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Chapter 8 — Letterfrack

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Physical abuse


On 8th April 1940, the Sub-Superior of Letterfrack, Br Vernay,3 by-passed the Superior and wrote a letter to the Provincial complaining about punishment in the School. The punishment of the boys in Letterfrack has for some time past been of such a character that without going into detail I feel constrained to call your attention to the matter. The thing has now become public property and the rehearsal of the acts are not creditable to the school nor to those concerned. The instruments used and the punishments inflicted are now obsolete even in criminal establishments. Were it not for the frequency of the acts I should not have troubled you. I expect that an insistence on the prescriptions of the Rule without further ado will go far towards putting matters right. I may mention that there are differences of opinion in the Community at the moment in respect of these punishment in which I do not wish to become involved.


A member of the Provincial Council made a handwritten note on the letter that the Superior was queried on 10th April 1940 on the practices complained of, but there is no record of what the Superior said. Neither was the nature of the offensive punishments specified.


It is clear from the letter that the Sub-Superior was concerned as follows: first, as to the fact that the excessive and offensive punishments had been going on ‘for some time past’; secondly, the matter was being discussed in public and thus causing discredit to the School and the Brothers; thirdly, the instruments used and the punishments inflicted were, he thought, wholly inappropriate; fourthly, he drew attention to divisions in the Community of Brothers about these punishments; and fifthly, and most importantly, it was the frequency of the acts that had impelled him to write.


A senior Brother in the Provincial team carried out the annual Visitation of the School in May. He found that there was a cleavage between the Brothers in the Community, in which most of them lined up on one side or the other and two sought to remain neutral. The source of the disharmony was the punishment of a number of boys who were guilty of improper conduct. The Superior commissioned two Brothers to punish them and they did this as the boys were going to bed ‘using a horsewhip rather freely’. Two Brothers and a teacher witnessed the punishment from a distance, and one of the Brothers later characterised it as brutal and others agreed. The report went on: The severe punishment was a subject of gossip in the workshops and village. The Superior realises that he acted imprudently in the matter and that the consequences might have been serious. The estrangement that followed these incidents made life in the Community unpleasant. Reconciliations have been effected and let us hope they will be lasting.


Notwithstanding the reference in Br Vernay’s letter to the Provincial to the frequency of this punishment, later in the report the Visitor said: Boys appear to be happy and contented and I was assured that outside the case of severe punishment alluded to above there has been no excessive punishment.


Following the Visitation, Br Corben,4 the Provincial, wrote to the Superior outlining some of the salient features of the report. He informed Br Troyes5 that the Superior General had written to the Provincial on the subject, stating: One item of the Report is so serious that I confine my remarks to it. The Superior who permitted the punishment which the Law of the Congregation (Act 65 of Acts of General Chapter) forbids and humanity abhors should get more than a mere reprimand ... The reputation of the Congregation is at stake. A less offence in Prior Park6 was punished by fines, imprisonment, dismissal of the Head of the School, and an order from the Government to close the School or to put it under new management.


The part of the Superior General’s letter that the Provincial omitted was: a secular body who would continue an official in office after allowing a law to be set aside to permit an offence which the common law punishes does not merit public confidence. I wish you to discuss in Council what is to be done in this case with the Superior of Letterfrack. I think the offence should not be passed over.


There was no record of any action being taken against the Superior of Letterfrack on the strength of this suggestion, and he remained as Manager until the following year when his six-year tenure expired.


The Congregation was aware that excessive punishment of children could be unlawful. The Visitor accepted an assurance that this case was the only case of excessive punishment, although the Sub-Superior’s letter, written less than a month before the Visitation, stressed that his reason for writing was the frequency of the acts. The Visitor did not look into the other matters of concern in the Sub-Superior’s letter, namely the duration, public knowledge, instruments used and nature of punishments. The recommendation that the Brother Superior should receive ‘more than a mere reprimand’ appears to have been ignored. The condition of the children who had been brutally horse-whipped was not given consideration in the correspondence. Br Leveret7 (1940)


The Resident Manager had occasion later in the same year to return to the subject of excessive corporal punishment with reference to one of the Brothers involved in the horsewhipping incident, which had happened in April. He wrote to the Br Provincial in November 1940 and stated: At a Conference on the resumption of school business, I quoted Rules re Corp Punishment, Sup Gen’s reference to my authorising “brutal punishment” during last term and in plain words I forbade certain types of punishment. I stated that, in future, in presence of a third party, I would punish for any serious offence amongst the boys. Br Leveret has not adhered to the regulations.


