There has been an avalanche of exposes in recent years of scandals in Church and state. Clerical sex abuse, the mistreatment of children in the industrial school system and the failure of the state to prevent all of this and to protect victims, has caused great distress.
Citizens have been bombarded by tragic accounts of children whose childhood was brutally stolen by predatory clerics, and of vulnerable adults, especially young girls and women reduced to the status of slaves in some Catholic Church institutions.
As the Ryan Report revealed great hurt was inflicted in the name of social conformity and religious doctrine. The Irish state was complicit in this.
But the Catholic Church was not the only Church which ran institutions, in association with the state, and which abused children and adults.
Niall Meehan, an academic researcher from Griffith College in Dublin has written extensively about the horrifying litany of abuse which took place in Bethany Home in Rathgar, in south Dublin, in the period 1922 to 1972.
Bethany Home was run by an independent protestant group as an evangelical institution for unmarried mothers and their children. It also took in prostitutes, alcoholics, and young people under 17. Women and young people convicted in the courts were also sent there. In 1945 the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin recommended it as a place of detention.
Bethany’s management committee included clergy who were part of a Church of Ireland body whose objective was to convert Catholics – the Society of Irish Church Missions to the Roman Catholics (ICM-RC).
After February 1935 management committee members had to sign a ‘Doctrinal Pledge’. It declared ‘the utter depravity of human nature ... and the eternal punishment of the wicked.’
Nursing staff had to be evangelical missionaries.
Thus far it has been established that at least 219 children died between 1922 when the Home opened and 1949, two-thirds between 1935-44. They were buried in unmarked graves. Some died from marasumus – a form of malnutrition.
As Niall Meehan has said: ‘A desire to save more souls accompanied inadequate provision for the bodies they inhabited.’
In 1939 reports from St. Ultan’s and the Coombe Hospitals revealed that children from Bethany suffered from a range of medical problems including, rickets, scalding, whooping coughs and conjunctivitis.
The failure of the Irish state to properly monitor and manage conditions in Bethany was exposed in reports by the then Deputy Chief Medical Adviser. He explained away neglect criticised by his own inspectors and higher than average mortality by claiming that ‘it is well recognised that a large number of illegitimate children are delicate ... ‘
Another aspect of Bethany’s function was the export of children to similar organisations in England, including Barnardo’s; the Salvation Army and Fegan’s Homes for Boys. From these and from Catholic organisations many children were then transferred on to colonies of the British Empire. Many were sent direct from the north of Ireland. Fegan’s for example, described itself as a ‘Protestant, evangelical undenominational’ home. It advertised the fact that it received ‘destitute and orphan boys to educate and train in farm work for migration to Canada’.
Under the Empire Settlement Act of 1922 the British government could pay up to 50% of the cost of transporting a child to one of its colonies. By 1931 Barnardo’s had deported 30,000, almost one third of the 100,000 children transplanted by that time. Many of these children were simply stolen from their parents who were told they were dead or adopted. The children who were never adopted were told similar lies.
The Imperialist mindset which underpinned all of this is evident in a letter carried in the London Times in April 1928 in which David C Lamb the Commissioner of the Salvation Army said ‘it is particularly refreshing to find Australia is keeping her doors wide open, and, at the same time, is, of course, taking every reasonable precaution to build imperially by selecting children coming from a clean, healthy British stock.’
The exploitation, physical and sexual abuse these stolen children received was horrendous. A film on the subject, Oranges and Sunshine, by Ken Loach’s son, Jim, starring Emily Watson, will be released on April 1.
The Irish state refused to send Irish children to Australia, but knew they were being sent Britain and did not interfere. The Irish state also knew that large numbers of children were dying from preventable diseases and neglect and abuse but did nothing. But Bethany Home and other similar agencies run by religious groups allowed the state to off load its responsibilities through the provision of a cheap private welfare system.
The survivors of Bethany have called on the Irish government to accept responsibility for what happened in Bethany Home. On a day last June that former residents met in Mount Jerome Cemetery to remember those buried there in unmarked graves, the Irish government refused to add Bethany Home to the government’s scheme of redress for those who suffered in institutions.