wellbeing foundation
depression button panic button elation button suicide button events button contact button





Front Page

.............................

ECT

Medication

Bullying

Sexual Abuse

Physical Disability

.............................

First Aid

Resources

Therapies

.............................

News

Vantage Point

Drug Stories

Young People
Poetry

.............................

About us

Contact

Register

Next Meeting

Privacy

.............................


Sexual abuse: eclipse of the soul

The trauma of childhood sexual abuse is almost incomprehensible. Here, Michael Corry and Aine Tubridy explain some of the consequences

 

 

I've come to realise that sexual assault is an imposed death experience for the victim. That is, the victim experiences her life as having been taken by someone else.
— Evangeline Kane

 

The emerging self, with its inherent potential, needs to be protected, and like a seedling, nurtured in fertile ground. Sexual abuse, like no other trauma, eclipses this natural unfolding with an impact of such magnitude that is rarely appreciated. Upwards of 150,000 adult women and men in Ireland have experienced statutory rape in childhood. Five times that figure experienced other forms of sexual abuse, ranging from inappropriate touching to the forced witnessing of exposure.

Picture an infant, whose window on the world is the rim of their cot, whose cry or smile elicits the unqualified unconditional attention of her mother and father, their watchful eyes holding her gaze completely, making her feel for those moments, the absolute centre of the world. In the infant's tiny mind an inner knowing is forming ‘I am the reason this is happening'.
Sex abuseNow fast forward to a time when the same apparently loving father is gradually beginning to express his ‘love' in a sexual manner, involving her in sex games which evolve over time into full sexual intimacy such as that shared by consenting adults. Her protestations are mollified, her cooperation validated and her secrecy rewarded. Variations of this premature sexualisation occur. Not for some fathers the process of seduction, but rather sadistic, brutal intercourse, instilling terror and pain, where every orifice is violated. She has no escape. Drunk or sober, day or night, he has access to her. Her reason for living has been reduced to being a sexual object, a sex slave. Once again, and in both examples of fathers, the belief holds ‘I am the reason this is happening'. The same interpretation will be formed if the attentions are those of a grandfather, uncle, sibling, neighbour or babysitter.

Fast forward again. She is now a teenager, perhaps at this stage no longer being actively abused. She now lives a secret life, besieged by guilt, shame, depression and self-loathing. School life becomes meaningless. Recreational drugs and alcohol bring anaesthesia. Suicide, the ultimate escape, is always on the agenda.

Frequently, early sexual abuse can be of such overwhelming intensity that the immature mind buries it beyond awareness, in the deepest recesses of the unconscious. However, this powerful energy cannot be fully sealed off. The mental turmoil within may see her engaging in complex obsessive-compulsive thoughts and rituals — hours scrubbing her body in the shower, frequently washing and changing her clothes, engaging in checking routines and endless mental scrabble, without knowing why. The imposition of order and self-discipline quells her anxiety. She may withhold food through calorie counting and starvation rituals, and engage in self-mutilation practices for release of tension, the pain and the sight of blood reminding her that she's alive.

In adult life, abuse may surface as depression. It is depressing to have intimacy problems, to fear touch, to feel confused about sexual identity, to repress and feel shame of the self as a sexual being. It is depressing to be haunted by images and sensations that she can't explain; such as feelings of stubble against her face, the pressure of body parts against hers, and the pervasive smell of alcohol and sweat. Over the years she comes to loathe and despise herself for these peculiarities, holding her personality responsible. Why wouldn't she? There doesn't seem to be any other explanation. ‘It must be me, I must have a sick mind'.

 

God's rapists

Boys do not escape. Those who were incarcerated in industrial schools have borne witness to this. Many were exposed to regimes of unbridled rape and violence which lasted for years, at the hands of sadistic sexual perverts answerable to no one. Their threats of unspeakable violence ensured availability and silence. The majority of survivors — their chance of a normal life diminished from the beginning, with their lives totally derailed, and their humanity denied — learned to place no value on themselves. They drifted from one crisis to another, their past littered with criminal behaviour, prison records, substance abuse, dysfunctional relationships, mistrust of authority, and family breakdown. Powerless to bring stability to their lives, many suffered later from depression and other serious psychiatric disorders, beginning a life-long relationship with psychiatric hospitals.

