DOZENS of victims of child abuse in institutions run by religious orders wept openly and with joy when President Mary McAleese apologized profusely to them on behalf of the people of Ireland for the suffering they had endured.
In one of the most emotional occasions in the history of Aras an Uachtarain (presidential residence) almost 300 victims of abuse, many now elderly and frail, enjoyed the president’s hospitality when she invited them as her personal guests.
They traveled from all over Ireland and from overseas as Ireland continues to attempt to come to terms with the devastating details in the Ryan report into abuses at the institutions throughout most of the last century.
All had different stories to tell, but all were also united in the single emotion of joy that the suffering they had endured in silence for so long when nobody would listen was now being acknowledged at the very highest level in the land.
John Kelly was one of the guests. He suffered horrific abuse at Daingean Reformatory run by the Oblate Order in Co. Offaly where, according to the Ryan report, boys lived in a climate of fear and were frightened and bullied by both staff and inmates. Kelly fled to England at his first opportunity.
As he left Aras an Uachtarain Kelly said the meeting with McAleese had been an historic occasion for many of the 14,000 abuse victims who fled Ireland. He praised the president for giving them the desire to be “Irish again,” and calling for the perpetrators of abuse to be prosecuted.
Kelly said, “I spent 33 years in England. I slept on benches in Hyde Park. It was safer than those places. People wouldn’t come back. Why would they, for a state that didn't care about them?
“Today’s the first day the state has acknowledged you're Irish and have rights, and it’s 48 or 50 years too late.
“But this president has done that and that has given us hope and inspiration. And now we're proud to be Irish.”
He said he had seen dozens of old and frail faces light up as McAleese spoke to them.
As children they had been tried for offenses they did not commit before being thrown into institutions, he said.
The president told her guests at the reception, “The people of Ireland are desperately sorry for the many ways in which you were not cherished, in the abuse itself, in the silence, in the failure to act, in the failure to listen, hear and believe in time.”
She told them that she wanted to recognize “the suffering and bravery’’ of former institution residents.
“Today, thanks to the courage of the children who were abused and grew into an adulthood from which they took a stand against abuse, the veils of silence, authority, deference, pretence, power, powerlessness, and impunity are pulled aside and we see what so many tried to ensure we would never see.”
Michael O'Brien, a former Fianna Fail mayor who was sexually abused at the Rosminian-run St. Joseph’s School in Clonmel, Co. Tipperary, was a delighted guest. He said that just a week earlier he received a certificate from Justice Minister Dermot Ahern stating he did not have a criminal record.
O’Brien said, “I jumped in the air when I got it and said, ‘I’m free.’ I'm free here again today. This is the first time I've felt as happy as I am now. I've never smiled as much as I have today. “
Christine Buckley of the Aislinn Centre in Dublin and former resident of the Goldenbridge orphanage run by the sisters of Mercy which was also scathingly criticized in the Ryan report, said, “It took us 25 years to be believed and to be at Áras an Uachtarain . . . the overall picture was one of great happiness.”
While McAleese’s guests were still marveling at the renewed sense of dignity and acceptance her invitation had given them, one of the country’s most respected and best-loved nuns two days later, on Tuesday, issued a moving public apology on behalf of her order, the Sisters of Charity.
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy, a recognized campaigner over decades for social justice, said members of her order were ashamed, shocked and horrified by the physical and sexual abuse of children at its facilities.
She told a conference in Dublin Castle that the Ryan report laid bare the appalling manner in which the most vulnerable children were treated in institutions run by congregations over the past 50 years.
She referred to the report’s criticisms of “severe physical and emotional abuse” at two of the order’s institutions, St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s in Kilkenny.
Kennedy said, “Within St. Joseph’s, there was also sexual abuse, including where 13 boys were brutally abused, sexually and physically by two men employed by the Religious Sisters of Charity as childcare workers who turned out to be cruel and ferocious pedophiles.
“I am desperately sad and sorry that these abuses took place and that these heinous crimes were committed. All over the country, children entrusted to the care of religious congregations, ours included, suffered enormously in a sickening abuse of power and position and a scandalous exploitation of vulnerability, for which there is no excuse.”
Kennedy criticized the current childcare system, and highlighted a lack of out-of-hours social work service for children in need. She noted that up to 6,500 child protection cases have not been allocated a social worker.
Meanwhile, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin publicly conceded “the legacy of scandals” has seriously damaged the image and credibility of the Catholic Church in Ireland.