Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Anger over revelations of abuse at Spiritan schools

 Spiritan Irish Province - One Heart, One Spirit

Ireland’s religious congregations are “nothing more than vehicles for corruption and abuse” and they should be “shut down”, a former government adviser and retired head of Barnardo’s charity has said.

Fergus Finlay made his comment in an Irish Examiner newspaper column which was written in the wake of the latest scandal to rock the Irish Church. It concerns revelations of child sexual abuse at a number of Catholic schools run by the Spiritan order in Ireland.

“I don’t know any religious order that is capable of refuting the accusation that it is, in its essence, a corrupt and secret society,” Finlay, who was a Labour Party adviser to leader Dick Spring between 1983 and 1997 during which time the party served in government (1994-97), wrote this week.

He said religious orders “should never, under any circumstances, be allowed to run any entity – school, hospital, or any other institution – that is funded in whole or in part by the State.”

Survivor of Spiritan abuse, Mark Vincent Healy, who was abused by two priests during his time at St Mary’s College in Dublin between 1969 and 1973 when he was aged between nine and twelve, has called for an independent inquiry to determine the scale of abuse suffered by pupils in the ten schools run by the religious congregation in Ireland. 

“I want answers from the State and religious congregations about the suffering of children who attended day schools and only an inquiry can determine the numbers affected,” he said.

He was speaking to The Tablet following the airing of a radio documentary Blackrock Boys by RTE Radio 1 on 7 November which told the story of two siblings, Mark and David Ryan and their abuse by Fr Tom O’Byrne at Blackrock College in Dublin in the 1970s and 1980s.

The priest appeared in court in 2007 after the two brothers made statements to the Irish police. However, the case was stopped due to the age of the priest, who died in 2010.

Spiritan Provincial, Fr Martin Kelly, told RTE News this week that a number of people had come forward with fresh allegations of abuse following the documentary and the media storm that followed its broadcast.

The total number of Spiritans against whom allegations have been made now stands at 78. Four of these are still alive. Almost 300 people have alleged they were abused, and it has also emerged that more than €5m (£4.4m) in settlements has been paid by the Spiritans since 2004.

“On behalf of the Spiritan Congregation in Ireland, I want to express my deepest and most sincere sorrow to every person who was abused by a member of the Spiritans, or by a staff member, in any of our schools,” Fr Kelly told a press conference in Dublin.

“What was done to you as innocent children was cruel and indefensible. We, as Spiritans, are ashamed.”

A pilot restorative justice programme was set up following a meeting between the Spiritans and an independent group on behalf of survivors of abuse at Blackrock College.

According to Fr Kelly, the programme has revealed “further histories of abuse in our schools” committed by members of the Irish Spiritans and lay staff in Spiritan schools and the “horrifying impact this has had on some of our past pupils and their families”.

“We acknowledge that its effects have lasted a lifetime, with many still struggling to cope with it,” Fr Martin Kelly said.

Mark Vincent Healy, who was the first Irish male survivor of abuse to meet Pope Francis in 2014, believes there is “a lot more to be said and written about the lives of those who suffered so egregiously” in day schools in Ireland.

He said he had been seeking an inquiry for over eleven years and that despite his loud and clear call “nothing has been done before now”. 

Over 5,000 students today attend schools linked to the Spiritan Congregation, formerly known as the Holy Ghost Fathers, including Blackrock College in Dublin, St Michael’s College in Dublin, St Mary’s College in Dublin and Rockwell College in Co Tipperary.

At least six abuser priests are now known to have been linked to the campus in Blackrock, Co Dublin, which includes a primary school, Willow Park, as well as a secondary school, Blackrock College.

The Spiritan Congregation was established in Ireland in 1859. Their schools today are operated by a lay trust - the Des Places Educational Association – which was set up by the congregation in 1999.

The Irish Province’s current total membership is over 160 brothers and priests, none of whom are involved in teaching now. The congregation also administers parishes in Greenhills/Kimmage and in Bawnogue/Deansrath in Dublin.

Meanwhile the Irish Minister for Education, Norma Foley, has said the Government is considering a “survivor-led” inquiry into the handling of child sexual abuse in Spiritan schools.

Police inquiries into allegations of abuse are ongoing and the Government is looking at how best to proceed.

“But the Government is equally clear that it will be survivor-led: the views, the thoughts, the experiences, and the wishes of survivors will very much be to the fore here,” Minister Foley told media this week.

A child protection audit of the Spiritans in 2012 criticised the congregation for failing to protect students over several decades from abusive priests and it revealed that suspected abusers were often moved by the congregation within Ireland or abroad.

“One of my abusers was stationed at Blackrock College for a time as well as Rockwell College. He is also accused of abuse in Sierra Leone where he was stationed following allegations by five families in 1973,” Mark Vincent Healy said.

“I have no doubt there are considerably more cases,” he warned.