The greatest tragedy of all is that these people feel robbed, not just of their innocence, but of their inner light, as if their very soul has been taken away. We have worked not just with survivors of abuse in the industrial schools but also with those who fell victim to the predatory behaviour of priests in certain boarding schools, priests who lured them in, on the basis that they were intelligent, ‘special' boys with spiritual potential, needing guidance with their sexuality. The ‘guidance' offered was, in fact, a gradual seduction process, which commenced with the exploration of things sexual, stimulating their curiosity, providing skewed answers and finally grooming them towards the acceptance of mutual touching, masturbation, and penetrative sex. To this day, married or single, many are haunted by flashbacks of their abuser's body odour, the very touch of their fingers, the sound of their voice, and the image of their presence. The experience was encoded not just in consciousness but in cellular memory, where it can be triggered into life and relived in an instant, such as, paradoxically, during sexual intimacy with their partner, when the image of the first seductions by their abuser intrudes, causing avoidance and sexual dysfunction.

 

Soul healing

The sexually abused are truly the walking wounded, living out private hells, their lives irreparably shaped by the experience. Behind the mask of many a so-called ‘biological' or ‘clinical' depression lies a history of sexual trauma which cannot be dissipated by a pill or a course of electric shock treatment. This is the domain of psychotherapy, and the painful process of peeling back the layers of trauma within a psychotherapeutic relationship, so that they can be truly seen, verbalised and integrated, is a lengthy one, sometimes without any satisfactory resolution, so all-pervasive is the damage.

To compound matters, there are numerous and formidable barriers put in the path of the abused in their quest for recognition, the result of which is to protect the perpetrators, minimise the extent of the abuse, and its life-long and far-reaching effects. This denial and disbelief not only re-traumatises victims and blocks restorative justice, but also impedes their healing process. Another more subtle obstruction to this healing is the failure on the part of doctors in so many cases to link depression with trauma of this kind, diagnosing it as a ‘new' illness, the treatment of which bears no witness to its root cause.

 

Deirdre, a 32-year-old mother of two and also a teacher, was obsessively washing her hands from the age of eleven. In addition, she repeatedly machine-washed bed linen, underwear and night-dresses. If they weren't cleaned to her satisfaction she would hand-scrub them. This practice of washing and re-washing consumed most of her spare time. She spent all her breaks during the school day washing her hands, often dozens of times.

Early on in her marriage there were sexual problems. She discouraged sexual touching by her husband and intermittently suffered from vaginismus, feeling such intense pain on penetration that intercourse was virtually impossible, and could only be entertained in an alcohol-induced altered state. The arrival of children put her under more time pressure, with not enough time to satisfy her compulsion to wash.

Following her promotion to school vice-principal, her new duties gave her less and less time for her obsession, and her anxiety levels escalated as she tried to catch up with the clothes-washing at the weekends. The more she tried to stop her compulsion, the more panicky and out of control she felt. Beginning to lose sleep, she became irritable and depressed, sometimes having to suppress the urge to weep during class. Not knowing what to do, she sought the help of a psychotherapist. After a number of consultations the psychotherapist broached the subject of possible sexual abuse. Even though she had no clear memories of any abuse, she found the question deeply unsettled her and she began experiencing disturbing dreams from her childhood where there was a male, menacing presence.

