A New Genre of Civic Literature: Official Reports of Government Inquiries Into International Cases of Abuse of Institutionalized Children

By Arthur McCaffrey

This is a story about institutional crime and social justice. At times, it may seem there is too much of the former and not enough of the latter. That’s the bad news. The good news is, when the institutional crime involves the abuse and exploitation of children, a number of different governments, in different countries, in different parts of the world, are finally beginning to do something. Unfortunately, the US government is not one of them. 

Fifteen years ago, the Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for its exposé of the criminal abuse of children inside the Catholic Church; the movie about those Globe reporters, Spotlight, won an Oscar. As the Boston conflagration spread to other cities and dioceses around the country, more hidden abuse was exposed, more predators identified, and their institutional cover blown. But the task of exposure fell primarily to local media, local judiciaries, and local attorneys who brought victims’ lawsuits against their offending archdioceses. The nation’s fourth estate, a free press, did the bulk of the heavy lifting — collecting and broadcasting the evidence in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, Chicago, Portland, Milwaukie, and everywhere else religious institutions had colluded. But to date, in contrast to public initiatives in some other countries, there has been no national-level, governmental investigation of child abuse in America.

The wheels of justice, even if they grind exceeding fine, still grind exceeding slow. While grassroots victim-advocacy groups sprung up quickly enough after the Boston stories, it usually takes much longer to jumpstart official public inquiries — especially those with enough clout to do some far-reaching, consequential investigation into the historical record of public and private institutions charged with the welfare of children assigned to their care.

But now those wheels have momentum, and we are experiencing a spate of public inquiries around the globe, which are producing voluminous reports on their investigations into the institutional abuse of children. Serious students of social justice should make room on their bookshelves for this burgeoning library of official publications.

Ireland

Ireland, which was probably wounded earliest and longest by Catholic criminality, has produced the Murphy (2009), Ryan (2009) and Cloyne (2011) reports dealing with, among other things, sexual abuse in Catholic industrial schools, and the role of both church and state in (mis)handling cases of sexual abuse of children by local diocesan priests. These reports helped expose orphanages, homes, workhouses, asylums, and other religious institutions where former residents made claims of emotional, physical and sexual abuse against nuns and priests.

By shining an official light in hidden places, these government reports had seismic effects. Like the obstinate stones of Connemara, which persistently make their way up through the green Irish sod, the fault lines in the geology of abuse began to push other stories to the surface. Rumors, suspicions, and allegations of shady practices at other Catholic institutions began to be taken more seriously; victims became more willing to tell their tales. Victimhood even achieved a certain notoriety; as an Irish abuse survivor, Marie Collins was appointed to Pope Francis’s child protection commission (from which she has since resigned, complaining of obstructionism by the Vatican establishment).

The most notorious rumors circled around a Mother and Baby home in Tuam, County Galway, run by Catholic nuns of the Bon Secours order from 1925 to 1961. What happened inside the walls of that home was always shrouded in secrecy, despite persistent rumors of a mass grave where little babies were buried. The home existed to serve “the children of sin” and their “fallen mothers” — in other words, illegitimate babies born to young women out of wedlock. For at least the first half of the 20th century and beyond, it was a common practice in Catholic Ireland for families to send away their pregnant unmarried daughters out of shame; that is, if the parish priest did not get there first to separate the baby from the mother and put it in a home.

To shed light on what happened to mothers and/or babies incarcerated in such homes, the Irish government, in 2015, established the “Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation” (MBHCI), reporting to the Minster for Children (a rare cabinet position in Western governments). One of the first of MBHCI’s several domestic targets was the home in Tuam. On March 3, 2017, MBCHI produced the shocking news that its excavation of the grounds of the Bon Secours home, and the accompanying forensic analyses, had revealed a significant number of human remains (possibly hundreds) of fetuses and infants in an underground sewage tank. In a scathing editorial on this “inhuman burial”, the Irish Times said that the MBCHI report had uncovered “the dark legacy of a submissive society,” and argued that Ireland shared “a collective responsibility for an inhuman regime conducted in secrecy behind high walls.”

 

UK: Scotland

A more recent addition to the library of public investigative reports is the McLellan Report (2015) in Scotland — somewhat unique in that it was commissioned by the national conference of Scottish Bishops (rather than the Scottish government) in response to the many allegations of abuse by priests and other religious. McLellan was also limited in scope, addressing primarily future safeguarding policies for the prevention of crime, without dealing with the criminal history of abuse within the Scottish Church. A year later, victims still complained that the Scottish bishops were dragging their feet on implementing McLellan’s recommendations.

