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The Ryan Report, child abuse and matters closer to home

By Shane Wood - posted Friday, 26 June 2009

During recent weeks, there has been much publicity in the media in Ireland and in Australia regarding the release of a report commissioned by the Irish Government into past widespread abuse of children. The body making the report is The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. It was set up in 2000 by the Irish Government and began its work while I was in Ireland for 12 months’ study. The Commission had three primary functions:

  • to hear evidence of abuse from persons who allege they suffered abuse in childhood, in institutions, during the period from 1940 or earlier, to the present day;
  • to conduct an inquiry into abuse of children in institutions during that period and, where satisfied that abuse occurred, to determine the causes, nature, circumstances and extent of such abuse; and
  • to prepare and publish reports on the results of the inquiry and on its recommendations in relation to dealing with the effects of such abuse.

Its mandate covered four types of abuse:

  • Physical abuse - the wilful, reckless or negligent infliction of physical injury on, or failure to prevent such injury to, the child;
  • Sexual abuse - the use of the child by a person for sexual arousal or sexual gratification of that person or another person;
  • Neglect - failure to care for the child which results, or could reasonably be expected to result in serious impairment of the physical or mental health or development of the child, or serious adverse effects on his or her behaviour or welfare;
  • Emotional abuse - any other act or omission towards the child which results, or could reasonably be expected to result in serious impairment of the physical or mental health or development of the child, or serious adverse effects on his or her welfare.

The inquiry covered institutions including “a school, an industrial school, a reformatory school, an orphanage, a hospital, a children’s home and any other place where children are cared for other than as members of their families”. (More can be read on the website.)

Most of the schools and so-called Industrial Schools (residential institutions typically with a farm with a technical type school attached) were conducted by the Christian Brothers, the congregation to which I belong, and many aspects of the management of these places comes in for damning criticism in the report - and rightly so.

These practices resulted in much abuse (all four types) of the boys placed in these institutions. Clearly exposed are what seem to have been statistically significant instances of sexual abuse by more than a few Brothers. These men are not named in the report as this was not a hearing to discover and/or punish perpetrators. Nevertheless, it is plainly obvious that many horrific things were experienced by many of the boys.

No excuses can be made for such experiences, and the individuals responsible should be brought to justice if crimes have been committed: institutions like the Christian Brothers should do all in their power to provide whatever restitution and compensation can be made available to those proved to have genuinely suffered abuse of any kind. (This has been our sincere and genuine effort in such cases in Australia in recent times, despite what might appear to the contrary in the media.)

Although not personally involved in this latest Irish Commission finding, I am deeply shocked and profoundly embarrassed, even angered, by what I have read in the Executive Summary of the report and in other sections related to findings involving the Christian Brothers in Ireland. I know that I am not alone in this. I am aware also that there are many good people who have been, and continue to be, associated with the Christian Brothers in various formal and informal ways, who will be experiencing similar reactions and responses to mine. These matters have to be faced and dealt with, hopefully with the good of any victims firmly at the centre of any future response.


Closer to home there has been another Christian Brother sentenced recently to a period of imprisonment for crimes committed in the 1970s in a Melbourne institution run by the Christian Brothers. This latest court case, along with the many others here and overseas, gives me great pain and shame, and raises all sorts of questions about what was done to these basically good men, and what was neglected in their training, that they could so twist the purposes of their vocation to do such grave and lasting damage to the young people they were meant to care for.

My own training, albeit some years later, might provide some insights. While I would claim that I was reasonably well prepared professionally for the classroom, I would say that I was not well prepared for the life of a celibate male religious. While I agree that we may be products of our past, although we do not have to be prisoners to it, there were some basic things lacking in our training that could, if not worked on later in life, have led to a very warped way of looking at oneself and the world.

There was no psychological testing for candidates, most of whom were like me and left home at the age of 15 or 16. There was no attempt to help us to engage with our sexuality in any healthy way, apart from some rudimentary explanations related to biology. There was no effort to encourage healthy sharing of feelings; no forum for asking questions; no mixing with the opposite sex in a way that could have provided a forum for understanding common human emotions and attachments.

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The views expressed in this article are personal and not necessarily those of the author's order or his employer.

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About the Author

Brother Shane Wood currently lectures on the Broome Campus of the University of Notre Dame Australia.

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