DUBLIN — Irish newspapers struggled on Thursday to convey the enormity of the horrors inflicted for decades by religious orders on the country’s most vulnerable children following the release of a long-awaited official report.

The usually restrained Irish Times headlined its editorial, “The savage reality of our darkest days.” The Irish Independent’s splash headline read “State of Shame.” The Irish Examiner front page said simply: “Shattered Lives.”

The shattered lives were those of more than 1,700 people who gave evidence of shocking treatment as children at the hands of Christian Brothers and nuns to a government-appointed Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

Irish people had some knowledge before this of the obscene depravity that permeated the industrial school system that existed in Ireland until the 1980s. The commission began gathering evidence in 2000 after a series on RTE (Irish national television), called "States of Fear," provided documentary evidence of the reign of terror in institutions for homeless, abandoned and delinquent children. And some victims of abuse, like the writer and actor Mannix Flynn, who "served time" in St. Josephs Industrial School in Letterfrack after he stole a bicycle, published compelling accounts of their mistreatment more than 10 years ago.

However the revelation this week of the full extent of the “savage reality” of life in these schools has come as a profound shock, and raised disturbing questions about the kind of society that existed in Ireland for most of the 20th century.

Violence in almost all Irish schools was once the norm. (De La Salle Brothers in the high school I attended in the 1950s used a hammer handle and straps to administer punishment.) But even by the standards of the time, the treatment meted out to the nation’s most defenseless children was vicious and inhumane.

The report of the commission, chaired by Judge Sean Ryan, undermines any defense that ill-treatment of children was the exception, or that the industrial schools were essentially benign institutions. It detailed abuse, much of it sexual, some of it physical, in 216 institutions and implicated 800 brothers, nuns and lay people.

In a typical victim testimony, a boy recounted how “one brother kept watch while the other abused me (sexually) … then they changed over." He added, "Every time it ended with a beating. When I told the priest about it in confession, he called me a liar.”

Ireland has a long record of "running away from the appalling truth of the physical and sexual torture experienced by so many children,” commented Mary Raftery, producer of the "States of Fear" television series, in Thursday’s Irish Times. No one could now plead that just a few “bad apples” were responsible or that it was all in the past, she wrote, nor could anyone make “snide suggestions” that those revealing their abuse were motivated by the prospect of financial compensation.

Locking up children and treating them cruelly was not unknown in other western European countries in the 20th century, but Ireland did it on an industrial scale. The numbers of children incarcerated in Irish institutions — for truancy, begging, running away from home, or simply because they were put there by their parents — was higher than in England, Scotland and Wales combined. The commission was especially critical of the Irish Department of Education for its "deferential" and "submissive" attitude toward the religious orders, especially the Christian Brothers, who received taxpayers’ money to house the country’s most inconvenient children.

It is hard to realize in today’s modern and increasingly secular Ireland just how deferential, submissive and reverential Catholic people were to the clergy. Politicians used to live in fear of criticism by a bishop, commonly referred to as "a belt of the crozier." In a celebrated case in 1950, then-Archbishop of Dublin John Charles McQuaid bullied the government into dropping Health Minister Noel Browne’s scheme for free maternity care, on the grounds that it was "socialized medicine."

Such kow-towing to the clergy had diminished somewhat by 1992 when the Catholic Church was hit by the scandal of Eamon Casey, bishop of Galway, who misused diocesan funds to secretly maintain a son in the United States.

Subsequent revelations during the 1990s of sexual abuse of boys by priests, and the cover-up by some bishops, eroded further the authority of the Catholic hierarchy. Now it is on the defensive.

Victims of abuse in Ireland’s industrial schools are not entirely happy, however. None of the abusers are named in the report, and victims’ representatives were shamefully excluded from a press conference in a Dublin hotel on Wednesday to announced the commission’s findings.

John Kelly, coordinator of a group called Survivors of Child Abuse, complained after his exclusion that they had been encouraged to open their wounds, “and they’ve been left gaping open.”

In 2002 an agreement between the government and the religious communities indemnified the orders against all future claims on payment of €128 million ($176 million) in cash and property. The main opposition party’s education spokesman, Brian Hayes of Fine Gael, said this should be reviewed now as the “total liability that we know about currently is about €1.2 billion ($1.65 billion).”

The report by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is by no means the end of the matter. Another official inquiry, into the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse in the Dublin Archdiocese, is to be published in the coming weeks. Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has warned that it will reveal that between 1940 and 2008, allegations were made against 77 priests of the archdiocese, that 400 people have been identified who suffered sexual abuse from priests, and that settlement of claims in civil actions in the Irish capital alone is running at over €12 million ($16.5 million).

The report, Martin warned in an Easter week homily, “will shock us all … and will make the entire church in Dublin a humbler church.” After reading about the conduct of brothers and nuns in industrial schools, Archbishop Martin called the stories of abuse “stomach turning.”

There is much speculation that Martin, a Vatican careerist, was sent to Ireland from Rome in 2003 to clean up the mess in Ireland over sexual abuse and restore the clergy's good name, and that he will return to the Vatican after all the Irish Catholic Church’s dirty linen has finally been washed in public.

More on Ireland and the church:

The ground truth from Belfast

The disappearing philanthropists

Amid the downturn, Poles in Ireland face a tough choice

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