10 August 2000 Edition

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Childhood betrayed

Institutional abuse victim demands justice


In the 1940s, John Prior was sent to St Joseph's of Tralee by the ISPCC, never to be checked upon again. He was two years old when he entered the institutional home for boys and did not leave until he was 16, making him the longest person ever to stay there.

As he reflects back on the home, comparing it to a prison, it is not hard to understand why he isn't very proud of his record stay at St Joseph's. ``The abuse there was terrible,'' he says, speaking of incidents that would sicken a grown man but had become part of his and the other children's daily lives by the age of five. ``There wasn't a day that would go by where you wouldn't be hit.''

When he was 15, John says he witnessed a boy of the same age being kicked to death by the Christian Brothers for not indulging himself in his supper of bread and water. This was enough to change John Prior's belief in the Church for which the Brothers were supposedly acting, but unfortunately, it was only one in a long line of abusive actions that made his childhood a misery and will affect his life forever.

The Act of Confession was a joke for John and his fellow institutional victims. What was said to the priest in that supposedly unbreakable confidential sacrament was relayed straight back to the Brothers who, although not needing an excuse to beat the vulnerable children, found further reason to `put manners' on them.

A couple of years ago, John and two other victims of the abuse in St Joseph's decided to go public about what had happened to them in their childhood. They were to be the first to expose the institutional abuse by the Christian Brothers. When one of the three committed suicide, the pressure of discussing such horrendous details in public eye having taken its toll, John Prior went all out and helped the nation understand what really happened behind the closed doors of such institutions like St Joseph's. He appeared on the RTÉ documentary `States of Fear'.

After that programme was aired, the Christian Brothers put an apology in the national press for what went on in their institutions. But John Prior is sceptical: ``They are not sorry for what they did, but they are sorry they were caught.''

Then, along with his apology on behalf of the state, Bertie Ahern announced that a Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse would be set up to investigate and bring to justice the perpetrators of these disgraceful crimes.

The commission was set up last year, consisting of a chairperson and five ordinary members. One of those `ordinary members', Bob Lewis, recently resigned from the committee, as a school in England with which he was involved was to be investigated for similar crimes.

Consequently, John Prior wonders about the amount of effort that was put into appointing the committee members. Justice Mary Laffoy stated that she had had no experience with child abuse cases either as a barrister or as a judge, but she was given the role of chairperson. ``If we do not have 100% belief in the Commission, we have nothing,'' says John.

This man, who suffered for 14 years of his life at the hands of the Brothers, does not seem to have 100% belief in the commission's ability to deliver. He cannot help thinking this will end up just being a reshuffling of the blame.

The language being used at the Public Sittings is a source of contention. Although the victims were told in advance that the inquiry's second public sitting would be dominated mainly by legal `jargon', there still should have been some clarity in the language used, John believes. Despite mentioning that sensitivity towards the victims would be top priority, Justice Mary Laffoy seemed quite agitated when dealing with a victim in the crowd who called for the language to be simplified. ``You're talking in this educated speak,'' he said, ``and we were beaten during our educational years.''

John Prior's feels that the ``victims are not being put in front, but being shoved in the middle between solicitors and judges. It's the very same as being a dunce; `Go sit in the corner and we'll tell you when you can talk'.'' He gets very bitter when he speaks of such issues, as this has been the way he feels he has been treated ever since he first came out and spoke about the abuse, both sexual and physical.

Despite his reservations, John Prior hopes that the inquiry will at the very least help bring to justice some of those people who destroyed Irish children's lives in the `prisons' that were insititutional homes.


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