Giving evidence on behalf of the Rosminian Institute on 9th May 2006, at the Phase III public hearing, Fr O’Reilly said that he had ‘no doubt that there were many areas in which we failed and I have no doubt that the entire system was a failure’. He said that they were given the task of trying to manage an apparently unmanageable system, and that control was the first priority. He acknowledged that there was pressure to keep up numbers, so as to maximise income from the capitation payment system, and that the numbers themselves presented a problem in caring for children: ... that’s why it was a trap, it was trap for us, if we didn’t have an adequate number of children then we didn’t get a sufficient income. If we had children well in excess of any number, or whatever number it was, then we were into the position of finding that it was more difficult to manage the whole thing. It was a trap. How do you deal with that?
Fr O’Reilly said that it was not even clear that children were better off in industrial schools than they had been in their previous circumstances: I think that children were often taken from fairly hopeless situations and they were handed over to despair in a way. Because I am not too sure that we can say definitely that the situation that they found themselves in was an awful lot better than the situation that they had come from. They got some things and there are other things that they didn’t get. Frying pan into the fire.
Unlike other Orders, the Rosminians did not seek solace in the contents of the Inspection Reports of the Department of Education. These reports found the schools to be more or less satisfactory, but identified continuously a need for improvement. Fr O’Reilly stated that the approach to industrial schools ‘was just making do’. He added: Unfortunately, some things can’t be done on a just enough basis, you have just enough of this or you have just enough of that, some things need more than just enough. But I think that we had just enough of this, that and the other and we made do.
Fr O’Reilly at the public hearing referred to this apology: When we opened the new Ferryhouse we started off by drawing attention to the fact that many of the children who went through the school over the previous hundred years or so suffered, suffered greatly, suffered from fear and suffered ... he spoke about brutality. He spoke about people who condoned or ignored extreme severity, even brutality that characterised the old regime.
All of the Resident Managers appointed were ordained members of the Institute of Charity. Fr O’Reilly told the Investigation Committee that the post was not one ‘regarded as a reward for long service’. He stated most of the priests who were appointed managers ‘would have worked at some stage on the ground as a Prefect in either St. Patrick’s Upton, or St. Joseph’s’.
Fr O’Reilly spoke about the calibre of the Resident Managers in Ferryhouse: ... certainly most of the Managers that I know about and have come to know about would seem to have been people who were quite suited to it and who were keen for the position and keen to do something with the work that was there and they were people, I would say, who had a degree of vision at the time, for the most part.
Fr O’Reilly told the Investigation Committee: I would say that most of the responsibility fell on the Prefect. Only occasionally could he call on others, who had their own duties to go on with. So if a Prefect was – for example, it wouldn’t have been uncommon that the Prefect, one of the Prefects who was on, would have to leave to go and look for a child who had run away or go to a Garda station to pick up a child who had been picked up by the Gardaí, and so all the responsibility rested on the shoulders of the Prefect who remained behind and, indeed, it wasn’t uncommon for a Prefect to have to leave a dormitory of children in the middle of the night to go to pick up a child. They, obviously, relied on the other Prefect primarily, you know, to look after the situation. He’d have been made aware of things, as would the Manager.
Fr O’Reilly explained that Prefects’ responsibilities covered everything to do with the children: From the time that they got up in the morning, getting children up, sorting out what had to be sorted out, making sure that they were all in place, getting them down to Mass, getting them back up, to breakfast, making sure they got out to school – when they got out to school, okay, the school had responsibility then, but almost inevitably, you know, you have a child who is sick or a child who has cut himself or who has got in trouble in school, and a Prefect who has to pick up the pieces. I mean, I have seen that in my own time working in St. Joseph’s, Ferryhouse.
The Prefect was answerable to the Resident Manager in all matters. Among the Resident Manager’s numerous duties and responsibilities was overseeing the performance of duties by the Prefects. Fr O’Reilly spoke of this requirement: The Manager, although he had other responsibilities, would have obviously had to keep an eye on what was happening. I think the Manager would know on a very regular basis what was going on in the place because, although this might not be a term that everybody would agree with, there would have developed a certain sort of family atmosphere insofar as when you live in a place for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year and there is not an awful lot of change in life, you know, you soon become quite acquainted with everybody who is in the place.
Prefects were the younger men of the Order, who were able to manage the task of being in charge of a large group of young, active boys. They would have ordinarily worked as teachers or Prefects in other schools. Fr O’Reilly stated that the new Prefects would have seen it as a very responsible post, and would have been proud of being appointed, but he added, a few of them would not have been very happy at being selected. He explained: Now there were some men who didn’t like being Prefects and I know that one or two would have seen it as – I am not too sure what the word is now ... yeah, hell is a good word all right ... A punishment posting. Well, I know, for example, one man has often recounted to me how he was regarded as difficult by his superiors so they appointed him as Prefect.
Fr O’Reilly explained: You learnt by the tradition, you know. You were told as a Prefect that this is what you do and you get in there and you sink or you swim. The tradition was useful for a period and then it wasn’t useful any longer.
It was an extraordinarily demanding job. Fr O’Reilly told the Investigation Committee: It was unnatural what was asked of them, really, and utterly unfair. Quite obviously in retrospect, you know, it was truly unfair what was asked of them. Like, where do you begin with comparisons? I mean, the School that had two Prefects looking after 200 children now has, you know, 35 or 36 children in the school and there are probably in the range of, maybe, 60 to 70 who were childcare workers, you know. In addition, probably another 30 to 40 staff who have auxiliary roles.
In the course of a Submission to the Investigation Committee, dated 17th June 2004, Fr O’Reilly referred to, and quoted from, the apology expressed in 1999, at a time when three former members of the Rosminian Institute had been convicted of sexually abusing children in its care: The members of the Rosminian Institute are saddened and shamed that young people in our care were abused by members of our Order. We deeply regret not only the abuse, but also the shadow cast on the lives of those abused. We abhor all mistreatment of children and we wish to express our profound sorrow.
Fr O’Reilly again acknowledged on behalf of his Order that the use of corporal punishment had led to physical abuse in its schools. He also accepted that children had been sexually abused, although he submitted that, amongst those in authority in recent times, there was not any knowledge of sexual abuse prior to the late 1970s. He added that, in the course of working for the Commission, the Rosminian Institute had become aware that sexual abuse had in fact occurred earlier than previously believed. He said that, while the Rosminians did not know by what standard to criticise their predecessors, they did not disassociate themselves from them. In giving evidence to the Commission, they intended to assume responsibility for the past, to account for it, to bear criticism for it and to learn from it.
Fr O’Reilly, in his Submission to the Investigation Committee, outlined the approach taken by the Order in its response to individual complaints made through the Commission: In our individual responses to the Commission, we have apologised and we have intended that our co-operation with the Commission should be seen as an act of apology. In some instances, our apologies have been qualified. In this, we have been fearful of betrayal of our members and shocked by allegations. But we do not challenge the accounts of survivors where we have no good evidence to do so, and we have resolved, where people have been injured in the past, to do no further harm by denial. We have witnessed and read of the courage and trauma of survivors, and it has affected us. We are determined that errors of the past should not be compounded by our conduct in the present.