Controversially, no names appear in the strictly factual 2,600-page government report — published in Dublin last Wednesday — that details the scope of the physical, sexual and psychological abuse of children in church-run care facilities in 20th century Ireland.
“The biggest disappointment was not naming the culprits. I think that was a terrible shame. They should certainly have named every one of them, dead or alive,” said Phelan, who lives with his wife in Freeport on Long Island.
The novelist said that the report is not necessarily an indictment of an entire society from the 1930s through the 1990s, but it does show the extent to which the state – specifically in this instance the Department of Education – was unwilling or unable to challenge church power.
Phelan’s work has often raised traditionally uncomfortable subject matter in Irish society. His last novel, the acclaimed “The Canal Bridge” (published in Ireland by Lilliput in Ireland and Dufour Editions in the U.S.), dealt with the treatment of returning World War I veterans.
The spark for that work were memories of former soldiers from his childhood in County Laois in the late 1940s. In one incident his father, a farmer, reprimanded him and his friends when he caught them imitating a badly stooped veteran, saying that the man had rescued his commanding officer from no-man’s land.
He also delved into his own past for his latest.
“When I was writing ‘Nailer’ and I was trying to imagine my way into one of these schools, I found myself back in my old boarding high school in the 1950s,” he said. Phelan’s was a diocesan high school where boys were groomed for the priesthood or at least encouraged to seriously consider it. He was ordained a priest in 1965 and left a decade later.
“There was no comparison between the conditions. My parents were paying to send me. But there were touches of the behavior [seen] in the industrial schools,” he said.
For research, he read all of the government documents in the area dating back to the Kennedy report in 1970. He spoke with one former student and read several accounts of survivors. In addition, he visited what was left of some of the most notorious institutions — those in Letterfrack, Co. Galway, Baltimore, Co. Cork, and Daingean, Co Offaly.
“They were just dreadful places,” he said.
The government report states: “A climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment, permeated most of the institutions.”
The violence was institutional, though some of those in authority were particularly sadistic, Phelan said. The view was that “the only way to control boys was to be physically in charge of them.
“The boys did not know where, or when and or for what reason the next attack was going to be made,” he added.
The novelist discovered that the British had introduced the industrial school networks in the 19th century. However, Irish independence happened precisely when policy makers in London were radically reforming their ideas about childcare. A new approach would encourage fostering and also smaller group homes, much like later developments in psychiatric care. But the new Irish government struggling to get on its feet after a debilitating civil war retained the industrial schools.
“They asked the religious orders because they would do it basically for nothing,” he said.
The Catholic Church’s main motivation in accepting the task was saving these young people from Protestants
“But the religious orders had no experience whatsoever in taking care of children,” Phelan said. “And also child development as a science was non-existent.”
He pointed out that many nuns and brothers had themselves been taken from their homes as adolescents. (Typically, a Christian Brother was recruited at age 14.)
“They were personally undeveloped as people and here they were trying to deal with children who were in huge need,” he said. “They had no idea how to deal with them except to keep them in straight lines.”
He recalled hearing one story about a boy being very badly abused physically in public near Daingean. “Nobody did anything about it,” the novelist said, adding that the feeling was: “The Brothers were doing it; the child deserved it.”
“The clergy could do no wrong,” Phelan said.
Behind closed doors, the report says, such behavior was widespread, and that ten of thousands of children were victims of emotional neglect. It says further that sexual abuse was “endemic” in the institutions for boys.
Phelan said there were two systems dealing with sexual crimes in Ireland at the time. The law dealt with an accused layperson. But the authorities allowed the church to handle cases concerning priests, brothers and nuns. “The church was just so powerful at the time,” Phelan said.
If there was sexual abuse at Phelan’s high school, he didn’t know of it. And he wasn’t aware of any colleague being involved in pedophilia during his years in the priesthood.
But at school “there was physical abuse and there was psychological abuse and there was starvation,” he said.
“Ask anybody who went to boarding school at that time and they all have the same complaint. There was food, but it was never properly prepared,” he said.
He said that some of the priests who ran his high school “were exceedingly cruel” and that there was an “element of cruelty” throughout the entire diocesan high school system.
Although the Christian Brothers have received most of the negative publicity, Phelan said that one of the worst residences, Baltimore, was run by priests from the diocese of Cork.
“The conditions there were horrendous and horrific,” Phelan said.
For more about Tom Phelan go to www.tomphelan.net.