She tracked down a much older sister, who had left home and severed all connections with the family. Her sister reluctantly confirmed that she had been sexually abused by their father. This was her worst fear, and she began experiencing flashbacks of her father having sex with her. It emerged that following the death of her mother when she was five, her father started sexually abusing her and her sister and continued until he began another relationship and married when she was eleven. The memories began to flood in: getting out of bed after her father had left her bedroom, and repeatedly scrubbing her hands and body in the hottest shower possible. When the abuse stopped, her cleansing ritual became confined to her hands only. In later consultations she realised she had been harbouring intense feelings of guilt and shame, always having felt that her body was constantly soiled and dirty. When she had actually made the link between her obsession and the sexual abuse, she was able to see that the repeated washing represented, in symbolic terms, a cleansing process.

The need to wash became less and less, and as the tension inside subsided she felt less trapped by her obsessive behaviours, which had been ruling her life, and the accompanying depression slowly dissipated. Determined to leave the legacy of the abuse behind, she began to repair the havoc wreaked on her relationship. In psychosexual therapy with her husband, she learned for the first time to establish a personal boundary, an experience which had been denied her by the invasiveness of the abuse, stimulating her erogenous zones prematurely.

Such was her confusion following the abuse that Deirdre had always experienced difficulties sorting out the conflicting messages her body sent her, finding it difficult to manage pleasurable influences coming in from the outside and to distinguish them from painful ones. Having felt betrayed by her body, she had instead decided to ignore its signals altogether. Together they embarked on the long, tortuous road towards fostering normal sexual intimacy.

 

David, a forty-eight-year-old accountant and father of a thirteen-year-old girl, began being abused at boarding school at the age of twelve, by a visiting priest who conducted the school retreats. He encouraged boys to come to him to have their confession heard in the parlour. When David went, Fr Sebastian was sitting in a chair in front of a fire and David was asked to kneel on the floor beside him. The ‘confession' took the form of a discussion about how David felt he was maturing as a young man, and whether or not he had experienced erections or wet dreams.

Fr Sebastian used the opportunity to elaborate explicitly the facts of life, explaining penetration and ejaculation in detail. He reached over and felt David's penis, which he noted to be erect, and invited him to open his fly to allow him to feel ‘more comfortable'. Then Fr Sebastian commented on his ‘manliness' and suggested that he would instruct him as to its primary purpose, that of ejaculation. David, who had never ejaculated before, did so when Fr Sebastian started masturbating him.

Fr Sebastian then lifted up his robes, revealing his own genitalia, inviting David to masturbate him, in order to check whether he had learned how to do it effectively. He told him before he left that he would be regularly visiting the school and would take a personal interest in his development, because he was a very mature and spiritual boy.

Each time Fr Sebastian visited the school, David was called to have his confession heard and his ‘spiritual progress' monitored. On every occasion detailed conversations about sexual matters preceded mutual masturbation. On one occasion, to his surprise, there was one other boy already present in the parlour. Fr Sebastian showed them photographs of a group of boys of a similar age engaging in oral sex, and told them that the time had come for the next stage of their ‘sexual education' to begin. He assuaged any feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment the boys had, with reassurances that what they were engaging in was the fostering of an attitude of openness between them, as ‘dropping inhibitions' was a healthy development in young boys. He then asked them to perform oral sex on him also. He bound them to secrecy on the basis that there were certain private details which were ‘sacred' and were best kept within the confines of the sacrament of confession. The abuse continued for two years, and the visits to the parlour stopped when Fr Sebastian no longer sought him out for ‘spiritual direction'.

 

On leaving school, David went to college and was plagued by doubts as to his sexual orientation. He drank heavily and experimented with bisexuality. In later years, on falling in love with a female colleague, he got married. Initially their intimate life was mutually pleasurable and fulfilling, but with time he found himself having to draw on the sexual imagery of his encounters with Fr Sebastian in order to become aroused. He gradually began to avoid intimacy and used the excuse of his wife's pregnancy to justify this. After years of avoidance, by which stage they were virtually celibate, his wife became distressed enough to seek out psychosexual counselling. During one consultation David broke down, revealing the torment of the last number of years and his sexual history with Fr Sebastian. He explained that he had been having such vivid and real flashbacks that he was finding himself swept along in a sensual and kinaesthetic experience. These could occur at any time, usually when he was under stress, and he often had to resort to alcohol to lessen his anxiety. Nonetheless they continued to break through. During the flashbacks he could literally smell Fr Sebastian's body odour, taste his sperm, and feel the touch of his hands on his genitalia. Terrified, he thought he was going mad, and considered suicide on a number of occasions.

