A Search For Links Between U.S., Irish Church Abuse

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When the Irish government recently released its report after investigating the abuse of children in Catholic-run institutions there, many questions arose on this side of the Atlantic about whether similar abuse happened here.

The almost 3,000 page Irish report, known as the Ryan Report, said rape and abuse were endemic in Ireland’s church-run schools and orphanages from the 1930s until most of the facilities were shut down in the 1990s.

There were dozens of similar facilities in Massachusetts that were run by religious groups at that time, so the Waltham-based group BishopAccountability.org, which gathered information on the clergy sex abuse crisis and lists some 3,000 abusive clergy members, is now investigating this.

Terry McKiernan, the head of BishopAccountability.org, is creating a database of U.S. church-run institutions where there have been similar allegations.

“We have certainly noticed that abuse has occurred at residential facilities, but we hadn’t really put it in that category and realized there were a number of residential facilities and that it added up to a lot of vulnerable children,” McKiernan said, “and that priests who liked to do this kind of thing would likely target those vulnerable populations.”

“When the Ryan Report came out,” he said, “it all came together for us.”

McKiernan’s group has documented similar abuse at dozens of Catholic-run institutions in the United States and he expects that hundreds more facilities will be identified. McKiernan said he’s been inundated with claims from alleged victims, some of whom have never before come forward.

Fifty-one-year-old David Wescott of Oklahoma grew up in Massachusetts, but when his family couldn’t care for him he was sent to the Sacred Heart Academy boarding school in Andover, and an affiliated summer camp during the late 1960s.

“I was sexually abused a number of times over the years,” Wescott said. “Not only at the school itself but also at their summer camp.”

Both the school and the camp were run by the Catholic religious order the Brothers of the Sacred Heart, and Wescott said abuse was rampant.

“Basically what they would do is they would come to you and, knowing you were young children desperate for attention, they would tell us how much they loved us and how much they cared for us,” Wescott recalled.

“This one brother in particular, I remember he would sit me in a chair and he would start talking to me and asking me how my day was,” Wescott said. “And then he would get up behind me and start rubbing my shoulders. He’d put his head next to mine and whisper in my ear and tell me how much he loved me. And then it would just be a matter of minutes before his hands would be down my pants.”

The Brothers of the Sacred Heart said records from its two boarding schools in Massachusetts are difficult to find and not very detailed. Brother Robert Croteau, a spokesman for the order, was advised by the group’s attorney not to comment on tape for this story, but he did say they are aware of abuse allegations at the Massachusetts schools and the order has offered to pay for counseling for alleged victims.

Jerry Sears, 76, is now in counseling for alleged abuse that occurred at another Brothers of the Sacred Heart boarding school in Sharon. He now lives in Colorado, but, while he was growing up in Massachusetts, his father left and his mother could no longer care for him, so she sent him to the school, where Sears said the brothers would exploit children.

“The most significant technique is finally just to show some friendship in return for sexual favors,” Sears said. “Of course I was devoid of a male, had no father in my life, I had no father figure, so some adult male that would show me some attention would be welcome.”

Sears said it is still difficult for him to talk about what happened then, and it took him decades to even acknowledge that he was abused. “I just blanked it out, you know, I was this little estranged kid, alone. Really, really alone,” Sears said. “But I guess fortunately the human mind does that for us — there were so many that I don’t remember them.”

Neither Sears nor Wescott ever pursued legal action, and their alleged abusers have never been charged. The Brothers of the Sacred Heart spokesman, Brother Robert Croteau, said these allegations are particularly difficult because both of the orders’ Massachusetts boarding schools closed in the 1970s.

Many of the brothers involved are dead and many of the alleged victims were very young children. The ’60s and ’70s were also a time of transition for how the state handled children in its care. There was no Department of Social Services and the state was moving away from putting kids in large institutions and orphanages into placing them in smaller homes and foster care.

Boston College history professor James O’Toole said officials learned that those types of facilities were not best for children. He also said that just because the abuse happened in those institutions in Ireland, it doesn’t mean it happened here.

“It’s important I think to recognize that, though there is this hierarchical structure, for the most part, in orders like this, things stop at the water’s edge,” O’Toole said. “So these sorts of institutions in Ireland are entirely different –organizationally, legally and otherwise separate — from institutions here.”

But Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org said that after the clergy sex abuse scandal, the government here has an obligation to investigate the evidence that her group is compiling.

“We’re gonna start by focusing on Massachusetts and New England and expanding our database of residential institutions where we believe children were abused or where there’s public documentation,” she said. “We would assemble enough evidence that the attorney general might be compelled to say, ‘This is unbelievable that these resident Catholic orphanages and boarding schools right here in our state were hell holes for children.’ ”

The Massachusetts attorney general did conduct a lengthy investigation of the Boston Archdiocese after the clergy sex abuse scandal, but never filed charges.

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