The 'bad eggs' of Ireland's abuse scandal


It's long since I began
To call up to the eyes
This wise and simple man
–W. B. Yeats, 'The Fisherman'

He was the saintliest man I ever knew. He was a teaching brother and a success in the classroom, though less so at the sports coaching which was expected of every member of staff — anyone who trains a football team with an open and well-thumbed book of the rules in one hand is not likely to produce a winning combination.

He spent much of the second half of his working life in houses of formation, preparing the young brothers for their lives as religious. Those he trained told me that his own life was his greatest lesson.

Later, in the community in which I got to know him, he would annoy his confreres by clearing the table before anyone had a chance for seconds. His view was that we should always get up from a meal feeling that we could have eaten more. In hospital on one occasion, his superior had to call on the vow of obedience to persuade him to drink the certain black alcoholic beverage which a kindly nun had suggested to build up his fragile frame.

A biblical scholar, in his final years he was involved in a Christian-Jewish fellowship group and led small local prayer groups.

All of this is by way of saying that Brendan (not his real name) was a humble, saintly man. He is one I 'call up to the eyes' as counter to the members of religious orders involved in the awful things perpetrated on children in institutions in Ireland in the early and middle years of last century, as revealed in the recent Ryan Report.

Brendan thought orders of teaching brothers and nuns had long ago served their purpose and should be encouraged to fade quietly away. This opinion did not win favour among his confreres any more than his other belief that the Church should promote temporary vocations. His view was that teaching orders should have closed their books when the welfare state began taking seriously the responsibility to educate all children for free.

If we were to take a frame of European history bounded by the French Revolution and the 1829 granting of Catholic Emancipation in Britain and Ireland, we would be in the era of the foundation of many teaching orders. The Christian Brothers, Marists, Presentations and Patricians all come from those years; so do the sisters of Mercy, Presentation, Holy Faith, Brigidine, Loreto and Irish Sisters of Charity.

In Australia, the Good Samaritans and the Josephites were a little later. The De La Salle Brothers, the model for all of these non-clerical teaching orders, were founded a century earlier.

In Ireland, the teaching orders played a crucial role in producing the first generation of civil administration after independence. While the emerging professional classes tended to come from elite private schools — Jesuit, Holy Ghost, Cistercian, Benedictine, Carmelite, Church of Ireland — the Brothers' schools, operating on a shoestring, provided the backbone of 'the excise', a catch-all term for the different branches of the public service.

During the first quarter century away from the colonial umbrella, that public service had to cope with the Great Depression, a world war, and internal problems caused by dissidents keen to prolong old conflicts. That the country reached the second half of the century, albeit on wobbly feet, was no trivial outcome.

In all schools in those times, the practice of corporal punishment was taken for granted. If it was more vigorously applied in schools run by members of religious orders, that is a shame with which they now live and in all cases, a betrayal of the often expressed wish of their founders.

In those years too, the brothers and sisters took over special schools or other semi-punitive institutions set up by unenlightened state and church authorities. The Ryan Report shows how disastrous those ventures were for the unfortunate inmates, and also for the orders involved.

Which brings me back to Brendan. After a lifetime as a student and teacher in schools run by different orders of brothers, I am inclined to take the view that abuse was perpetrated by 'bad eggs', in which case the word 'endemic' when referring to abuse is an appalling dysphemism. In a kind of perverse algebra, I try to persuade myself that Brendan can be used to cancel out the bad egg.

The alternative, that the abuse was indeed as endemic in some institutions as Ryan concludes, is too awful to contemplate.

Frank O'SheaFrank O'Shea is a retired teacher. His book Keeping Faith: 40 Years of Marist College Canberra was published in 2008. 

