By Barry M. Coldrey
The traditional orphanage was a sparse establishment; clear now, not always so obvious in the interwar period or after World War II when the standard of living for ‘ordinary’ people was lower . What is plain – with the advantage of hindsight which allows 20-20 vision – is the tough regimen in these institutions, and that at a certain stage the sparse atmosphere led to a specific culture of abuse .
At a certain stage, the severe and persistent physical abuse led inexorably to the sexual abuse of some residents. In the United States, Alexander Starchild, whose first academic offerings were completed while he was in prison, has written of the sexual abuse of British youth in correctional institutions :The whole juvenile gaol culture in England encourages sexual play as there is a strong policy of enforced nudity and corporal punishment... Caning is carried out in front of other boys - a boy is made to drop his pants and bend over. This can quickly take on sexual connotations.The institutional world that Starchild evokes is not that of the 1980s, when he was writing, but that of some twenty or more years previously. However, there are valid reasons for thinking that the British practice of disciplining adolescents in care - especially older adolescents - by caning them on the bare buttocks stimulated the sexual abuse of inmates by some staff, though this was not its intention. Caning trespassed on one of the body’s more private and erogenous zones where a high concentration of nerve endings led directly to sexual nerve centres. The buttocks remained a major locus of sexual signals - e.g. caressing a child’s buttocks is a sexual offence; slapping an adult’s buttocks is a sexual action. Hence, it can be argued that caning in the congregate care institutions encouraged sexual abusers and provided a cover for their activities . Extremes of physical abuse led ultimately - and inexorably - to the sexual abuse of children .The permanent atmosphere of severity had sexual overtones.
There was a thin line between extreme severity and sexual abuse in traditional care, never crossed by many of the staff, but easily crossed by some. Peter Tyrrell, a former resident of St. Joseph’s, Letterfrack, Co Galway maintained that savage punishment, nudity and sodomy were linked. He wrote that ‘we were sometimes stripped and beaten while naked for long periods...I was sodomised by one of the Brothers’ .
Touher in his memories of Artane Boys Home, is aware of the narrow boundary between beating the inmates on their naked buttocks and abusing them sexually. He recalled that few staff crossed the boundary, in his personal experience, but one did. At one point, Touher described ‘normal punishment’ in the following reference: ‘I stared in horror as I saw a man flogging a boy across the bare buttocks with a long leather strap. I lost count of the strokes... his cries echoed off the refectory walls.’ Neither Touher nor other Artane boys considered this sexually abusive. That was something else. There was a difference and he recalled how one of the staff crossed the line between harshness and sexual abuse during one beating: 
My arse was on fire. “The Sting” was perspiring a lot now. He told me to lie across his lap and not to fall off again. He held my private parts and... suddenly I was shocked when he began to lash me all over my body with his leather real hard and between the legs with his hand. In Newfoundland, the Earle brothers’ claims of physical and sexual abuse at the Mount Cashel orphanage were substantiated at the Hughes Royal Commission. Nine orphanage staff were subsequently convicted of sexual offences against minors; seven more are facing similar charges.The Earles testified that that they were beaten regularly on their bare buttocks for breaking minor rules: ‘If you were to be punished, you’d have your pants taken down, you’d be put across somebody’s knee and you’d be punished.’ The boys were often abused sexually in these situations .
The close link between the two modes of abuse is also revealed in the account of ‘Brian’ an inmate of the Salthill, Galway Industrial School from the mid-1960s to the early 1970s. ‘Brian’ recalled that his Grade IV Primary teacher thrashed him with a strap one day in response to his dim answer to a maths question, but later took down the boy’s trousers and groped his genitals .
In addition to this illegal behaviour, there were non-punitive routines which were not viewed as abusive but which tended to blur the boundaries between acceptable and inappropriate behaviour. These were the regular health and cleanliness checks to which there are many references in the memoirs and government reports, such as that from St. Augustine’s Orphanage, Geelong, Victoria during the 1950s.
At this Australian institution the boys lined up for their daily showers naked in serried files. One former resident told an Oral History Project researcher of the stunned look of a new superintendent when he saw the boys preparing for showers . A short time later, dressing gowns were purchased for each boy. Such an intrusive attitude was not unique to one type of institution; it was common across the residential care world. Jane Rose referred to the regular inspections after daily or weekly showers at a contemporary Barnardo’s Home: ‘After showers the boys lined up naked with their hands about their heads for the inspection of the duty officer’ .
