‘I took back the school. It was an exercise I learned in my one-to-one counselling. You are the adult; take the little boy by the hand and walk him to safety. I walked down the corridors, seeing a little mini-me in every door. I went around all the classrooms, the bathrooms, the hall and the three rooms at the back of it that we called the torture chambers. Then I took them all to the front gate, up the brow of the hill. And I just released them. “On your way, you’re free.” I felt complete relief, freedom. I had to walk away from the roadside. I was in floods of tears.’

Niall McCarthy was sent by his parents to a private day school near his home in Ireland run by the now infamous Christian Brothers. From age four until he was 12, he was abused physically, sexually and emotionally, yet went home every night and said nothing to his parents. They thought he was getting the best of education. ‘There were 12 of us that we knew were going through it. None of us spoke about it. Some have died since through suicide, drugs, because they just couldn’t keep it in any more. We had the fear of God put into us. We thought what was happening to us was just part of growing up. My parents were very religious people; Mass every Sunday and if the priest said the sun was black they’d believe him.’

In 2008 Niall went to a counsellor for help because his marriage was breaking up. ‘Three months into counselling and it just slipped out. I didn’t notice I’d said anything – the counsellor did.’

Catherine Blayney and her twin brother were the illegitimate children of an African doctor and an Irish mother and were taken into the Irish state care system aged three months. When they were six, they were separated. ‘We were put in an ambulance and driven 200 miles to the middle of Ireland. A door opened, I am told to get out with my little suitcase and left there. It was an institution for 250 kids and I was there for the next 12 years. It was the most frightening experience of my life.

‘I had 18 years of it – the physical neglect and starvation, sexual and emotional abuse and intolerable cruelty. And I was black so I had colour-specific abuse too. This was the 60s and 70s; Irish people considered us savages. We lived in a culture of torture administered by the older girls, led by the lay staff. I don’t blame the older girls now. They were doing to me nothing more or less than what had been done to them. The nuns went about on a cloud of chastity and piety, completely ignoring the misery of their charges. Each child was nothing more than a cost unit to be exploited for profit. And there was no escape when we left the institution: we were stigmatised because we had been brought up in one.’

Margaret McGuckin runs the survivor support group SAVIA in Northern Ireland. She and her four siblings were taken into care when their mother left them. ‘My father tried to keep us but the welfare put us into the care of the Sisters of Nazareth. It broke his heart. Our lives were ruined. There was no love, no one to fend for you. You were cut off from everybody. It’s the survival of the fittest so you didn’t want to know anybody. I grew up in and out of jail. I didn’t think I was worth anything. What saved me was God’s forgiveness. I said to myself, I have got to do something else; I have to educate myself. I was at the bottom; there was nowhere else to go. But a lot of people find it very hard to trust anyone now, even these counselling services.’

The number of people who were abused in childhood in Ireland’s industrial and reformatory schools, orphanages and other institutions, in the north as well as the south, is incalculable. The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Commission), set up in 2000 by the Irish Government to investigate the accumulating allegations of abuse, says around 25,000 children went through 250 of these institutions from 1914 to 2008. It took evidence from just over 1,000 victims. But these figures are likely to be only the very tip of an immense iceberg. In the words of one witness to the Ryan Commission: ‘Lots of others would love to come to tell their story but they can’t because their lives are destroyed with drink and drugs and everything. My story is their story too.’

In Northern Ireland the Historic Institutional Abuse inquiry (HIA), launched in 2010, is currently investigating some 430 allegations of abuse in children’s homes, borstals, training schools and other residential institutions since 1922. A third of the allegations are from people living outside Northern Ireland; many children were taken to Australia in the late 1940s and early 1950s under the UK Government’s child migration policy.

Towards Healing

Towards Healing is a counselling service set up specifically to provide psychological therapy to anyone who suffered clerical, religious or institutional abuse in residential institutions and community settings run by the Catholic Church in the island of Ireland. Based in the Republic of Ireland, it was founded in 1997, originally as the Faoiseamh (‘relief from pain’) Counselling Service, and relaunched in 2011 with a new name and a broader remit. It is 100 per cent funded by the Catholic Church. In addition to face-to-face counselling and a telephone helpline, it now offers short-term workshops, group therapy, structured telephone counselling, an advocacy service and restorative justice meetings. Its clients come mainly from within Ireland (north and south) and the UK, although they also receive requests for help from the Irish diaspora in Australia, Canada and the US.

Last year the service took over 1,500 new self-referrals and provided 31,400 face-to-face counselling sessions to 1,641 clients, of all ages and sexes. It is, says Clinical Director Melissa Darmody, unique work with a very unique client group. These are people who may never have had a secure, loving relationship, who were placed in the care of an institution from birth and have suffered the effects through the rest of their lives. Many have had no more than primary school education. Many have used drink and drugs to ease the pain. There is also a strong transgenerational element: people who have never known what it is to be loved can struggle to establish a loving relationship with their own children.

Says Darmody: ‘We see a lot more male survivors than other abuse support services – almost 50 per cent. At least once a week we have a call from someone over 70 – a first-time disclosure looking for a referral to talking therapy. It never ceases to amaze me. Twenty years ago, you’d have thought sex abuse and counselling didn’t exist in Ireland. People are talking about these things now.’