David somehow managed to keep his life afloat and his marriage and job intact. He feels Fr Sebastian robbed him of his innocence, his sexuality and his fundamental human right to fulfil his potential. He continues in psychotherapy and will need such support for the foreseeable future.

 

Peggy, at age eight, was taken from the playground by a local man, brought to a derelict building and brutally raped in the toilets there. Since he used a broken bottle she sustained severe vaginal injuries and spent several months in hospital. With the passing years Peggy became a nervous timid child who never went out, except occasionally in the company of her sisters. She had many nervous habits, among them always needing the front door to be open at night, wanting to sleep downstairs, spending much of the day standing outside in the front garden of the house, and sometimes inexplicably rushing outside in the middle of meals. She would go to the local pub only if she could get a lift or a taxi, but would never go by foot.

Her husband was her first and only boyfriend (‘I could trust him'), and she had four children. During sex she said she would ‘space out' until it was over, and gave it up once they had completed their family. All the family thought Peggy was odd and somewhat stupid, with all her strange habits that she refused to discuss. The relationship with her husband was not tranquil, as he would lose his patience with her frequently and shout at her with a raised voice. After these episodes she would be nervous for days, and experienced frequent bouts of depression for which she had been prescribed antidepressants over the years.

At the age of 52, following a minor car accident in which the other driver got out of his car and began shouting loudly at her, she became hysterical and had a severe panic attack which resulted in her being brought to the local casualty department. Following this she was referred to a psychotherapist to whom she confided her fear that the other driver, who was drunk and abusive, was actually about to assault her. Although the accident had shaken her it was fairly minor, and it was obvious even to Peggy that her terror was an over-reaction. When she subsequently developed disturbing nightmares, and when her psychotherapist became aware that she had in fact been having panic attacks for years, Peggy was instructed in how to control them with abdominal breathing and relaxation techniques.

It was during one such deep relaxation that Peggy got her first insight into the source of her problem. Although she hadn't forgotten the fact that she had been raped, she could not remember many of the details of the experience, and had not made any connection between that and her subsequent panic attacks. She thought that all her odd behaviours were due to the fact that she was stupid. Her mother had blamed her for going off with the man and not having ‘more sense'. It was swept under the carpet and never mentioned by the family. When she turned into such a nervous child, they reasoned that her mental dullness was the cause, which was reinforced by the illogical nature of her behaviours.

On one occasion while practising her relaxation exercise, she could clearly hear (for the first time) her rapist's voice saying to her: ‘Your father sent me to bring you home'. This meant that he must not have been a stranger to her. Other memories which re-emerged included noting that he had worn spats on his shoes, that as he had taken off his shirt she had seen a tattoo on his arm, and that he had smelled strongly of sweat. Remembering that he shouted loudly all the time he was with her, and threatened to kill her if she ever told, she recalled again the terror she felt as he blocked the door to the toilets so that he would not be disturbed. The thought ‘if that door is closed I'm dead' flashed into her mind. Retrieving the images helped piece together many loose ends for Peggy.

The driver of the car which had crashed into her, had unwittingly brought back several of the elements which had been present during the rape but lost to her memory. Like her original assailant, the driver was drunk and abusive, and she was once again feeling shaken, hurt and in danger. Although unable to process an experience of such traumatic magnitude as a child, the ball was rolling now for her as an adult, and integration of these parts of her history was its agenda.