The Scottish government got off to a rocky start when it finally tried to launch its own official Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry (SCAI) in late 2015, after hearing dozens of accounts of systematic abuse in Scottish schools, residential homes and hospitals dating back 80 years, involving both state and religious institutions

It took six months to appoint a chair to the three-member panel, but in mid-2016 that chairwoman and another panel expert resigned, citing “government interference” which had “doomed” the commission’s independent inquiry.

Finally, in January 2017, more than a year after SCAI was launched, a new chairwoman convened preliminary hearings with a call for essential input from the hundreds of abuse survivors.

A final SCAI report is not expected for at least another two years.

UK: Northern Ireland

An excellent report on one of the best governmental inquiries has just been produced in Northern Ireland — the Hart Report (January 2017) on the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIAI), conducted from 2013 to 2016 under the chairmanship of Sir Anthony Hart. HIAI is a first class, objective, state investigation into the physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of unwanted, displaced, or orphan children consigned to institutions in Northern Ireland between 1922 and 1995.

After hearing testimony from hundreds of “survivors,” Hart indicted both secular and religious institutions for “systemic failings” in their care of children. An unwanted or unsupportable child might be assigned voluntarily to a home by a family, or placed there by order of local welfare authorities. Based on the number of complaints from survivors, children sent to Catholic homes in Belfast run by the Sisters of Nazareth or by the DeLaSalle Brothers (DLS) in County Down ran the highest risk of abuse. An additional risk was that one might be raped by the notorious peripatetic pedophile priest, Fr. Brendan Smyth, whose Roman collar opened doors at Catholic homes. When he was finally arrested in 1994, he confessed that he had probably abused hundreds of children on both sides of the border.

How could he have got away with it for so long? Because of institutional collusion in his crimes: when Smyth, or other priests, brothers, or lay staff abused children in Nazareth or DLS homes, their superiors never reported the incidents to local authorities, nor acted to stop the abuse on their premises! And even when, as part of a Catholic diocesan inquiry, child witnesses were interviewed (by a future Cardinal, no less) about their accusations against Smyth, they were forced to take an oath of secrecy, which had the effect of protecting the good name of the Church. What about oversight by civil authorities? HIAI reported that no outside inspections were done for decades due to lack of resources. The Inquiry’s conclusion about the DLS homes serves as a judgment on all the institutions investigated: “the Order failed to keep the boys in their care free from the pain, fear and distress caused by the physical and/or sexual abuse they suffered or saw others suffering.”

 

 

Australia

 An Australian government Inquiry has been running in parallel with HIAI for the last three years — the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse (ARC). The Commission recently opened its 50th public hearing in Sydney, as part of its ongoing national investigation of the historical involvement of the Catholic Church and other institutions in sexual abuse of children.

Its findings are even more chilling than HIAI’s. Reviewing ARC’s progress to date, its Counsel summarized staggering statistics which more resemble the casualties of ISIS terrorism in the Middle East than the actions of religious ministers. Between 1980 and 2015 (only half the period studied by HIAI), 4,444 people reported they had been abused at more than 1,000 Catholic institutions across Australia.

Some news reports have fixated on only one ARC statistic: that seven percent of Catholic priests in Australia were predators, but abuse is opportunistic — if you had the misfortune to live in the Victorian Diocese between 1950 and 2010, the proportion of accused priests rose to 15 percent; if you were within the clutches of the Brothers of St John of God, that number rose above 40 percent.

The ARC Counsel further reported that out of 1,880 alleged abusers (predominantly male), 32 percent were religious brothers, 30 percent priests, 29 percent lay people, and five percent religious sisters. However, these numbers for individuals need to be understood in the context of HIAI findings (above) about passive collusion and facilitation of abuse by host institutions in Northern Ireland. The same patterns of institutional secrecy were likewise noted by the ARC Counsel.

Child Migrant Schemes: child trafficking between Britain and Australia?

The HIAI and ARC records reveal similar histories of institutional abuse, but the two countries also share another dark secret. In the first public investigation of its kind, HIAI uncovered a misbegotten, inhuman, and cruel Child Migrant Scheme (CMS) operating in the 1940s and 1950s, whereby homeless orphans were shipped involuntarily (and unknowingly to some parents) by Catholic religious orders from Northern Ireland (and from England as well) to other religious institutions in Australia. Based on testimony to HIAI by Australian migrant victims, it appears that CMS transferred innocent children from one abusive environment into another.

HIAI heard from 65 men and women in Australia who had been sent there as CMS deportees. Some alleged they had been abused before they left, while others claimed they were abused in the Australian host institutions. ARC statistics corroborate these claims, citing 22 percent of Christian Brothers and 20 percent of Marist Brothers as abusive in their schools.