Topic tags: frank o'shea, ryan report, insitutional child abuse, religious orders, nuns, brothers, priests, ireland



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Existing comments

I find the coverage of the Irish abuse scandal given by Eureka Street to be singularly without courage to speak the truth. Last week something to make us look away and this week, a committed long standing lay teacher in Catholic schools, as I am, trying to suggest we simply think of the genuine examples of authentic religious we have known in order to take no real account of what many people experienced. Very disappointing indeed.
A Bray | 05 June 2009

Brendan can not be used to 'cancel out the bad egg'. Abuse was endemic in some Irish Catholic institutions just as it was in schools like St Alypius in Ballarat.

Until Catholics stop defending the indefensible and start empathising with the victims and finding ways of making restitution I'm afraid they have no moral standing.
Frank Golding | 05 June 2009

I am unclear as to the final conclusion. Is it an attempt to deny what happened? Let's rewrite the history then and pretend nothing really happened! I am sorry but this is a staggering piece of offense nonsense!
Kevin Rocks. | 05 June 2009

Bishop: "I'm afraid you've got a bad egg, Mr Jones"; Curate: "Oh, no, my Lord, I assure you that parts of it are excellent!"

"True Humility" by George du Maurier, originally published in Punch, 1895. (Wikipedia)

It is very sad to see people referring to their own pet good priest as if this somehow balances out the systematic abuse of tens of thousands of children. Christianity is just as rotten at its core as any other patriarchal system.
Penelope | 05 June 2009

I think Frank is reading too much into "endemic". As used by epidemiologists it is the opposite of "epidemic" and refers to a disease which is always present in the community, spreading slowly from person to person so that it never runs out of non-immune people. It implies persistence but low frequency. (The other meaning, used by zoologists, is "occurring only there" which can hardly be the meaning in the Ryan report.)
Michael Grounds | 05 June 2009

As a writer for the Catholic press I've met and interviewed many of these saintly men and women. I actually needed to be near their faith since mine was so lacking, so full of doubt. I would come away asking, "What was in it for them?" All for the service of God, was the only answer that came through to me.

This is the salve I've applied to the physical abuse I experienced as a young student taught by the Christian Bros where as a 9-11 year old I was regularly strapped for such infractions as talking in class (ie, with failing eyesight and no glasses yet I'd ask the boy in the next desk what was on the blackboard) and get four of the best for my trouble, and be humiliated before my peers. We were also taught a theology that was full of hellfire, no beatitudes only the TEN commandments which we recited by heart. And yet I had a loving family and a manly dad to protect me from that fate that befell the vulnerable.
My schoolboy experiences were typical of the time. But the question remains how on earth did this come to characterise Catholicism for so long?
Larry O'Dea | 05 June 2009

Mr O'Shea the awful must be contemplated as the Irish statesman said nearly 3 centuries ago

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. " - Edmund Burke
moya pacey | 05 June 2009

If the abuse in Ireland was caused by a few 'bad eggs', then what about that in the US, and in Australia, and elsewhere? If there are that many 'bad eggs' throughout the church, then there is something wrong with the way we are treating the 'eggs'. Frank would do better to seek out the systemic cause rather than heap the responsibility on to the actions of a few. But the Church has been pretty good at denial.
Warwick | 05 June 2009

I was educated by Irish Christian Brothers in Northern Ireland in late 1940s in a Grammar School of about 900 boys (Forms 1- 6).

The brothers taught with a leather strap hanging from their cummerbund. In my first year Geography class I along with 29 other 12 yr old boys received 10 cuts for not being able to answer questions on the previous day's lesson. From that day onwards we always remembered the previous day's lesson. My younger brothers, educated by Jesuits in Australia thought such teaching methods barbaric. But it got results.

At what price I'll never know.

Many of the boys in that class (all scholarship boys from working class families) went on to professional jobs, even if some had to emigrate to find them.

I do not condone in any way the sexual abuse of children.

But with regard to physical abuse (eg. excessive use of the strap) the prevailing pedagogy seemed to be the students were playful pups or cheeky monkeys that had to be disciplined before they could be taught.