In retrospect and with hindsight, some former residents have described these rituals as sexually abusive . This is not the point of view in this article; rather it is argued that these routines involving nudity in the congregate care institutions blurred the boundaries between acceptable behaviour and abuse. They made abuses more likely. The boundaries became fudged; an almost careless abusiveness could result. In 1992, a former Canadian Christian Brother was convicted for the following offence: ‘Brother Recker was guilty of assault for flicking the end of a wet towel into a boy’s naked buttock...on several occasions Recker snapped his naked buttock so hard that blood was drawn.’ .
An atmosphere of severity and widespread physical abuse combined with a tradition of regular enforced periods of nudity all encouraged sexual abuse of inmates. The evidence for the abuse is irrefutable. Severity, violence, physical abuse, sexual abuse; these were on a continuum. The more severe the regimen the more likely the prevalence of sexual abuse. This being so, it is reasonable to explore the reasons why the institutions were such violent places. This is the focus of the following sections.
Abuse was not peculiar to Church-managed residential care; the Catholic Brotherhoods did not invent corporal punishment or pioneer sexual abuse of children. On the contrary, the general quality of traditional care tended to be similar - not identical - across the board. Hendrick, in his major history of child welfare in England, described residential care over the past century in these words: Inmates were abused regularly...their bodies were both casually and systematically beaten. There was little difference between reformatories and industrial schools. Both ran regimes founded on strict discipline and hard work with brutal punishments, Spartan diets and austere living conditions.The Christian Brothers were part of this care world, but a distinctive part. Moreover, there was a caring side in all these homes. They provided at a basic level for the children’s education and maintenance at a time when society generally did not care much what happened to young people who were at-risk. State resources provided for them were low and intended to provide only a modest standard of living approximate to that of the lowest levels of the working class from which most of the children came.
In this social climate, mainstream society was largely indifferent to the well-being of ‘orphans’ either of the living or the dead. Illegitimate, abandoned children and unruly lower class youth were treated with disdain. There was a stigma attached to being a child in care . The ‘orphan’ was often an illegitimate child and, until World War II, illegitimacy cast a slur on mother and child. The unmarried working-class mother and her offspring had a bleak and difficult time wherever they lived . Such a young woman was often forced to surrender her child to an institution. The stated objective of the London Foundling Hospital gives something of the prevailing attitude: To give such a woman who has fallen into sin and is desirous of escaping from its practice and degradation, an opportunity of hiding her shame by receiving her infant and thus removing the evidence of her disgrace.Official attitudes were punitive and patronising. Derek O’Brien, one of the former state wards who pioneered the civil action against the government and Catholic Church in Newfoundland, summed up his years in foster care: ‘We didn’t matter’ . Class was a key factor in the whole business. Another of the men prominent among the Mount Cashel survivors remembered his school days: ‘We were treated a lot different from the other students’ .
It was against a cold, insensitive, punitive background that the philanthropic and Church-based personnel attempted to do something for the neglected, abused and delinquent children. The carers were deemed ‘fit people’; their institutions ‘the places of safety’ to which the children were confined. Sometimes they proved themselves to be so; in other cases not. The key factor was staffing.
The phenomenon of the abusive culture in residential care demands explanations. The institutions were filled with large numbers of boisterous youngsters and teenagers, all left to the care of relatively few staff, none of whom were trained professionally for child care. The harassed staff readily resorted to corporal punishment as the only control mechanism they knew - aware that this form of discipline was legally and socially sanctioned. However, the boundary between acceptable punishment and abuse was vague and ambiguous. The staff priority was to maintain a smooth routine. They knew that many of the children were hard to like and often difficult to manage. Many had chaotic backgrounds and some of the children were disturbed. There were few resources for the children’s education or entertainment. As a result, the institutions tended to be stressful places.
It was not until the 1960s, earlier in some places, later in others, that the need for professional training for child care staff was recognised widely . In itself, professional training would provide no guarantee that a potential carer with paedophile inclinations would not take advantage of the children in his or her care. However, staff trained to accepted standards of practice would reduce stress which often contributed to the abuse and the training process provides opportunities for identifying those unsuited temperamentally to care for children.
