LAST week the world shockingly learned that tens of thousands of Irish children were physically and emotionally abused, beaten, raped and even, survivors say, killed in Catholic Church-run reform schools throughout Ireland from the 1920s right through to the 1990s.
After a nine-year investigation, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in church-run institutions produced its final 2006 page report last week. The report makes it clear that hundreds of priests and nuns terrorized and humiliated tens of thousands of Irish children over six decades with the tacit support of the Irish state.
For New York-based Irish novelist Tom Phelan; formerly Father Tom Phelan, the report came as no surprise. Phelan’s own research for his new novel, "Nailer," first alerted him to the decades of abuse that blighted the lives of thousands of Irish children.
In "Nailer" Phelan examines what he calls the collusion between church and state that allowed the cruelty of the industrial school system to flourish. The Irish authorities’ cowardly refusal to ever question the actions of the religious orders created the conditions for decades of abuse, Phelan says.
Dragging a boy down canal
“I remember hearing about how two Christian Brothers in Daingean, Co. Offaly were seen dragging a boy to Mass with a rope around him,” Phelan told the Irish Voice during an interview from his home on Long Island.
“The kid was actually in the canal and they were on either bank pulling. This was in broad daylight. No one ever challenged them for their cruelty.
“There are so many stories like this. It took years to emerge, but once one little leak about a priest came out it lead finally to a total dam burst.”
At 68, Phelan is himself a typical product of the church-dominated society that Ireland became after the War of Independence. And in many ways his own life journey reflects the gradual disenchantment that has led so many Catholics to reluctantly walk away from the church.
'Don't put your trust in the clergy'
Phelan, who hails from Mountmellick, Co. Laois, vividly remembers the awe that most Irish people held the church in when he was growing up. It was because the people were so fearful of criticizing it in any way that the Irish church retained its power for decades, he says.
But now Phelan has a message for believer and unbeliever alike: “Do not put all of your trust into the hands of the clergy,” he tells the Irish Voice.
“It doesn’t matter if they’re a priest, a nun, a rabbi or an imam. It’s a disaster. It’s bad for the church, it’s bad for the country. Never surrender your own power to an institution.”
Back in the early 1960s Phelan had felt a personal calling to become a priest, he says. “I studied five years in high school and six in the seminary getting ready for the priesthood. I was completely inspired by the reforms of Vatican II and I left the seminary in Maynooth full of fire and brimstone, an idealist ready to do God’s work.”
Lunatic, older priests
But his very first posting diminished Phelan’s enthusiasm for a life in the church, and the church itself. He was sent to the parish of Arundel in the south of England. It was there at the local rectory that Phelan saw at close quarters how unhealthy and dysfunctional the church system had become.
Aged 24, he shared a house with significantly older priests who were, he says matter-of-factly, “lunatics.”
“They were totally out of touch, self-centered and authoritarian. But for years I thought I was the one with the problem. I thought there must be something wrong with my attitude, or with me, that I can’t accept this,” Phelan recalls.
“One of the older priests spent all of his time reading detective novels and never left the rectory. Another made sure to let me know he was top dog and always to be seated at the head table. They were obviously insane, but no one said anything about it.
“Everyone rationalized it. They said things like, ‘Yes that one’s eccentric but God has selected him.’ Basically they said whatever they had to say so they would never have to confront the truth of what they were looking at.”
It took Phelan 11 years to finally leave the priesthood. He admits that he felt pressure “from my own family, which was not there at all, because when I did leave they were very supportive. But in my own mind I was letting down everyone who knew me.”
When he did finally leave in 1975, after five years of ministering in America, the transition from his old life to his new one was instant. From having his dinners made and his suits neatly pressed, Phelan suddenly adjusted to the life of an Irish laborer with few skills. But he was unrepentant.
“I loved the return to anonymity,” says Phelan, elongating every syllable of the word love to emphasize how he felt. “It was a massive, instant relief. When you wear clerical clothes you attract a certain type of person the way dung attracts certain types of flies.
“People would come to you with what were really mental health issues and you wouldn’t have a clue what to do with them. I was glad it was at an end.”
Having spent years working inside the church and seeing it up close, Phelan left the priesthood no longer believing in the church or in God.
“The more I read about the industrial schools and the treatment of the kids there, the more I reflected on how cruel the behavior of the priests was towards us. All the guys in the seminary came out of schools like mine.
“We weren’t brutalized the way the industrial schoolboys were, but we were mistreated, subjected to sarcasm and bullying and nonstop hunger -- we were adolescent boys and we were being underfed -- and I was always angry about it then and now.
True history has yet to be written
“That’s what drove me to research my new book and the industrial school system. As I read about these industrial schools the more I saw how widespread it was. The only industrial school that was completely run by diocesan priests -- the now demolished Baltimore school in Cork -- was also the one with the most enduring reputation for cruelty.”
The true history of Ireland in the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s has yet to be written, Phelan says.
“You see, people may not realize that the more kids the industrial schools picked up, the more money they got from the government. We have to accept the fact that thousands of Irish children were destroyed by this,” he says.
“When I heard that the Christian Brothers in Ireland had brought a lawsuit to prevent the naming of the abusers in their own order I was very angry and I realized that the Irish government still has not shaken off the power of the church.”