O tempora! O mores!
Uncle Pat | 05 June 2009

Abuse endemic in institutions must not be too awful to contemplate. It is the horrific reality of a power system based on top down dominance. Recent research into the area of power abuse was highlighted last year during a visit to Australia by renowned psychologist Phillip Zimbardo. His research into the "psychology of evil" refers to this notion of the good-evil dichotomy that releases "good people" off the hook and focuses only on the "bad apples".His comment on the
institutionalised evil of inaction and the systemic abuse of power in relation to the Catholic church are chilling.Zimbardo's research clearly points to a disturbing reality for the progress of evil in an organisation - it is the system, not just a few bad apples in the barrel that must be held accountable. As he simply claims, it is those who make and maintain the apple barrel that are the guardians of the system, the "power elite" who point to the bad apples in order to deflect attention away from their own inaction.He makes reference in this context to the inaction of so-called "good bishops" in sex abuse cases.
(The Lucifer Effect-How good people turn evil)
Philip Zimbardo, Random house 2007)

Paula McLeod | 05 June 2009

The now acknowledged widespread abuse by the catholoc clergy and teaching orders is bad enough but the consistent cover-up by the church hierarchy in re-locating the offenders when they were uncovered is by far the more serious offence as it, in effect, gave the perpetraters free reign to start their 'crimes' afresh.
Dan | 05 June 2009

You are " inclined to take the view that abuse was perpetrated by 'bad eggs'..", Mr. Frank O' Shea.
I wonder whether it has worked for you ? To persuade yourself thus. Fourteen paragraphs and you use the word abuse twice. Sexual abuse doesn't get a mention. Damaged people from Catholic schools - in my experience- would find the word 'endemic',
rather than being "an appalling dysphemism" as you suggest , to be more of a euphemism for
their experienced reality : institutionalised paedophilia.

How might it have been for the Catholic church to have have acted to protect the innocent and the young rather than to protect the depraved and the elderly. Rather than to apply "a kind of perverse algebra"
whereby we try to persuade ourselves that the Brendans can be used to cancel out the bad eggs.
"The alternative, that the abuse was indeed as endemic in some institutions as Ryan concludes, is too awful to contemplate." Too awful for who to face?

m. pointer | 05 June 2009

I wonder where Frank O'Shea learned this moral algebra.

I too am extremely grateful for what I received from the "black" Josephite nuns, the Marist Brothers and the Marist Fathers. But we can not allow this gratitude towards and reverence of our dedicated teachers to somehow cover our eyes and close our consciences to the awful abuses of the young that did occur.

We do not tie millstones around the necks of perpetrators and hurl them into the depths of the sea, but we must face up to the damage that was done, analyse its causes and put in place measures to ensure that it does not happen again.

Having lived with many well adjusted celibate individuals, mandatory marriage of school teachers is not the universal answer, (remember that some abuse also occurred in non-catholic schools and parishes by married people) but religious and priestly formation methods may need a thorough overhaul.
Kevin Luxford | 05 June 2009

There are three categories of heirarchy, clergy, and religious: the good, the bad and the indifferent.And each is culpable to some degree for the failure of the institutional Church, its orders and congregations to deal effectively with abuses of all types wherever they occur. Human failure exists within all men and women, even among the non-ordained who also have failed to effectively pursue abuses. I must admit to being one of these.
George Wyer | 05 June 2009

Power and authority in the Church oppresses,dominates,intimidates and excludes.Take the case of a young student sexually abused by a male religious, where the superior enters the room, sees the act, turns , walks out of the room.End of story.The incident is revealed many years later.The man was still teaching.Nothing done by anyone.
George Wyer | 05 June 2009

The whole of the People of God contribute to oppression within the Church.The most indictable are those with power and authority. Think about it.But do justice to the good, bad and indifferent and above all to the victim.

George Wyer | 05 June 2009

This is a very complex issue but there is a tendency on both sides - the "bad egg" people and the "endemic" people - to fall into simplistic conclusions.