Her terror of being in a room with a closed door now made sense, as did her need to sleep downstairs — for a quick get-away. Her certainty that her breathing would stop whenever she got frightened resonated with being held by the throat. Since the derelict building in which she'd been raped was on the way to the local pub, she now knew why she refused to pass it on foot, and why she was terrified of any aggression whatsoever on the part of her husband. Most startling for her was the moment she recognised who he was, by the shoes he wore. She knew a man locally who wore spats. He was married to a friend of her mother. All the family knew she feared him, because she would run to her room if he had occasion to come to their house. When his wife died, fifteen-year-old Peggy had adamantly refused to go to the funeral, causing a row at home. Nobody, even Peggy, knew why before now.

Peggy's opinion of herself changed dramatically. From being obese, she lost a lot of weight, became interested in clothes for the first time, and began to venture out to the shops alone. She could stay inside the house now with the doors shut, and would sleep upstairs in the bedroom sometimes. Knowing where her fears came from allowed her to see that she was no longer in any danger as he was now an old man. Most importantly she knew now that none of her reactions were ‘stupid' but of a survival nature and as such highly intelligible, warnings to keep away from certain situations and from him.

Once she was able to see that what had once been a useful survival response had now turned into a life-restricting habit, she had more motivation to uncouple the two. She learned to feel the unpleasant sensations and know that, unlike during the rape, they wouldn't kill her, and that this time she could do something about them.

 

John, a fifty-four-year-old father of two young children from a second relationship, was detained in St Conleth's, Daingean, Co Offaly in June 1965, at age 14, where he remained for two years. Its reputation as a place of unspeakable violence and sexual abuse has been well established. In John's words: ‘Such was the unbridled violence that we were treated as sub-humans. We were regarded as little more than animals. It was a brutal, mindless system. Everyone was ground down to their level. It was an existence beyond redemption. They were totally shameless. All the brothers knew what was going on. They were living their version of a religious heaven while we were struggling in hell.'

He was sexually abused and beaten on a number of occasions, one of which he describes vividly and which haunts him to this day. That night he and another boy were accused of trying to run away.

‘Suddenly Br Fitzpatrick appeared and took me out of bed. He brought me down the marble stairs. At the end of the stairs I could see Br Cummins, a huge man, of over 26 stone. Then I was hit at the back of the head by Br Fitzpatrick, and Cummins started to kick and beat me, both rained down blows on top of me. Then I was told to kneel down on the first step and Fitzpatrick told me to lean forward and place my hands on the step above. When Cummins stood on my fingers, I started to scream with pain. Br Fitzpatrick pulled the night-dress over my head, leaving me completely naked. I started to plead and beg "we were only talking about it, we had never planned to escape, we had never planned to escape".

‘Suddenly I felt this shock going right up to my head. Br Fitzpatrick had hit my backside with a leather strap. I thought I was going to pass out, and kept trying to look over my shoulder to see what was happening next. Fitzpatrick was running towards me and I can still see that face, that look. It was all happening in slow motion. When he hit me I thought I was going to die. Then I saw four brothers standing in the background, and recognised two of them as Sheehy and Gallagher. They were just standing there leering. I knew they were getting off on it. I felt I was worthless, with no bargaining chips left, an object, a thing. I started to pray to God. After the third belt of the strap I passed out. I just wanted death to come. By the time the fourth blow came I was in some kind of a dream. I was numb. I was gone. I was empty.

‘I have no memory of how I got back to bed, I don't know if I was carried up or walked up. I remember none of the other boys came to my assistance. Everybody was hiding under the sheets, no one was talking, everybody was terrified, no one could sleep. Up until that night I felt I was useful, that I had some role as either a slave or a sex toy. But during the beating I realised I had no say in anything. I felt abandoned by God. He did not rescue me because I was nothing. I realised then that I didn't have a present, a future or an afterlife. I had nothing after that.'

Whenever John, in all the years in psychotherapy, refers to this particular beating he starts to sweat, gets to his feet and paces up and down the room. He describes in detail the vivid memories of that night, literally starting to relive the experience, becoming animated and profoundly distressed. After he has gone through the process step by step he sits down exhausted. He usually emphasises ‘It was the night everything was taken away from me, everything. Nothing has given me meaning since that flogging — no job, no children, nothing. They have just helped to fill in the time until I die. I have nothing inside me, no purpose'.