Our old friends, the Nazareth nuns in Belfast, were also heavily involved in CMS. HIAI estimated that CMS sent at least 138 children under the age of fourteen (some as young as four) to Australia — a handful by Protestant missions or local authorities, but 121 by the Sisters of Nazareth, with the majority under 10. HIAI blames this religious order for many failings: sending children away too young; failing to satisfy themselves that the homes run by other Roman Catholic religious orders in Australia were suitable to receive their children; failing to maintain contact with the children afterwards; lying to parents who inquired about the location of their children; failing to help former child migrants track down their parents and relatives.

In post-war Britain, there were practical reasons for sending orphaned children from over-crowded workhouses, orphanages and homes to even stranger institutions in underpopulated lands at the far end of earth. Perhaps the benighted Nazareth sisters even convinced themselves of their humanitarian duty to give their charges a chance at a better life, even if that meant separating them forever from the only family that they knew. Regardless, orphaned, voiceless children were treated as “projects,” not persons, trapped in a lose-lose scenario.

 

UK: England

The most recent UK national Inquiry — England’s ill-starred Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) — finally opened its first public evidence hearings on February 27, 2017, in London under its fourth chair since it was formed in 2015.

IICSA has a disturbing pedigree in England, preceded by national abuse scandals at the BBC and Premier League Football, as well as the discovery and investigation of organized networks targeting children for sexual abuse in towns like Rotherham. The Inquiry had raised hopes that the government would finally tackle long-festering problems of child abuse in a variety of secular and religious institutions (comparable to the HIAI remit), and address the historical failings of civil society in responding to such exploitation of children.

But as the Inquiry lurched from one management crisis to another in its first two years, victims complained that IICSA was losing its focus on survivors. New Inquiry chair Prof. Alexis Jay tried to address those fears by opening the public hearings with direct testimony from adults (now in their 60s and 70s) who had been victims of abuse as child migrants shipped to Australia and Canada by the British government. Participating in this migrant scheme were various voluntary charities and religious organizations, including Barnardos Homes, the Fairbridge Society, and the Sisters of Nazareth. It is estimated that more than 130,000 institutionalized children were sent to the “colonies” between 1920 and 1970 under such migrant schemes.

As noted above, Northern Ireland’s HIAI was the first to address the CMS abuse issues, but had left the further follow-up to Australia’s ongoing ARC investigations. IICSA is not limited by such constraints, and it has gone full bore into exposing the tragic consequences of the misbegotten migrant schemes.

During its first week, pioneer child advocate Margaret Humphreys told IICSA that the “catastrophic” deportations of children constituted human rights violations and identity theft:  “The children were kept in farm schools, where they suffered brutality and sexual abuse, were used as slave labour and deprived of a proper education.”

Humphrey’s testimony was borne out by the harrowing tales recounted to the Inquiry by two elderly survivors from the migrant program. Shipped to Christian Brothers homes in Western Australia in the 1950s, their litany of mistreatment and exploitation included both sexual abuse by brothers and “sadistic” beatings.

Given the number of public hearings scheduled by IICSA, it is not expected that its Final Report will appear much before 2020.

Epilogue: Little Baby Convicts

If you have read this far, you are probably as depressed as I am. The sheer global scope of child abuse revealed by these public inquiries is breathtaking. Your heart breaks for the young lives cruelly crippled, leaving the broken souls to deal with a lifetime of PTSD. The haunting tales coming out of Tuam, Ireland, bespeak the atrocities of Auschwitz and Srebrenica rather than the hosannas of Christian communities.

Yet I am optimistic that the half dozen Inquiries and Reports described above signal the emergence of a new genre of civic literature that serves a social purpose. Despite their preoccupation with the past, these formal reports are more than mere historical descriptive narratives; they are an embryonic literature of social action and accountability — they name names, point fingers at the guilty, touch the untouchables.

Above all, this literature gives voice to the voiceless: HIAI victims thanked Hart for vindicating them, finally, after a lifetime of not being listened to. Of course, I intend no comparison with classical literature, like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment; in fact, this public literature is all crime, and no punishment! Nearly all abuse Inquiries recommend public apologies and financial reparation, but criminal proceedings are rare. Either the accusers or the criminals have died, or the statutes of limitations have expired, preventing legal action. Legislatures in New York and Pennsylvania still argue about repeal of SOL laws, while the Catholic Church opposes change for fear it would trigger a wave of financial claims.

Any literature, whether nascent or mature, acquires a distinctive voice or identity from the characters who inhabit it. This new genre of civic literature is populated with suffering, grieving inhabitants who thirst for justice, but often die waiting.

The HIAI testimony of one such inhabitant — a 75 year-old migrant survivor who died before Hart’s Inquiry was completed — speaks for a generation of victims for whom justice delayed was justice denied:

My life in institutions has had a profound impact on me. I have always wondered what it would be like to have had a family – a mother and father and brothers and sisters. I never got the chance to find out because I was sent to Australia. We were exported to Australia like little baby convicts.

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