Many children’s institutions worldwide were under the management of religious and charitable organisations such as the Christian Brothers and in these places a related problem was common: the tendency of the charities to place some of their least qualified members on the staffs of the children’s homes; sometimes former orphanage residents themselves were sent to work there. This was so especially where the Religious Orders managed a range of educational activities which included prestige colleges and elite rural boarding schools. The Orders reflected society’s priorities and these schools drew the best staffing which they could afford.
Understandably, a stereotype of ‘THE Christian Brother’ (or of the ‘THE Sister of Mercy’) has developed. Yet within the Religious Orders at the time under discussion, there was a difference between ‘teaching Brothers’ and ‘lay Brothers’, between ‘choir Sisters’ and ‘lay Sisters’ and the level of training accorded to each. Lay Brothers were intended for farm work or kitchen duties; lay Sisters for domestic work. Usually the skills they possessed were acquired prior to entry or were learned on the job, while the ‘choir Sisters’ or ‘teaching Brothers’ were trained for teaching or nursing according to contemporary standards. Yet it was often the lay Brothers or lay Sisters who formed the majorities of the staffs of the institutions.
It was easy in such a situation for lay Brothers or lay Sisters to be treated with some disdain by the more qualified teaching staff, or to imagine that they were. The anger that this caused could be projected onto the children. In addition, many Brothers came from homes where they had experienced great physical hardship.
It proved a link hard to break; the least qualified in the Religious Orders gravitated to work in the child care institutions. In addition, before the Brotherhoods established specialist homes for their own members, old, sick, odd and mentally unstable members were commonly ‘hidden’ in institution communities. Brothers or Sisters who worked long years ‘on the orphanage circuit’ had low status within their Congregations.
In part, this staffing problem in Brothers institutions represented a specific case of a general problem in traditional child care. In 1946, the seminal report of the Curtis Committee, United Kingdom, deplored ‘a widespread shortage of the right kind of staff, personally qualified and professionally trained to provide the child with a substitute for a home background.’ The report found that the under-staffing and unattractiveness of residential care was due to poor salaries, poor accommodation and unsocial hours. Staff turnover was rapid, preventing children from establishing solid, permanent relationships. It was near impossible to provide satisfactory care .
The recruitment problems and at times, management’s desperate reliance on available help, led to an attitude which encouraged abuse and provided a cover for abusive carers. These attitudes included a quasi-martyr mood among staff who persevered, who were available - ‘in the front line’ - day after day. This mood said, in essence, that carers deserved every consideration and the little privileges they enjoyed - such as separate dining facilities and better food - because they were sacrificing so much for the deprived children. At one level, this was no more than harmless indulgence, but it had a negative side.
This darker side covered inappropriate behaviour by staff members which could be rationalised and excused by the fact that ‘their work was so hard, their hours so long and their contribution to the cause so great’ that unsatisfactory behaviour was trivial by comparison. With this martyr self-perception it was not far to more sinister attitudes of excusing destructive behaviour and illegality. In the minds of those staff who saw themselves as giving so much, there was a tendency to forgive their own negative conduct and that of their colleagues .
There are other ways of understanding the high level of violence within the fabric of day-to-day life in traditional care. This explanation concerns the situational factors - the carers own problems projected on to the residents. Often the staff were almost as deprived as the young people for whom they were caring . In fact, some had been raised in institutions themselves. They had a sparse, sometimes miserable life and projected their frustrations on to the children. The circumstances which had impoverished their lives are well-known. Most carers had been born, reared and educated through one or other World Wars and a great depression, commonly from deprived backgrounds. In their early years they experienced tough training, some professional preparation for their work and a low standard of living . Their own lives were sparse.