 

The un-integrated experience

Some depressed individuals, such as Deirdre (who also suffered from obsessive-compulsive disorder), who had no conscious memory, and those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, such as Peggy, who had only a fragment of a memory of a traumatic event happening to them, find the cause of their symptoms a mystery.

Frequently, early childhood traumas of a physical or sexual nature remain unhealed. The trauma was never recognised and never treated. At the time of the abuse these children were not developmentally equipped to handle the intensity of such experiences, or to put it into words. Their inability to process the trauma at the time meant that it became sealed off in their unconscious mind, and as such obscured from their awareness. It was nonetheless experienced, stored within their energy field and cellular memory, and years later is often expressed as a physical, emotional or mental symptom.

In childhood these symptoms may include acting-out behaviours, learning disabilities, bed-wetting, truancy, delinquency and other maladjusted behaviours. In adult life they may find expression as depression, psychosomatic disorders, sexual dysfunction, eating disorders, substance abuse, obsessive-compulsive disorders, psychosis, self-mutilation, suicidal behaviours, personality disorders, acts of violence and other serious crimes.

A child's mind explains the reason for events in different ways to an adult's. As to why painful experiences keep on happening to them they will rationalise ‘It must be me. I have to be doing something wrong. I'm bad. That's the only reason something like this could keep happening'. The true reasons cannot be integrated by a child's psyche, as the implications would be too contradictory and disturbing to take in. A loving father abusing his innocent child in such a way could not possibly make sense in a child's mind, which might shatter under such realisations. In order to maintain the father as loving, the child has to interpret him or herself as bad. Wiser to air-spray out such details and keep the illusion that the adults who run your world are trustworthy.

Over the years, traumatised individuals come to loathe and despise themselves for their deficits, holding themselves responsible. Why wouldn't they? There doesn't seem to be anybody else to blame. An intuitive psychotherapist is invaluable in these cases, one who gets a sense of the charge or unseen dynamics underlying the more obvious surface symptom, such as depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder. The wise physician would hold off from prescribing medication in order to facilitate such unconscious material in finding expression. This will never happen if it is sealed off under the influence of the medication, which works on the level of energising behaviour and mood rather than insight. A valuable opportunity is lost.

Those who work with young children who have been sexually abused know the power of art therapy, psychodrama and role-play to assist them in expressing the unspeakable. In order to process unconscious memories they have to first be brought into awareness. This is what is meant by integration of such experiences. How could you make sense of disturbing noises coming from under your floorboards, if no one had ever told you your house had a cellar?

 

Honouring Themis: justice for all?

Pre-Hellenic Greeks personified the natural way, order, or balance of all things as the Goddess Dike, also known as Themis, whose scales, representing balance, are familiar to all as the symbol of right and justice. The Greeks understood that whenever the natural order of Themis was violated the powers of righteous anger, Nemesis, and shame, Aidos, would be invoked, so that wrongs might be righted and the single strand of wrong-doing rewoven back into the web of life, making it whole again.

Aidos represented the sense of reverence for life that holds us back from wrong-doing, and the sense of shame we feel whenever the bonds of trust are broken and personhood is violated. Shame carried a sense of respect for the sacred, and served to remind us that as human beings we can make mistakes, allowing us to acknowledge them, and finally prompting us to remedy them to the best of our abilities.

Formal apologies and efforts to compensate for damage done were essential for the restitution of balance. If efforts to redress the injustice were not forthcoming or, worse, if it was denied outright, Nemesis came into play in the form of righteous anger and punishment. Once again balance was restored and the victim was satisfied that justice had been done, presided over by Themis.

