Their defenders say they educated boys whose families couldn’t provide for them; their detractors say they were a byword for classroom brutality and abuse. Starting our series on Catholicism ahead of the visit of Pope Francis, our reporter explores the complex legacy of the Christian Brothers
Regret and sorrow: Brother Edmund Garvey. Photo: Gerry Mooney
August 05 2018
It is an unlikely headquarters for an age-old congregation that used to be one of the most powerful and feared institutions in the State.
The European Province of the Christian Brothers is run from a modern office block, built by the order in a leafy lane off Griffith Avenue in Dublin 9.
When I arrive to meet Brother Edmund Garvey, the leader of the Irish Christian Brothers, I am greeted by a woman in the reception area of a sleek modernist building with the atmosphere of a small multinational corporation.
In days gone by, lengthy conversations between Brothers and women were actively discouraged.
The rules of the order stated that Brothers “in all conversations with females, must observe great reserve and modesty and make the conversations as brief as possible”.
The Brothers have dispensed with the dark cassocks in which they patrolled classrooms up and down the land for generations. I am welcomed into a boardroom by Brother Garvey, neatly dressed and businesslike in a sky blue shirt and navy tie.
The modern Christian Brothers are a slimmed-down operation. They have had to adapt to a society in which vocations are non-existent – and their role as disciplinarian teachers has long vanished.
Louth-born Brother Garvey tells me that when he became a postulant, a trainee for the congregation, as a 14-year-old in 1959, the order was hitting its peak in terms of numbers.
In its heyday there were as many as 1,300 Christian Brothers across the country – and over 4,000 around the world – who had all taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Now there are no more than 170 brothers surviving in the whole of Ireland – and the average age is 79.
The Congregation’s Irish leader says the last Brother to join up was in 1995 – and he left after only half a decade.
The power may have gone as the Brothers disappeared suddenly from public view, but they have left a deep imprint on the male Irish psyche.
There is a legacy of resentment among many former pupils about their excessive use of corporal punishment.
Memories of beatings are still vivid among a cohort of middle-aged and elderly men, and there is a lingering feeling that all too frequently the punishment was indiscriminate and random.
At the same time, there is also an appreciation that the Brothers provided an education, particularly to the less well off.
Often, when you talk to ex-pupils, they may harbour both resentment and a certain level of gratitude at the same time. When I raise the difficult questions about the Brothers’ legacy, the response of Brother Garvey is one of studied remorse, and he chooses his words carefully.
The congregation’s founder Edmund Ignatius Rice was actually against the use of physical punishment, a point that is highlighted by Brother Garvey.
“He believed that where possible, it should not be used at all,” says Brother Garvey.
“There was a huge overemphasis on corporal punishment that crept into the schools, unfortunately.”
So why did the order go against the wishes of its founder, to such an extent that it became a byword of classroom brutality among a significant section of the population?
Pressure on exam results
He attributes this to the fact that schools were paid by their exam grades – so there was enormous pressure to get results.
Even more damaging to the congregation than the reputation for classroom severity were the damning findings of the Ryan Report of 2009, which found that sexual abuse was “endemic” in industrial schools for boys run by the Brothers.
The report also found that “a climate of fear, created by pervasive, excessive and arbitrary punishment” permeated the schools.
“Children lived with the daily terror of not knowing where the next beating was coming from,” the report said.
Pondering the findings of the Ryan Report almost a decade later, Brother Garvey expresses regret about what happened. “The report was extremely severe on the industrial schools, on the Christian Brothers and the way those institutions were run.
“It’s a matter of extreme regret and sorrow and shame that people would have suffered to the extent that was described in the Ryan Commission in those institutions.”
Brother Garvey acknowledges that the most vulnerable in society living in industrial schools suffered “in horrendous ways”.
“That is unpardonable, unconscionable – and I would almost go as far to say even unforgivable, but I would perhaps not go that far.”
The Brothers leader says the State committed young people to these institutions.
He questions why the severity of the industrial schools was not spotted, inspected and eliminated.
“Somebody had to know, but nothing was really done about it.”
So is it hard for the surviving Brothers to come to terms with the damage done to the Congregation’s reputation?
“If people have a difficulty with us, it is difficult listening to their story and accepting it,” says Brother Garvey.
But he says that generally the local communities in which the Brothers live are extraordinarily loyal, and there are good relationships.
“By and large, they have not shown any animosity or aggression towards the Brothers.”
In 2009, the congregation promised to pay €34m towards a redress scheme for victims of abuse in residential institutions. Brother Garvey says the order still has to pay €8.8m of that amount, and he says he hopes the total bill will be cleared by early next year.
The Brothers may be diminished in number, but the congregation still has a high turnover of cash, tied up in a number of companies and charitable trusts.
Assets of €332m
In 2009, the assets of Brothers were valued at €332m – of which €262m was tied up in real estate and €70m was in financial assets.
On top of this, the congregation transferred school property worth €430m to a linked body known as the Edmund Rice Schools Trust.
It is not clear how much the assets of the order are worth now.
In the most recent accounts published by the charity regulator for 2015 and 2016, the European Province of the Brothers, whose activities are largely in Ireland, had a total gross income of €29m and it spent €33m.
Brother Garvey says the money helps towards the care of retired members of the congregation, most of whom are elderly. The order also funds adult education and summer camps for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, promising a “week of fun-filled activities in a safe and friendly environment”.