In the case of the Catholic Brotherhoods: while their vows, first taken in late adolescence, had to be confirmed as mature adults, there were all sorts of psychological gaps in their preparation for the demands of Religious Life. In a recent article in the Irish Times Patrick Touher commented on these issues:Hundreds of parents, particularly in rural Ireland, promised their sons at any early age to the religious orders such as the Christian Brothers, often against their sons own wills. Many parents used the Christian Brothers to get a cheap education for their sons, pledging that they would enter the order. Many of these men who were forced into the order became frustrated. Their frustration, born of boredom and celibacy, was released in anger against the boys. To these men celibacy was like drip-feeding a caged tiger.Touher is writing of the Irish scene as he remembers it. In Australia, one former Brother, convicted of sexual abuse, said to his psychiatrist: ‘Training was so restrictive that something had to give. My peers from my school days were exploding with energy, going out, socialising, going to movies and dances and having healthy outlets for their (sexual) urges. I had none of these opportunites. My outlet unfortunately became misguided’ .
Moreover, the young staff, coming in the main from working class backgrounds, had acquired certain attitudes towards severity in child rearing. This is the classic social psychology explanation for child abuse. The father/mother uses violence; the victim learns to imitate the aggressive behaviour. Severe parenting in the home commonly has an impact upon behaviour in adulthood.
In this further explanation for the culture of violence in traditional care, the notion of stress and the capacity of the individual to accommodate tension, are at the heart of physical abuse. In this frustration-aggression hypothesis, when a person is blocked in the pursuit of a goal, s/he will respond aggressively, either inwardly at the source of frustration or displaced on to an innocent target. One of Juanita Miller’s interviewees said of the Christian Brothers staff at St. Joseph’s Farm and Trade School, Bindoon: ‘They were just frustrated sexually...a miserable life themselves...they took it out on the kids.’ There is some truth in this assessment .
There is a variation of the frustration-aggression thesis which can also be mentioned: i.e. that caring for the young people was stressful and their behaviour was often frustrating. This is the era before professional training and anger-management courses. Caring for deprived, and sometimes seriously disturbed children was unusually challenging.
Some staff, untrained for child care, approached their duties with idealism and dedication. This high motivation was challenged severely by numerous physical and psychological assaults made on their well-being and self-esteem by the children. Upon entering the tasks, religious men tended to perceive themselves as helpful, concerned persons whom the children and society would value. By contrast, the staff were sometimes confronted by abusive teenagers, messy and aggressive children and a community which responded only on special occasions. The nobility of caring work foundered. For some it was a myth.
The children’s chaotic behaviour was sometimes confronted in an inappropriate way - with verbal and physical abuse. Many orphanage memoirs portray vividly the stressful behaviour of some of the residents. Suffer Little Children is one of these. O’Brien does not shy from portraying the aggravating behaviour of the teenagers at Mount Cashel (including himself): ‘The boys were cruel enough...stealing was a common activity for most of us...stealing also from one another...boy-on-boy sexual activity, some of it predatory...the furtive drinking’ . In view of this, some of the severe behaviour for which the Brothers’ institution is notorious was an inappropriate over-reaction by ill-prepared staff to the extreme and unacceptable behaviour of some of the residents. This was not the whole story; nor does it account for the sexual abuse.
In the case of physical severity there was also another sub-cultural dimension. The mere existence of residential care showed that working class life had failed and, in addition, the care values involved a cultural assault on cherished working class mores. Some children were likely to resist the imposition of alien values accompanied by ‘the disapproving glance’ and the staff were likely to respond with force.
It is worth recalling and stressing that until the mid-twentieth century, child welfare was essentially to protect society from the depredations of idle, disaffected, unemployed, poverty-stricken children and young people; only secondarily was child welfare focussed on the welfare of the children, which was important to some carers. The deprived or neglected or delinquent child was viewed as a natural recruit for the ‘dangerous classes’ who were believed to pose a threat to the respectable.
Each industrial school, farm school, orphanage and reformatory was a ‘total institution’ where staff sought a complete regulation of the daily life of each inmate with the objective of remoulding the personality. The institutions shared a common aim: they wished to make respectable working class adults from rough working class youth. They wished to recast the proletarian family; to reform the improvident working class culture; and to tame the undisciplined behaviour of its young people .