The way the legal system is being manipulated at present, particularly in the case of sexual abuse, the scales of Themis are rarely balanced. Shame now rarely lands, as it is designed to, on the shoulders of those who commit the transgressions. Rejected by the perpetrators, it passes instead on to those treated shamelessly, the victims who already harbour Nemesis, satisfying Themis' need for balance. Psychotherapists working with victims towards healing the wounds of sexual abuse will attest to the profound depth of their sense of self-loathing, shame and disgust. Although intellectually understanding that as a child, with no control or choice in the situation, fault should not be placed at their door, they do it nonetheless. It's as if by having been a participant in the act at all, they must pass judgement on themselves, for what individual with any decency would not? Deirdre cannot make herself clean enough. Even Peggy holds it against herself for it occurring at all. ‘What made me go with him?' she would repeat over and over, unable to understand how she wasn't in some way at fault.

The experience of profound shame is excruciating, so unbearable that we usually develop ways to compensate and defend ourselves. We disown parts of ourselves — our needs, emotions, or perceptions that were painfully exposed in shaming incidents — and cultivate false selves to protect ourselves and please others. In so doing, we lose the ability to validate our own experience and to relate compassionately to ourselves, and we come to rely on external standards of performance to guide our actions in order to gauge whether we are a good person or not.

The present judicial system, believing itself to be an agent of justice, is not fulfilling many of the requirements of Themis for balance. If hearings such as occur in the Residential Institutions Redress Board are not held in public, but in secrecy, this negates another basic need of the victim, that of their own vindication, which is only possible by the wrongdoers' demonstrable acceptance of responsibility in the eyes of the whole community. Victims like John are horrified at the thought that their stories will be left untold, their sufferings forgotten and trivialised. With their abusers shielded, the political system having washed their hands of them, and the legal system going for the most expedient route, their distress is never given validity.

 

Collusion: secrets and lies


'What I say is ‘just' or ‘right', means nothing but what is in the interest of
the strongest party.

— Plato

 

In a society such as ours, we stridently refuse to face the hideous imperfections and failings of our judicial system with respect to the sexually abused. They feel abandoned by the political process and unprotected by the legal system. They will never feel exonerated and they will bring their sense of injustice, pain and suffering to the grave, punished so that the rest of us feel exonerated and the communal mores can be maintained, justified and reinforced. Shamelessness, arrogance, deceit and moralising thrives at the highest level and the ultimate authority is power, money, reputation, and respectability.

In spite of the uncovering of the miasma of sexual abuse in Irish society, with its unwholesome and foreboding stench polluting and affecting us all, attempts are still being made to cover it up again, and deny the extent of its existence and the depth of the trauma caused. Every possible legal mechanism is brought into play to prevent the constitutional right of every individual to have their case heard in the courts, in front of their community, where society can bear witness to it. This primitive instinctual need is a universal archetype recognised in all societies.

Religious orders, with their huge financial resources, will stop at nothing to protect their members who have abused. Their strategies are endless — delaying tactics, legal loopholes, mountains of paperwork, judicial reviews, appeals to the Supreme Court, anything to put off the day they take responsibility for their shameful acts. Many victims are left dumbfounded and re-traumatised when their case is overturned by the highest court in the land. The religious legal machine, with its highly paid solicitors and barristers, is well versed in manoeuvring through plans A, B and C, to protect its members from ever appearing in court. They happily sit down with the victim's legal team, as they did with David's, and through back-door settlements negotiate a satisfactory outcome, one which is to their own advantage, and which ultimately buys silence. For the victim the atmosphere of such negotiations is one of fear, intimidation, bullying, time-urgency and a tissue of half-truths. The victim's own legal team will tell them, as his did, ‘You don't have a case, there's no guarantee you'll win, your name will appear in the papers, the costs are going to be prohibitive, the judges are not sympathetic, this could take years to get heard, if you win they'll appeal to the Supreme Court' — anything to discourage them from proceeding.

