Explore the Ryan Report

Chapter 6 — Conclusions

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Physical and emotional abuse and neglect were features of the institutions. Sexual abuse occurred in many of them, particularly boys’ institutions. Schools were run in a severe, regimented manner that imposed unreasonable and oppressive discipline on children and even on staff.


The system of large-scale institutionalisation was a response to a nineteenth century social problem, which was outdated and incapable of meeting the needs of individual children. The defects of the system were exacerbated by the way it was operated by the Congregations that owned and managed the schools. This failure led to the institutional abuse of children where their developmental, emotional and educational needs were not met.


The deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards the Congregations compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools. The Reformatory and Industrial Schools Section of the Department was accorded a low status within the Department and generally saw itself as facilitating the Congregations and the Resident Managers.


The capital and financial commitment made by the religious Congregations was a major factor in prolonging the system of institutional care of children in the State. From the mid 1920s in England, smaller more family-like settings were established and they were seen as providing a better standard of care for children in need. In Ireland, however, the Industrial School system thrived.


The system of funding through capitation grants led to demands by Managers for children to be committed to Industrial Schools for reasons of economic viability of the institutions.


The system of inspection by the Department of Education was fundamentally flawed and incapable of being effective. The Inspector was not supported by a regulatory authority with the power to insist on changes being made. There were no uniform, objective standards of care applicable to all institutions on which the inspections could be based. The Inspector’s position was compromised by lack of independence from the Department. Inspections were limited to the standard of physical care of the children and did not extend to their emotional needs. The type of inspection carried out made it difficult to ascertain the emotional state of the children. The statutory obligation to inspect more than 50 residential schools was too much for one person. Inspections were not random or unannounced: School Managers were alerted in advance that an inspection was due. As a result, the Inspector did not get an accurate picture of conditions in the schools. The Inspector did not ensure that punishment books were kept and made available for inspection even though they were required by the regulations. The Inspector rarely spoke to the children in the institutions.


Many witnesses who complained of abuse nevertheless expressed some positive memories: small gestures of kindness were vividly recalled. A word of consideration or encouragement, or an act of sympathy or understanding had a profound effect. Adults in their sixties and seventies recalled seemingly insignificant events that had remained with them all their lives. Often the act of kindness recalled in such a positive light arose from the simple fact that the staff member had not given a beating when one was expected.


More kindness and humanity would have gone far to make up for poor standards of care.

Physical abuse


The Rules and Regulations governing the use of corporal punishment were disregarded with the knowledge of the Department of Education. The legislation and the Department of Education guidelines were unambiguous in the restrictions placed on corporal punishment. These limits however, were not observed in any of the schools investigated. Complaints of physical abuse were frequent enough for the Department of Education to be aware that they referred to more than acts of sporadic violence by some individuals. The Department knew that violence and beatings were endemic within the system itself.


The Reformatory and Industrial Schools depended on rigid control by means of severe corporal punishment and the fear of such punishment. The harshness of the regime was inculcated into the culture of the schools by successive generations of Brothers, priests and nuns. It was systemic and not the result of individual breaches by persons who operated outside lawful and acceptable boundaries. Excesses of punishment generated the fear that the school authorities believed to be essential for the maintenance of order. In many schools, staff considered themselves to be custodians rather than carers.


A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions and all those run for boys. Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from. Seeing or hearing other children being beaten was a frightening experience that stayed with many complainants all their lives.


Children who ran away were subjected to extremely severe punishment. Absconders were severely beaten, at times publicly. Some had their heads shaved and were humiliated. Details were not reported to the Department, which did not insist on receiving information about the causes of absconding. Neither the Department nor the school management investigated the reasons why children absconded even when schools had a particularly high rate of absconding. Cases of absconding associated with chronic sexual or physical abuse therefore remained undiscovered. In some instances all the children in a school were punished because a child ran away which meant that the child was then a target for mistreatment by other children as well as the staff.


Complaints by parents and others made to the Department were not properly investigated. Punishments outside the permitted guidelines were ignored and even condoned by the Department of Education. The Department did not apply the standards in the rules and their own guidelines when investigating complaints but sought to protect and defend the religious Congregations and the schools.


The boys’ schools investigated revealed a pervasive use of severe corporal punishment. Corporal punishment was the option of first resort for breaches of discipline. Extreme punishment was a feature of the boys’ schools. Prolonged, excessive beatings with implements intended to cause maximum pain occurred with the knowledge of staff management.


There was little variation in the use of physical beating from region to region, from decade to decade, or from Congregation to Congregation. This would indicate a cultural understanding within the system that beating boys was acceptable and appropriate. Individual Brothers, priests or lay staff who were extreme in their punishments were tolerated by management and their behaviour was rarely challenged.