Institution staff has been characterised - uncharitably - as ‘the devoted, the dull and the deviant’. Many institution staff did care for the well-being of the children. Derek O’Brien may have been critical of the quality of life at the Mount Cashel orphanage during the 1970s: the sparse standard of living, the undercurrent of violence, the all-too-common experience of sexual abuse for some inmates. However, some of his account belies the dark side of the institution which his autobiography was intended to explore. At one point he remarked: ‘As rough as orphanage life could be, in many ways it was an improvement over what I’d come from.’ What O’Brien had left was a chaotic family home and abusive foster care. He explained: ‘I could watch TV...play in the gym...I had an allowance...a part-time job...There was an indoor pool table...there were special treats and holidays’ . It is clear that Mount Cashel had a caring side; it was not a place of unremitting horror, despite its Belsenesque image. O’Brien hoped to board at the orphanage after his graduation; he was angry when the director would not allow him to remain.
Across the Atlantic, Patrick Touher has explored his industrial school experience in two books and some newspaper articles over recent years. During the 1950s, he was at Artane, managed by the Christian Brothers and he stresses the pervasive brutality. However, his exposé reveals - in passing - the caring side of the hard, sparse life as well: the vast effort required to maintain up to 900 boys fed, clothed and educated against the background of the inadequate resources provided by the State in what was still an impoverished Third World country with scant social welfare provision. Touher recalled the summer holidays: Those of us who were left behind were taken to Portmarnock at the seaside twice a week for a picnic and to the circus and to Croke Park. We had long summer walks. The Brothers encouraged the boys to “let off steam” in the countryside.In addition, there were the regular national and religious celebrations, the visits to major sporting events, games on the school’s playing fields and the weekly films in the hall. All provided some release from the drab, and sometimes violent, daily round.
The asylum was a nineteenth century phenomenon. Traditional care based on large barrack-style institutions, often in pristine rural areas, was intended to provide a safe haven for abandoned, illegitimate, at-risk, lower class youth. The institution was to be a refuge from the sordid environment of the festering urban slums from which the children had been rescued. For some, refuge and a second chance were the realities; for others, the asylum from neglect, abuse and chaotic living was itself a place of terror and degradation. The latter was the experience of W.M. at St. Augustine’s orphanage, Geelong, Victoria during the 1950s: I went upstairs to tidy a Brother’s room. When I got there he was in bed. He asked me to find his alarm clock but I could not find it. All I could see was his erect penis. The Brother then forced me to perform oral sex. It was just sheer rape...I became a loose sack to him.W.M. recalled this incident as the first of many sexual assaults which lasted for more than a year. The fact that the molester was a committed Christian added to the boy’s frustration and the later adult’s bitterness. This was a general phenomenon noticed by Briggs and Hawkins in their recent research: ‘The greatest confusion...related to the abuse by men in religious orders who subjected boys to appalling acts of violence and degradation in the name of God’ .
Explanations for the strange mixture of care, severity and abuse in some church institutions during their last phase has not been addressed seriously by historians. The tentative insights here call for further investigation. In the Boys’ Homes they controlled, the staff saw themselves as part of the solution for the boys’ deprivation. Sometimes as individuals they were; sometimes they aggravated the children’s problems. The institutions were sparse places. What was not realised at the time was that certain forms of physical punishment and certain orphanage routines blurred the boundaries between physical and sexual abuse, making criminal activity more likely. A culture of violence led, almost inexorably, to sexual abuse by some staff. Hence that ‘strange mixture of caring and corruption’ that has been noticed by some commentators when the regimen of these institutions is discussed.
Barry M. Coldrey has written some twenty books and a number of referred articles.
Knight, I.A. Out of Darkness: Growing up with the Christian Brothers, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1998; Blyth, B. In the Shadow of the Cross, P & B Press, Perth, 1997; Flynn, M. Nothing to Say, Ward River Press, Dublin, 1983; Henton, D. and McCann, D. Boys Don’t Cry, McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1995; Mac Laverty, B. Lamb, Penguin, Middlesex, England, 1980; Hughes, S.H. Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Response of the Newfoundland Criminal Justice System to Complaints, Vols. 1 & 2, Queen’s Printer, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1991.
Harris, M. Unholy Orders: Tragedy at Mount Cashel, Viking Penguin, Canada, 1990. O’Brien, D. Suffer Little Children, Breakwater, St. John’s, Newfoundland, 1991.
