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Spotlight Report

Irish victims of clergy abuse seek others in Hub

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Correspondent, 9/22/2003

For more than a century after the potato blight of the 1840s sent millions of Irish to emigrant ships, thousands settled each year in Boston, a place so firmly rooted in the Irish consciousness that some in Ireland call it "the next parish over." Many were fleeing poverty, others persecution. And some were fleeing horrible memories of abuse, not at the hands of their historical oppressor, the British, but their traditional protector, the Roman Catholic church.

A pair of County Cork men, Tony Treacy and Billy O'Regan, arrived here Saturday to begin looking for those who spent part of their youth in Irish reform schools, orphanages, and industrial institutions supervised by the government and run by Catholic orders, and to tell them they are entitled to compensation for their childhood misery.

Four years ago, the Irish government offered an apology, and a blank check, to thousands of people who suffered abuse in those institutions. But victim advocates accuse the government of doing nothing to alert those who left Ireland after abuse that they are entitled to settlement money. And now some advocates are taking it upon themselves to get the word out in parts of America with a tradition of Irish immigration.

Victims groups estimate that about 10,000 people who lived in those institutions immigrated to the Boston area over the last 80 years, and Treacy believes there are hundreds still living in New England. Finding them, however, will be difficult, in part because of the stigma and shame many victims feel.

For Treacy and O'Regan, the search is personal, because they know all too well what it was like in those institutions, where children were often a source of unpaid, ill-treated labor in laundries and other workhouse industries.

For Treacy, Boston is personal, too: He believes a man who abused him once worked as a priest in the area. Not only the victims left Ireland to escape their past.

Sentenced at age 11 to a reform school in Cork after being caught stealing chickens, Treacy says he was physically and sexually abused by some of the brothers who ran the institution, and was forced to work in "slave-like conditions." He was released at 16 without an education. An adulthood of menial jobs, and bitter memories, followed.

O'Regan's father had walked out, leaving his overwhelmed mother with 11 children before the state intervened and split the children up, sending them to various institutions. O'Regan was 3 years old when he entered an orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy. He left when he was 17, haunted, he says, by years of physical abuse.

"We called them the sisters of no mercy," he says ruefully.

According to Right of Place, the victims support group Treacy and O'Regan work for, more than 150,000 children and teenagers passed through Ireland's youth institutions between the 1920s and 1980s, and about 100,000 of them left Ireland, mostly for Britain and North America.

For the last decade, child abuse, and especially the role that Catholic organizations played in that abuse, has been a huge issue in the Republic of Ireland, where more than 90 percent of the 3.6 million people are Catholic and the church's "special position" was recognized in the nation's constitution. Until recently, Catholic orders provided the social services to troubled children that are provided by secular agencies in most other countries. In the 1990s, as the Irish became less deferential to the church, accounts of widespread abuse emerged, damaging the church's reputation and influence. Mass attendance dropped from 90 to 60 percent in a decade.

In 1999, Bertie Ahern, the Irish prime minister, apologized to those who suffered in government-supported, religious-run institutions. At the same time, the government established an independent Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse to determine how prevalent abuse was, why it took place, and who was responsible. Three weeks ago, the judge heading that commission, Justice Mary Laffoy, resigned in frustration, saying the government had denied her the necessary resources.

Separately, the government has moved to compensate those who suffered abuse. Last year, in a pact with 18 Catholic orders, the government agreed to spend an unlimited amount of taxpayer money to compensate victims through the Residential Institutions Redress Board. The orders agreed to kick in about $140 million, mostly by giving up property. While estimates of how much the plan will cost range between $200 million and $1 billion, the final cost depends on how many people apply before a December 2005 deadline. Victims and taxpayer groups criticize the plan, saying taxpayers are bailing out the orders responsible for the abuse.

So far, the compensation board has received more than 1,900 applications, nearly all from Ireland and only 23 from the United States, according to a board official who spoke on the condition he was not identified. It has settled about 200 cases, with payouts ranging from $11,000 to $224,000. The average of the awards is $94,000 -- the equivalent, as it happens, of the average to be paid under the $85 million agreement that the Archdiocese of Boston reached with more than 500 plaintiffs two weeks ago.

"Hardly anyone in the US has applied because hardly anyone knows about it," said Treacy. "The Irish government has done next to nothing to publicize this in the United States."

Emma Kinsella, a spokeswoman for the Irish government department that set up the compensation board, said it is the independent board's responsibility to advertise. The compensation board official acknowledged his agency has not advertised in the United States, but said it plans to in the future.

Treacy and O'Regan accuse the government of saying one thing and doing another, by agreeing to fund the compensation plan but not publicizing it abroad.

Victims, meanwhile, are divided on whether to take compensation or press their cases in court. Anyone who takes compensation forfeits the right to sue.

A New Hampshire woman who spent 13 years in a Dublin-area orphanage said she and her nine siblings who were shipped off to institutions in 1957 had applied to testify before the Laffoy commission and are now considering applying for compensation.

"For most of us, it's not about the money," said the woman, who first fled to London and came to the United States 13 years ago. She spoke on the condition she was not identified.

Her family's story is horrible but, she says, not that uncommon. When she was 5, her father marched her and nine of her brothers and sisters down to the children's court at Dublin Castle and claimed that their mother had run off and he couldn't take care of them. In fact, her mother was at home, but could not regain custody of her children. The youngest was 6 months old, the eldest was 12.

"It took my mother three years to find us," said the woman, now 51. "She could only see us once a month, and we were scattered in three different institutions."

Her brothers were sent to Artane Industrial School, a notorious orphanage run by the Christian Brothers.

"Me and my sisters were physically abused, but some of my brothers were sexually abused as well," the woman said.

The woman, who is undecided about filing a compensation claim, worries about the focus on money.

"When all this unfolded, nobody was asking for compensation. They wanted their stories to be told and be part of Irish history," she said.

Treacy agrees that compensation is not the primary goal of victims, but is adamant that it is an essential part of the

admission of responsibility by the government and the orders. "Justice to me is an apology written on the back of a check that I can give to my grandchildren," said Treacy, 55.

Treacy's group is holding two informational meetings in Boston -- today at 6 p.m. at the Tynan School, 650 East 4th St., South Boston, and tomorrow at 6 p.m. at the Murphy Community Center, 1 Worrell St., Dorchester -- before moving on to Chicago to do the same.

"We're not going to tell anyone what they should do," Treacy said. "They should just be aware of what they are entitled to. God knows they weren't given their rights when they were children."

Kevin Cullen can be reached at

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