Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 19 — Concluding comments

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This volume of the Commission’s report presents the compiled oral evidence of over 1,000 witnesses who attended the Confidential Committee to report their childhood experiences of abuse in Irish institutions between 1914 and 2000. In most instances the reported abuse occurred while witnesses were in the care of the State. They reported being physically, sexually and emotionally abused and neglected by religious and lay adults who had responsibility for their care, and by others in the absence of adequate care and supervision.


The following chapter highlights aspects of the recounted evidence of childhood abuse including; the circumstances in which it occurred, the level of awareness of that abuse in society at the time, the function of the reported abusers in the childrens’ lives and the intergenerational consequences of the abuse witnesses experienced. Proposals for change in order to better protect children in the future are summarised.


Witnesses gave many reasons for attending to give evidence to the Confidential Committee, predominantly a wish to contribute to an official account of the abuse they experienced as children in out-of-home care. Most expressed the hope that a formal record of their experiences would contribute to a greater understanding of the circumstances in which such abuse occurs and would assist in the future protection of children.


The Committee heard oral evidence of abuse in 216 different settings including; Industrial and Reformatory Schools, primary and second-level schools, Children’s Homes, hospitals, foster care, schools and residential facilities for children with special needs, hostels, residential group homes, novitiates, laundries and other settings where children were placed away from their families. There were multiple reports of abuse in relation to many of the identified settings.


Witnesses who reported abuse to the Confidential Committee were most often in out-of-home care placements from an early age. Most witnesses were admitted to such care from parental or extended family homes, generally for reasons associated with their social circumstances, including; poverty, parental illness and death, marital separation, non-marital birth, special needs, unemployment and lack of care and protection. With the exception of witnesses who reported being abused in primary and second-level schools the majority of witnesses to the Committee were deprived of contact with their parents, extended family or others to whom they could confide while in the schools, institutions or settings where the reported abuse occurred.


More than 90% of all witnesses reported being physically abused while in out-of-home care. In addition to being hit and beaten witnesses described other forms of abuse such as being flogged, kicked and otherwise physically assaulted, scalded, burned and held under water. Witnesses reported being beaten publicly in front of other staff, residents, patients and pupils as well as in private. Many reports were heard of witnesses being beaten naked and partially clothed, both in private and in front of others. They reported being beaten and physically assaulted with implements that were for the specific purpose of inflicting pain and punishment, such as leather straps, bamboo canes and wooden sticks. In addition, witnesses gave evidence that everyday implements were routinely utilised for the purpose of striking children. Witnesses described pervasive abuse as part of their daily lives.


Physical abuse was reported to have been perpetrated by religious and lay staff, older residents and others who were associated with the schools and institutions. Detailed accounts were heard of injuries received as a result of physical assaults perpetrated by staff in the institutions, including broken bones, head injuries and lacerations that required medical treatment and hospitalisation. Witnesses consistently commented on the fact that nobody spoke to them or enquired about the cause of their injuries and that efforts were made to conceal injuries.


Sexual abuse was reported by more than half of all the witnesses. Acute and chronic contact and non-contact sexual abuse was reported, including vaginal and anal rape, molestation and voyeurism, in both isolated assaults and on a regular basis over long periods of time. The secret nature of sexual abuse was repeatedly emphasised as facilitating its occurrence. Both residential and day settings provided opportunities for perpetrators of sexual abuse to assault children in the absence of adequate supervision and through the failure of individuals and organisations to recognise potential risk to children.


Witnesses reported being sexually abused by religious and lay staff in the schools and institutions and by co-residents and others, including professionals, both within and external to the institutions. They also reported being sexually abused by members of the general public, including volunteer workers, visitors, work placement employers, foster parents, and others who had unsupervised contact with residents in the course of everyday activities. Sexual abuse was reported to have occurred both within the institutions and when children were taken away for excursions, holidays or to work for others.


Disclosing sexual abuse generally provoked disbelief and further abuse. Witnesses who disclosed sexual abuse were subjected to severe recrimination by those who had responsibility for their care and protection. Female witnesses described, at times, being told they were responsible for the sexual abuse they experienced, by both their abuser and those to whom they disclosed abuse.


Neglect was frequently described by witnesses in the context of physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Neglect of a child’s care and welfare occurred both in the form of what was done to them by those who were responsible for their care and what they failed to do to protect and nurture them. Lack of adequate food, warmth, clothing, health care, hygiene and recreation are indicators of neglect of the care of children. Failure to provide for their safety, education and development are further indicators of neglect about which the Committee heard many reports, and which had implications for health, employment, social and economic status in later life.


Emotional abuse was also reported by witnesses in the form of lack of attachment and affection, loss of identity, deprivation of family contact, humiliation, personal denigration, exposure to fear and the threat of harm. Furthermore, many witnesses recalled the devastating emotional impact and feeling of powerlessness associated with observing their co-residents, siblings or others being abused. This trauma was acute for those who were forced to participate in such incidents.


Awareness of the abuse of children in schools and institutions was believed to exist within society at both official and unofficial levels. Professionals, including Government Inspectors, medical practitioners, and teachers had a role in relation to various aspects of children’s welfare while they were in schools and institutions. Local people were employed in most of the residential facilities as professional, care and ancillary staff. In addition, members of the public had contact with children in out-of-home care in the course of providing services to the institutions both at a formal and informal level. Witnesses commented that while many of those people were aware that life for children in the schools and institutions was difficult they failed to take action to protect them.


Contemporary complaints were made to the Gardaí, the Department of Education and others by witnesses, their parents and relatives, generally in the aftermath of an injury, when visible marks of a beating were observed or when a child who had run away was being returned to a children’s home, reformatory or industrial school. Gardaí were at times reported to request leniency on the child’s behalf when they were returned, in the knowledge that absconders were harshly treated.


Children with intellectual, physical and sensory impairments and children who had no known family contact were especially vulnerable in institutional settings. They described being powerless against adults who abused them, especially when those adults were in positions of authority and trust. Impaired mobility and communication deficits made it impossible to inform others of their abuse or to resist it. Children who were unable to hear, see, speak, move or adequately express themselves were at a complete disadvantage in environments that did not recognise or facilitate their right to be heard.