He referred to this Brother again in a subsequent letter: Punishment: a stick is the general instrument used and even with this he goes beyond the rule. I have seen recently a boy with swollen hand, palm and thumb, the steward on farm remarked he was not able to milk for some days. A boy was stripped and beaten in (Br Leveret’s) room. He has put boys across his bed in room and even in unbecoming postures to beat them behind. The boys are absolutely afraid to divulge who punished them and won’t even answer questions truthfully, through fear of being punished again. Only this week I got two little fellows crying and I asked them what happened. They would not tell me.


The subject of this Brother’s severity with the boys arose in correspondence concerning his removal from the position of Disciplinarian. In a letter written in November 1940 to the Provincial, the Brother said: Since I came to this house I have never punished a single boy severely except on the one occasion when I was ordered to do so by my Superior. This was the occasion when a number of big boys were involved in immorality. I explained the matter to [the Visitor] and he said that I did right in obeying my Superior. Since this Conference you referred to and for months before it I have not punished a single boy severely. I have, except on just a few occasions, used the leather at all times. On these few occasions when I had to give a slight punishment to a boy it was outside of school altogether and I had not got a leather on my person. Even then I never gave more than two slaps with an old piece of cane. In fact I have made it a rule for a long time back never to give more than one slap to a boy. I would be a most unreasonable Br were I to be severe to these poor boys who have obeyed and worked hard for me at all times. I know I have vexed the Superior a good many times because I did not punish the boys severely enough for his taste. He told me hundreds of times never to spare them. I will give you his own words in brackets. What are they but “illegitimates and pure dirt”.


The Provincial’s reply, if any, is not available but he appears to have sided against him, as Br Leveret was transferred to Salthill. The records of that Institution show that he was criticised for using excessive punishment in that school, in 1949 and 1950. In 1950, his Superior complained that he ‘had injured at least two boys when inflicting corporal punishment’.


The Congregation’s comment was as follows: The above incident demonstrates well how the Brothers generally did not approve of severe corporal punishment. Those who did not approve were courageous enough to speak out even though it meant having to live with the person against whom they spoke. The contention that those religious who did not abuse were culpable because they did not “stand in the way” of abuse they witnessed does not stand up to scrutiny. When abuse was known to a Brother, the documentation indicates that he made it known to the authorities.


This case is evidence of a particular feature of congregational life, namely, that complaints were more likely to be made when relations were poor in the Community or where some other issue was present. The management saw the problem in this case, not in terms of the cruel and unauthorised punishment of the boys but rather the combination of insubordination by Br Leveret and poor inter-Community relations. Transferring Br Leveret to Salthill, which was the way in which the problem was dealt with, did nothing to reduce his propensity for violence in his dealings with boys. The Rules and Regulations of the Congregation and of the Department of Education on corporal punishment were disregarded by Br Leveret, but the Superior did not enforce them, even in the knowledge that the Brother had frightened boys to the point where they would not truthfully answer questions about him. A matter deserving of investigation in itself was whether the Superior had described the boys as ‘illegitimates and pure dirt’, and the outcome ought to have been censure either of the Superior for what he said or of the Brother for his false attribution of offensive words. Br Perryn8 (1941)

  1. Letterfrack Industrial School, Report on archival material held at Cluain Mhuire, by Bernard Dunleavy BL (2001).
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  6. Prior Park was a residential school run by the Christian Brothers near Bath, England.
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  19. This document is undated, although the date ‘6th November 1964’ is crossed out.
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  32. See table at paragraph 3.20 .
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  36. This information is taken from a report compiled for the Christian Brothers by Michael Bruton in relation to Letterfrack in 2001.
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  58. Electricity Supply Board.
  59. See table at paragraph 8.21 .
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  61. Cross-reference to CB General Chapter where notes that this arrangement was with the agreement of the Department of Education.
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  65. Gateways Chapter 3 goes into this in detail.