boys who had been damaged by the years they spent in the old Ferryhouse, and of those who looked back in anger and bitterness on their time there. He said: The greatest guilt has to be borne by those of us who utilised or condoned or ignored the extreme severity, even brutality which characterised at times the regime at old Ferryhouse.


This awareness of the extreme severity, even brutality, of the old regime was reiterated in statements made to the Investigation Committee. Fr O’Reilly, speaking on behalf of the Order at the Phase I public hearing on 7th September 2004, outlined its position on the use of corporal punishment at St Joseph’s, Ferryhouse. He told the Investigation Committee: I’d say that most of the boys who were in Ferryhouse would have received corporal punishment at one time or another in the course of their time there for what was regarded as misbehaviour, be that absconding, or some other thing, and I think that corporal punishment was the standard that was acceptable at that time.


He went on to say, however, ‘I am sure that punishment at times for running away was excessive’.


The Rosminians prepared a respondent statement in response to each complainant’s allegations of physical abuse. This statement was furnished to the Commission by Fr Matt Gaffney, Provincial Superior, in May 2002. It further clarified the attitude of the Order to the era when corporal punishment was in widespread use. He wrote: Corporal punishment should be seen in an institutional context where the maintenance of control was an absolute necessity, and in particular in the light of social attitudes of the time. It is true that the ideal of child-care in Industrial Schools was to avoid corporal punishment when possible, but that unfortunately provided an aspiration without the means of achieving it. The absence of child-care training left staff at the schools without any practical policy other than personal judgment, which was fallible and always hard-pressed. The use of corporal punishment as a general disciplinary measure, and its uses also as a punishment or deterrent for bed wetting, absconding and other infractions, in times when corporal punishment was generally socially acceptable, produced a disciplinary environment in which the distinction between punishment and abuse could become blurred.


In their Final Submission to the Investigation Committee, after all the hearings had been completed, the Rosminians wrote: The susceptibility of corporal punishment to abuse seems inherent. If left to discretion, a cause can always be found for its use, especially where authority is threatened or insecure ... It must be said that Prefects seem to have varied widely in their use of corporal punishment. This appears to be reflected in the pattern of complaints. This in itself would suggest that problems of corporal punishment were created in part by a lack of policy and supervision.


The approach taken by the Rosminians had many advantages for the complainants giving evidence to the Committee. Above all, it made it easier for them to tell of their experiences. The Rosminians’ inquisitorial approach actively engaged with the Commission in searching for facts. The victims were sometimes helped to recall details, and were often asked to add to the facts known to the Order.


However, the Order were loath to admit that the kind of corporal punishment administered as part of the regime often constituted physical abuse. This contrasted with their approach to known sexual abusers, where they did not dispute the abusive nature of the behaviour.


While all members of the Order and the lay teachers could use corporal punishments, the majority of the complaints received by the Investigation Committee named members of the Order who had been appointed Prefects. Until the late 1960s, when the number of dormitories was increased to three following a critical inspection, there were two Prefects, one for the junior and one for the senior section. Fr O’Reilly told the Investigation Committee: ... it was regarded as the responsibility of the Prefects to look after the children, regardless of how many there were there ... once the children came out for all activities, whether that was football or hurling or soccer in the yard or whatever it had to be, you had to organise that and you had to ensure, as far as you could, that you had an eye on all the children or as many as you possibly could have, because that is your responsibility.


It was regarded as an impossible task, unless the supervision of the children also involved a degree of control over them through fear of punishment. One former Prefect told the Investigation Committee: I certainly would have hit chaps with the palm of my hand as well if the frustration got too much ... I wouldn’t have been unique, I don’t think, no ... we always tried to leave that side of it to one of the others if they would do it. Somebody has to take on the responsibility of the disciplinarian, one of us could step back and let ... whoever was there do it ... That kind of shoved you into a role at the time as well.


The Prefects, he explained: allowed somebody to take the flak, we all do it in groups unfortunately at times, somebody else takes on this role of being the disciplinarian and everybody else can sit back and say I’ll send you to [the Prefect].


A Prefect from the 1960s, Br Alfonso,5 described the role of Prefect in the following terms: the Prefect of Discipline was public enemy numero uno. That he was the first public enemy because he was the only one who is to dish out discipline. He was to physically punish the children if that were necessary.


Fr Antonio, who was in Ferryhouse in the late 1940s and 1950s, told the Committee, ‘The advice I was given when I went over there first, make sure they know who is boss and your job was to keep control. There was very little support, I might add’.


Once ‘shoved into’ the role of Prefect, he went on: You just have to go in and pretend that you are the big boy, which I did at the time ... I roared and shouted and put a fella away and said that will stop that messing now. I don’t remember hitting anybody that particular night, many a time I did. You would kind of take on the acting role ... Then, looking back now, while I was acting I’m sure the children didn’t think I was acting at all, so that would have frightened them as well ... You would think I was going to kill them. It was using fear really to get control.


Fr Antonio told the Committee that he had requested that he be removed from the Prefect’s position. He said: I was glad to get away from the prefecting ... it was too boring and walking around just like that all day, nothing to do. I would prefer to be working, doing something.

  1. This is a pseudonym.
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  6. Set out in full in Volume I.
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  11. Br Valerio did not give evidence to the Committee; he lives abroad.
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  19. This is believed to be a reference to the Upton punishment book.
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  37. Latin for surprise and wonder.
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  50. Bríd Fahey Bates, The Institute of Charity: Rosminians. Their Irish Story 1860–2003 (Dublin: Ashfield Press Publishing Services, 2003), pp 399–405.
  51. Brid Fahey Bates, p 401.
  52. Cussen Report; p 53.
  53. Cussen Report, p 54
  54. Cussen Report, p 55
  55. Cussen Report, p 52.
  56. Cussen Report, p 49.
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  58. Kennedy Report, Chapter 7.