Starchild, A. ‘The Rape of Youth in Prisons and Juvenile Institutions’, Journal of Psychohistory, Vol. 18. No.2. Autumn 1990, p. 147. See also: Gibson, I. The English Vice: Beating Sex and Shame in Victorian England and After, Duckworth, London, 1992
Johnson, T. The Sexual Dangers of Spanking Children, PTAVE, Alamo, California, 1994, p. 1
Kahan, B. Growing up in Groups, Institute for Social Work Research Unit, HMSO, London, 1994, p. 49.
Laskey, H. Children of the Poor Clares, Appletree Press, Belfast, 1985, p. 145.
Touher, op. cit., p. 29. See also: O’Brien, A. ‘Family tells of Orphanage abuse nightmare’, Irish Independent, 25 December 1995, pp. 1 & 8.
Harris, op. cit., p. 305.
Walshe, J. ‘I feared the beatings more than the sex...’ Irish Independent, 25 March 1996, p. 6.
Maunders, D. ‘Boy One, Statement of Experiences’, Oral History Project (Victoria): Congregate Care Orphanages, Victoria University, Australia, 1994.
Rose, J. For the Sake of the Children, Futura, London, 1969, p. 156. See also: Medical Inspector, 24 November 1943, Akbar Nautical School, MH 102/524, Public Records Office, Kew, London.
Blyth, B. In the Shadow of the Cross, the Story of VOICES, P & B Press, Perth 1997, pp. 26-27.
Mascoll, P. ‘Former Brother guilty of assaults’, Toronto Star, 19 December 1992, p. A6.
Hendrick, H. Child Welfare in England, 1872 - 1989, Routledge, London and New York, 1994, p. 189.
Ferguson, H. ‘Exposing the institutional abuser’, Irish Independent, 25 March 1996, p. 8.
Humphries, S. A Secret World of Sex, Sidgwick and Jackson, London, 1988, p. 87.
Ramsland, J. ‘Cultivating a Respectful and Modest Demeanour: Children of the Foundling, 1800 - 1926’, The London Journal, Vol 18. No. 2 1993, p. 96.
O’Brien, D. Suffer Little Children, Breakwater, St. John’s Newfoundland, 1991, p. 117.
ibid., p. 148.
Holmquist, K. ‘Obsession with sexual morality led to rejection of the children’, The Irish Times, 9 March 1996, p.7.
Younghusband, E. Social Work in Britain, 1950 - 1975. George Allen & Unwin, London, 1978, p. 53.
Miller, J.R. Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools, University of Toronto Press, 1996, pp. 319-320.
This insight was first drawn to my attention by Dr. D. Jaggs, Heidelberg, Victoria, former Government Inspector of Children’s Homes, Victoria and author of a number of volumes on the history of child care in the state.
Morris, J. Moon in my Pocket, Australasian Publishing Co., Sydney, 1946. West, M. A View from the Ridge, Harper Collins, 1996.
Touher, P. ‘How the Christian Brothers image was tarnished’, The Irish Times, 7 October 1996, p. 11; ‘S.X’ ‘Psychiatrist consultation summary...presented as pre-sentencing statement’ Unpublished Mss., 1995, made available to the author. See also: Swain, S. ‘Breaking the hearts of our children’, The Age (Melbourne), 13 May 1997, p. 11.
Miller, J.K. ‘To whom do I turn ? A Study of Institution Child Abuse’ Thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts (Honours in Psychology), Murdoch University, Western Australia, 1992, p. 222.
O’Brien, op. cit., pp. 111 - 113.
Mahood, L. Policing Gender, Class and Family, UCL Press, London, 1997, pp. 91 - 99. See also: Mahood, L. and Littlewood, B. ‘The “Vicious Girl” and the “Street-Corner Boy”: Sexuality and the Gendered Delinquent in the Scottish Child-Saving Movement, 1850 - 1940’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, University of Chicago, Vol. 4. No 4. April 1994, p. 549.
O’Brien, op. cit., p. 148.
Touher, P. Fear of the Collar, O’Brien Press, Dublin, p. 90
Sutton, M. 'Orphanage from hell', Border Mail, Albury, NSW, 18 June 1993, p. 3.
Briggs, F. and Hawkins, R. ‘A Comparison of the childhood experiences of male child molesters and men who were abused sexually in childhood and claimed to be non-offenders’, Child Abuse and Neglect, Vol. 20 No 3. 1996, p. 221.