Many victims of abuse feel that their ‘own side' has betrayed and abused them. Justice is no longer a principle within such interactions, only a means of professionals earning their living, their clients pawns in their daily game-playing of one-up-manship and out-manoeuvering. The only game in town where win, lose or draw, all the players — except the victim — go home with their pockets filled. Tragically they are supported in this effort by ‘expert' psychiatrists who will ruthlessly minimise the trauma suffered by the abused individual, some even going so far as to state that the abuse ‘never happened at all' by calling it a false memory, a fiction, presumably contrived by unscrupulous individuals to extort money.

The Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is virtually a black hole where sexual abuse cases seem to disappear, some taking years to be processed. This ineptitude in acting swiftly causes unnecessary suffering for victims, and strengthens the hands of those protecting abusers. These time delays are themselves being used to justify cases being overturned due to the ‘age' or ‘infirmity' of the abuser.

One of the greatest abuses perpetrated against the victims of sexual abuse in religious-run residential institutions was the setting up of the Residential Institutions Redress Board in 2002, the result of an agreement between the Church and the state. Not being a court, it is held in secret, away from the eyes of the community, and no perpetrator of a crime is ever sentenced to a punishment. Justice for the victim is not the purpose, only financial compensation, which is capped to a maximum of €300,000. To date the average award paid out to 2,555 victims has been €78,000. The award is dependent on them signing a secrecy agreement. If the victims disclose the amount awarded, they can be fined up to €3,000 and can face a summery jail sentence of six months. After a second disclosure, they face a fine not exceeding €25,000 and a two year jail sentence.

One victim used this analogy: "An adult — man or woman — abuses a child. It is their ‘secret'. To make sure the ‘secret' is kept, the adult will give the child money or sweets. They buy silence. By making secrecy a condition upon payment, the board is doing exactly what an abuser does to a child."

The Redress Board is a virtual goldmine for solicitors who have, to date, been paid €9 million in legal costs for representing victims. Since there are thousands more waiting to have their cases heard, their fees may finally be greater than the original estimate of total compensation costs agreed by the government when it signed its €127 million indemnity deal on 5 July 2002 with the 18 religious orders involved in the scandal. The state was hoodwinked, as the total projected costs are now estimated at €800 million.

The original abuse perpetrated against the victims goes on and on, in a continued atmosphere of fear, secrecy, lack of control, bullying and betrayal. These victims who were incarcerated in Dickensian environments through the children's courts, for the most trivial of reasons such as truancy and petty theft, were the most underprivileged and vulnerable of our society. The Lyons brothers, James and Gerard, were sentenced in 1963, aged 12 and 14, for trespassing in a deserted building while catching wild pigeons to keep in their loft at home. They were each detained until the age of 16 in two industrial schools, Upton and Letterfrack. They were used and abused, and like so many of their peers remain to this day in emotional turmoil.

Others committed no crime at all, except to find themselves orphans or the offspring of parents designated ‘unfit' on the word of the local parish priest. Paddy Doyle, the author of The God Squad, was sentenced in a District Court to be detained in an industrial school for eleven years. He was four years old. His crime: his mother died from cancer in 1955, and his father committed suicide shortly afterwards. He was sexually abused, viciously assaulted, all of which culminated in questionable brain surgery, contributing to serious permanent disability. His book gives an inner voice account of his horrifying experience, and will stand as testament to the lack of protection, interest and compassion, shown not just by his carers, but by Irish society as a whole.

The sexually and physically abused are still being treated as having no value, and the blind eye approach to their pain and suffering continues. This hideous legal circus, the Redress Board, that they have been channelled towards, is a crime against humanity. Inevitably one can only hope that its unconstitutional nature will be revealed, leading to its abolition, to be replaced by an open forum where the victim is not only properly compensated monetarily, but where they can have their perpetrators named and the scales of justice balanced.

 

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
— Martin Luther King

 


More on abuse

 

Secrecy, exclusion and gagging orders

The skewed view of evidence at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse pales in significance compared to the activities of the Residential Institutions Redress Board. A place of secrecy, exclusion and bewilderment, as Michael Corry described it
Read more arrowback

Why I can't speak about it
Paddy Doyle on the Residential Institutions Redress Board.
Read more arrowback