Richmond Newstreet, an Irish-registered company linked with the congregation’s international operations, has net assets of €20m, according to the most recent accounts. So, after the horrors of the Ryan Report, and the never-ending accounts of beatings inflicted on pupils in the past, what does Brother Garvey believe is the positive legacy?
“If it hadn’t been for the Christian Brothers, you’d wonder what kind of education system we would have had,” he says.
“They provided a good education and gave it freely, and laid down a good schools infrastructure that is going forward.”
While the abuse in industrial schools and other institutions was investigated in the Ryan Report, has the issue of violence perpetrated by teachers in Christian Brothers schools really been explored. Many ex-pupils still carry the emotional scars.
Professor Pat Dolan, director of the Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway, believes there should be a type of truth commission so that adult victims can tell of what they suffered in school.
Dolan, who suffered regular beatings at North Brunswick Street CBS, says: “The Brothers did a lot of physical harm and they got away with it – when they shouldn’t have got away with it.”
Brothers carried an exotic range of weapons, from bamboo canes, to chair legs and ruler sticks – and the familiar one-and-a-half-foot leather strap.
“In the classroom, if you got your spelling wrong you got slapped, and at one time I was slapped on a daily basis,” says Professor Dolan.
While this form of corporal punishment was still quite common in other schools apart from the Christian Brothers, many former pupils educated by the congregation report much more violent attacks that went unpunished.
It is the apparently random nature and frequency of these assaults that Professor Dolan finds disturbing.
He remembers one attack from a lay male teacher, who punched and slapped him repeatedly across the head when he tried to defend a classmate with a stammer.
“I was very fortunate in that I had a very protective mother who complained about this, and as a result after first year, it was not so bad.”
Dolan says there are three arguments commonly made in favour of the disciplinarian regime: firstly, pupils got slapped, but it did not do them any harm; secondly, not all the teachers were violent, and many were decent; and thirdly, there is the familiar defence, articulated by Brother Garvey, that the Brothers provided an education when no-one else would do.
Prof Dolan says the fact that some pupils did not feel that they were harmed by corporal punishment should not negate the suffering of others.
He acknowledges that there were kind Brothers, but he says many of these men worked with violent teachers – and did nothing to stop them.
By the late 1960s, campaigners were beginning to question the approach of the congregation to discipline and call for a ban on corporal punishment.
Frank Crummey, who was involved in the campaign group Reform, recalls the uproar in Ireland after he went on the Late Late Show in 1968 and accused the Brothers of abusing children.
Crummey had suffered beatings at Christian Brothers schools in Crumlin and Synge Street.
He says that on one occasion, an unidentified cheeky pupil called a Brother with a limp a “hoppy bastard”, and the teacher did not know who it was.
“The Brother took me to a glasshouse, and twisted my leg until I screamed – and told him the name of the boy.”
He remembers the regime at Synge Street as “cruel and vicious”. And he says he suffered more because he would not hold out his hand for a slap – or bend over for a beating. “I could never bring myself to do that, so one occasion, the teacher got another Brother and they kicked the shit out of me in a corner as I lay there.”
Damages of one shilling
Later, in his work as a campaigner for Reform, Crummey was involved when Kathleen Moore took a case against the Brothers when her son David was badly beaten. A jury found the punishment excessive, but only awarded damages of one shilling.
The former Labour Party senator and newspaper editor John Whelan can see two sides to the Christian Brothers story. In 1973, at just 12 years of age as a boy in Monasterevin, Co Kildare, he signed up to become a Christian Brothers postulant and left home for the life of a trainee in Carriglea Park in Dún Laoghaire.
That was in spite of some Brothers in his school meting out harsh punishment.
“At school, there was definitely an element that was sadistic and brutal. They did not pass up the opportunity to give you a dig in the ribs, a crack across the side of the head, or a box across the lugs.”
But Whelan does not go along with the idea that the Brothers were all brutal and says we should not apply modern-day standards to an era when corporal punishment was not only legal, but actively encouraged.
He says he found some of the brothers “extremely decent”.
In his period as a postulant, he says he learned a lot and prayed a lot, read Thomas Aquinas, and spent long periods with his fellow trainees in total silence. The only woman in his life at this time, according to his own account, was Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
Gradually it dawned on the teenager that the life of a Brother was not for him.
“I could not see a life without girls – puberty came in the door and my vocation went out the window.”
Whelan says he was shocked at the revelations in the Ryan Report, but not surprised by them.
According to Whelan, if you take a coterie of young boys away from home and school them in a surreal, sexually repressed environment over a period of years, there are obvious dangers.
From the 1960s onwards, the authority of the Brothers was increasingly questioned, and their hold on the male population loosened. Brother Edmund Garvey says the cultural change happened from the moment The Beatles made their first noise in Liverpool.
“We began to feel the effects of a well-educated population,” says the congregation leader.
“We created a people who could stand up and question their lives. From the mid-sixties on there was a numerical and inexorable decline.”
Does Brother Garvey truly understand the global crimes his brothers have perpetrated?
Surely the evils perpetrated by his colleagues totally destroys the Brothers legacy?
They have beaten and raped generations.
They have violated children globally.
Their legacy is evil.
They still have multi millions.
But they are a global child rape organisation.