James Quinn and his classmates called it the blackjack five layers and 18 in. (46 cm) of leather, studded with coins and other metal objects. The priests at the school Quinn attended in rural Ireland in the 1950s each carried a blackjack and used it, along with bamboo rods and other objects, to dole out almost daily beatings to hundreds of children. "Whatever class you went to, you got a beating from whoever was in charge," says Quinn, now 70. "But knowing what other people went through, I know I was one of the lucky ones."
Quinn was one of more than 2,000 people to give evidence in a nine-year inquiry into child abuse at educational institutions, orphanages and hospitals run by Roman Catholic religious orders in Ireland from the 1930s to the 1990s. On Wednesday, May 20, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse released its findings. The five-volume, 2,600-page report is a catalog of horrors, describing "endemic sexual abuse" at boys' institutions and the "daily terror" of physical abuse experienced by the estimated 30,000 Irish children who were sent to them.
The report lists the sexual, physical and emotional abuse including rape, molestation and severe beatings inflicted on children in about 100 so-called industrial schools, most of which had closed by the 1970s. These were state-funded institutions run by Roman Catholic orders such as the Christian Brothers or Sisters of Mercy, to which orphans, truants, children of unmarried mothers and those with behavioral problems were typically sent.
Few children received any semblance of what would pass for an adequate education today. Instead, boys and girls spent much of their days in workshops, on farms or in laundries, providing free labor for the religious orders, which, in turn, received government payments for each child that was sent to school. "I was supposed to be sent to school for an education," says Quinn, who spent hours each day repairing damaged clothes in a tailor's shop. "But it was more like penal servitude."
As well as documenting the most depraved acts committed by school staff, Justice Sean Ryan's report condemns the culture of secrecy that prevailed in the institutions. Incidents of child abuse committed by members of religious orders were almost never reported to the police. Furthermore, priests who were known abusers were often transferred to other institutions, where they continued to abuse children.
The report also criticizes the "deferential and submissive attitude" of the state toward the religious orders. It says inspections of the industrial schools carried out by the Irish Department of Education were inadequate and that despite claims by young people of mistreatment, the government continued to send children to the schools for decades. In some of the most shocking cases detailed in the report, boys who reported sexual abuse by priests or lay staff members were physically beaten for speaking out, while their abusers continued to work at the school.
"I'm delighted about the report," says journalist and campaigner Mary Raftery. "For years, we were the lone voices. We lived through decades in this society where people just refused to believe that nuns and priests could behave in [this] way." It was Raftery's documentary film series States of Fear, broadcast on Irish television in 1999, that first brought allegations of systemic abuse in reform schools and other institutions to public attention and led to the creation of the child-abuse commission.