There is a need to ask methodologically-controlled questions, among which are: what proportion of Catholic teachers/institution staff were abusers and what proportion of students/inmates were victims, relative to both the total number in each group in each school/institution and to similar, non-Catholic entities in the same societies at the same periods?; how do we calibrate the damage done with the positive outcomes in terms of disadvantaged, working-class boys and girls receiving an education or protection which helped to advance their life chances and work prospects?; to what extent were Catholic schools and institutions in Ireland and elsewhere in the 1950s and before representative of very spartan, grey and controlled societies generally?; to what extent was the abuse caused by inadequate formation and training provided in religious orders, the system itself in schools and institutions, the psychological pathologies of individuals or the over-stretched, under-resourced living and working conditions of staff?

Until we start getting some scientific, comprehensive, objective experience- and archives-based sociological-historical studies about exactly what happened in religious orders, schools and welfare institutions we will be left with the ecclesiastical apologists on the one side and the hysterical accusers on the other.It also needs to be kept in mind that this issue does not exist in an ideological vacuum but is connected to various sets of contemporary agendas, those who would defend the Church no matter what is done in its name and those, especially in the media, who seek to undermine the credibility of the Church because of its unfashionable doctrinal and moral teachings. I speak as one who received corporal punishment in a Catholic school, not with the strap but with a yard ruler applied to the back of the shins.
Sylvester | 05 June 2009

A rich and beautiful response. Whatever the shock of the appalling things we've learned about, and we didn't have to wait for the Irish investigation to learn all of them, we owe it to the heroic and saintly ones among the brothers and nuns who enriched our lives so much to keep their memory fresh. I had the great good fortune to be taught by the great Brother J.P.Lacey in Townsville. He's remained a model throughout my life - as Shakespeare says, 'I shall not look upon his like again'.
Joe Castley | 05 June 2009

What a great article! Frank lost me a bit with 'dysphemism' and 'perverse algebra', but I got his drift.I liked Brendan's point about religious orders bowing out of educating kids when governments began to see it as their role.If 'grace builds on nature', why should unnecessary vows of poverty, chastity and obedience inhibit those who might otherwise 'grow' their life of grace without synthetic constraints?
Claude Rigney | 05 June 2009

A moving story about 'Brendan'. I can relate to it .I was educated by the Mercy Sisters and Marist Brothers in the 50's and 60's in a spartan lifestyle where violence from the teachers was an accepted reality - it was also a part of the society of the time as many parents used the same methods.

We run the risk of seeing violence as a purely Catholic issue-it definitely was not! We also have to realise that like the other past social evils which the Church tolerated as 'normal'; of slavery and domestic service, we risk applying today's values which are more 'enlightened' to past history were values were different.
Some Brothers and Nuns were brutal in the extreme, even by the standards of the day and we knew it.However we couldn't do anything about it as parental response was;'you must have deserved it!'

The lesson is, as Frank observes, we must learn from the past, not let it happen again. Most of the teachers who taught me were dedicated,caring, upright men and women who lived a very tough life indeed.I suggest many were in Orders out of economic necessity, not a vocation.I detest sexual exploitation anywhere!
Gavin | 05 June 2009

Not all the bad eggs were or are Irish.

A full read of the following will show this - this is an email making its way around the world - its title is "Appropriate contact with Catholic church" or "Genuine opportunity - contact with the Catholic church"

It originated from Australia

This clearly shows that not all the bad eggs were or are Irish.
JohnB | 06 June 2009

Has anybody asked the question as to what other cases of abuse were 'recorded' in the same period that the Ryan report refers too. Please don't think I am excusing the evil - but what is the perspective?
Mike Delaney | 12 June 2009

Endemic and systemic. And it wasn't just the Ryan Report that revealed this: internal documents of the Religious Orders revealed it as well. And not just in Ireland - Australia and Canada had some horrific cases of abuse and its cover-up.

A culture of depravity allied with a culture of cover-up.
Andrew | 21 June 2009


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