Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

A National Shame


Thousands of people took to the streets of Dublin today to show their outrage at the abuse meted out by the Catholic Church in institutions over the years.  Once the crowds had assembled outside Leinster House where the politicians were arguing about the worth of the Government, stories were told of how the abuse wrecked lives and calls were made for belated justice.

I’m ashamed to say I wasn’t with the marchers.  The husband was, that’s his photograph at the top of this post.  I was working on editing the book, sitting in a favourite hideaway where I can work in the centre of town in peace and quite.  This afternoon there was another sound that drowned out the buzzing of the bees, from Kildare Street a good ten minutes walk away I could hear the speakers at the march.  Their voices carried through megaphones, bounced between buildings, came through the air in a strange ebbing echo, fragments of their stories reaching me on the wind while the shouts of the massive crowd were only a murmur.  This is as it should be.  Their stories should ring out across town and the whole country should hang their heads in shame at the hurt and harm that so many children and pregnant women had to undergo at the hands of a too powerful church.

The first time I personally became aware of the scale of the abuse was when my mother was cast as the head nun in Louis Lentin’s 1996 documentary Dear Daughter.  She was staying with me while the series was filmed and told me about visiting the old Golden Bridge orphanage with some of the women who had suffered so horrifically there.  One of them, Christine Buckley, whose story Dear Daughter followed, is in the photograph above, in the front row of protesters.

My mother told me about the first day of filming, when she was in her nun’s costume for the first time.  She got ready for her entrance at the top of a flight of stairs.  The women who had once been inmates of that grim place were standing in the hall below watching the shot.  She told me that as she came down the stairs as Sister Xavieria, the woman who had been in charge of Goldenbridge in the 1950s, the women all gasped and became visibly upset.  The similarity was far too great, the memories too vivid.

Dear Daughter came three years before the infamous States of Fear series which detailed the abuse suffered by the children who had been sent to the infamous industrial schools.  It told of horrendous abuse perpetrated by the Sisters of Mercy nuns on the children in their care.

But now 13 years later we are still being shocked at the details of that abuse.  Every time there is another report further details of the cruel, sick, inhumane treatment suffered by some of the most vulnerable citizens of this country, come out and the people react with horror, as they should.  But in those thirteen years very little progress has been made.  The story just keep getting bigger and bigger, with more and more victims hurt by a church that should never have been allowed to have such a stranglehold on the country as a whole.

When the Ferns Report was published, detailing more than 100 allegations of child abuse in a single diocese, the same noises were made and the same outrage expressed.  Now we have the Ryan Report which goes into institutional abuse across the whole country but still there is a lack of decisive action on the part of the Government.  How many abusers are still walking free and how many victims still waiting for closure and justice?

The fact that one organisation, the Catholic church, was so twisted and corrupt as to allow and condone such wholesale abuse of the people in their care, is horrifying.  The fact that the State still seems to show deference to the religious rather than ordering them to face up fully to what they have done, is even worse.  There is something very, very wrong with a country in which a slavish subservience to those in power means blind eyes will be turned to whatever abuses the powerful ones choose to get up to.  Whether you are talking about the religious orders who had care of the countries children or the likes of Dr Michael Shine, struck off last year for abusing youngsters, there are those who will gather round them protectively, looking up to the priest or the doctor in adoration and hearing no ill.

Surely it’s time that justice was finally doles out?  There is no excuse, no mitigation to what these people did.  The laws of the land still apply.  But instead of being cast out, the religious are treated as a special case.  They were handed a ludicrously sweet deal when it came to compensating their victims and the news that they are to cough up more is greeted as if they are doing the country some kind of favour.

It can only be hoped that the voices raised this afternoon were heard and a change in attitude takes place.  But going on past evidence it’s going to take a lot more marches before anything changes.


  1. EXTRACT from UK historian Richard Webster’s essay “States of Fear, the Redress Board and Ireland’s Folly” re Christine Buckley and Sister Xavieria.


    “In 1996 the producer and director, Louis Lentin, made a television documentary about abuse in children’s homes which was shown by RTE, the main public service broadcasting station in Ireland. It focused on the brutal regime which was said to have been operating during the 1950s at St Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge, one of a network children’s homes or detention centres which were funded by the state and run by the Catholic Church.

    The documentary featured allegations made against Sister Xavieria, one of the nuns belonging to the Sisters of Mercy order which ran the home. The woman ‘survivor’ at the centre of the film claimed that, on one occasion, she had been caned by Sister Xavieria so severely that the entire side of her leg was split open from her hip to her knee. She says she was treated in the casualty department of the local hospital and believes that she received 80 to 120 stitches. No medical evidence has ever been produced to substantiate this bizarre claim.

    The surgeon who ran the casualty department at the hospital in question has given evidence which renders it highly unlikely that such an incident ever took place. Apart from anything else, the surgeon points out that caning would not have caused a wound of this kind, which would have required surgical treatment under a general anaesthetic and not stitches in a casualty department. Yet although the evidence suggests that the woman’s memory was a delusion, her testimony was widely believed at the time. In the wake of the broadcast, atrocity stories about Goldenbridge and other industrial schools began to proliferate.”[3]

    3. Sunday Times (Ireland), 28 April 1996, citing the views of the surgeon, J. B. Prendiville.

    • Abigail

      24th December 2009 at 10:58 pm

      I’ve approved this comment on the basis of freedom of speech but would just like to make the point that it is a dangerous path to seek to exonerate men of the cloth simply because you refuse to think ill of them. Regardless of how the Irish State has chosen to deal with the widespread abuse that was perpertrated here by members of the clergy the fact remains that the abuse did happen. I’ve sat through enough court cases to see the evidence myself and have met many abuse survivors. These are not people who have made complaints because they have an axe to grind or are after a fast buck, these are individuals whose lives have been wrecked by the actions of people put on pedastals for far too long.
      I’m sorry that you cannot accept the truth.

  2. Victim-survivor of Goldenbridge Industrial School

    7th April 2010 at 11:45 pm

    Re: Kilbarry1

    Paste & google following links:



    The complainant states that as part of a report, on the tragic …

    The Volokh Conspiracy – Conor Cruise O’Brien, R.I.P.:

    The above links should give readers a more succinct view from whence *Killbarry1* is coming. It thus pains me so much to give this ex De-La-Silly seminarian even this piece of publicity. Nonetheless, it will undoubtedly give viewers an understanding into his devious mindset. He has been hounding websites for years – where he knows survivors of institutional abuse frequent or run and has been banned from them on innumerable occasions for his despicable intimidating behaviour. If he was a genuine historian, he would certainly not be hiding behind a pseudonymous name. He has very little credibility in my estimation and is a waste of blogosphere space.

  3. Abigail

    19th May 2010 at 9:29 pm

    [Edited on May 22nd] This comment is in reply to an earlier comment from Kilbarry1 which I have unapproved.

    I’m sorry you have such difficulty in accepting the very great wrong the Catholic Church did in covering up the problem of child sexual abuse within it’s ranks. It’s a well discussed subject and this is not the place for apologists.
    My original post was on the subject of the reports that have been carried out on this widespread abuse. The allegations of deaths have not been proven and so cannot be either accepted or denied. I’m not interested in any further conversation. Your comments are grossly disrespectful of those who have suffered greatly at the hands of certain members of the religious. If you post again in this manner I will unapprove your comments.

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