Towards Healing doesn’t directly employ its own counsellors, other than those working on the helpline. It contracts with practitioners from the independent sector local to the client (including people who now live overseas), or funds sessions with a client’s existing counsellor/therapist. All the counsellors/therapists are either accredited or registered, or have an equivalent level of qualification for counsellors overseas. There is a maximum limit of 80 one-to-one sessions, although this can be extended in exceptional circumstances; most clients have counselling for up to a year, or 40 weekly sessions. There is an explicit no-wait policy. ‘We don’t offer open-ended therapy. We want to be sure that what we are providing is actually moving someone to better health, but we are also balancing that with the issue that these survivors tend to take a long time to establish trust, so they need long-term therapy,’ Darmody says.

They are negotiating a tricky dynamic, Darmody agrees, in that it is effectively the abuser – the Catholic Church – that is paying for the therapy. ‘For some of the clients who contact us, it’s very important that the Church should pay for the harm it caused; they are seeking us out for that very reason. For other clients, it’s the opposite: they find it difficult to trust us and to separate us from the perpetrator. All I can say is the truth: there is no one from the Catholic Church who makes any clinical decisions within our team. From the helpline through to our external review panel, we are lay mental health professionals working to provide the best service we can. In our terms of engagement with the therapists we contract, we state clearly that they must not currently be a priest or member of any religious congregation.

‘We still have debates about whether it is appropriate but the reality is we can provide a high quality service with no waiting list. There is a state-run counselling service for survivors through our national health service that we can refer people to, but you can wait up to 18 months. It’s a very small percentage that we refer elsewhere.’

Shadows of the past

The Catholic Church and its past omnipotence inevitably still overshadow the therapeutic work. Karen Ward, an independent psychotherapist and workshop facilitator with Towards Healing, places the work firmly in this context: ‘The Catholic Church is very different now. But for the Irish people, this is our shadow that we have been forced to own. For me, this work is a kind of reparation: I wanted to do my bit, and I think many people felt that in different ways when the Ryan Report came out. But you need a strong stomach. Some of the stories are horrific.’

Liz Ross is a forensic psychotherapist and former director of the sexual abuse survivor charity One in Four UK. She offers individual therapy to Towards Healing clients in London, and is also a group facilitator. She says one of the biggest challenges in the work is anger – that of the client but also that of the therapist. ‘Clients need the space to work out the shape of their anger and hate in relation to their faith, whether they are practising or lapsed. For the therapist, staying empathic but neutral is essential. If you make it your issue you are taking something away from the client. You are confirming their anxiety that no one can bear to hear about it.’

Shame is another very strong feature in survivors’ lives, and a major contributor to the high prevalence of social isolation. Most, like Niall McCarthy, had never before told anyone about the abuse. Towards Healing Team Leader and workshop facilitator Lynda Ryder says some callers ring in full of rage, looking for somewhere to place their blame. ‘But more often they are very quiet and apologetic and afraid. You know that they have not had a proper connection in their life ever. This can be the start, this call to us.’

‘Some survivors will say with real pride, “I didn’t cry.” There’s a real challenge in working with that,’ says Ross. ‘To endure those years of unimaginable cruelty they have learned to dissociate their feelings and de-activate their whole attachment system. There simply was no caregiver available. So showing emotions can be extremely anxiety-provoking, confusing and shaming for them. It can lead to an angry or rejecting attack on the therapist, because the feelings are so frightening that their survival mechanism takes over and reasserts that it is safer not to attach.’

Transparency and openness are vital when people are so deeply fearful and suspicious of any authority, as many are, and with good reason, says Ross; all their experience tells them to trust no one, least of all those in authority. ‘There is this fear that we are going to feed back to the Catholic Church. I show everything I write to the client before I send any reports to Towards Healing or their GP or any other agency. If I can’t establish that alliance of trust, they are going to stay paralysed with fear.’

This is why Towards Healing does not use formal psychometrics to assess clients and their progress in therapy or following any of the workshops. ‘Just the word “assessment” can trigger a very negative reaction. They are very suspicious of any suggestion that they are being judged,’ Darmody explains. Instead, Towards Healing conducts reviews with the client and therapist at six, 30, 50 and 70 sessions, and the external review panel adjudicates if the client wishes to continue after the maximum 80 sessions.

Finding family

The psycho-educational workshops were introduced to help clients deal with life and relationships in the wider world: to move outwards from the one-to-one relationship with their counsellor, connect with other survivors and learn practical and emotional coping skills. Towards Healing currently offers four workshops: self-care, anger management, trauma recovery and sexuality.

‘In a group setting they learn that they can have relationships that are non-abusive, where they are listened to and respected. Participants often start sharing experiences they have never shared with anybody before,’ says Ross. But it isn’t an easy step for survivors to engage with a group. Says Ryder: ‘People who have suffered abuse, and sexual abuse in particular, carry their shame very close, so it can be overwhelming to sit with others who are sharing. They need to build up a bit of muscle around managing themselves first.’

For this reason, clients are recommended to start with the less demanding one-day workshop on self-care and the two-day anger management course, to prepare them before they try the 12-week trauma recovery programme. All participants in this course are expected also to be having individual therapy, so they have somewhere to take what they are learning. The focus is on the here and now: how their past experience is affecting their present. They learn about the mechanics of trauma – physiologically what happens in the brain and in the body when someone is exposed to prolonged abuse and terror – and the effects of spiritual abuse and how to overcome it. ‘We teach them what trauma is and what we do to protect ourselves in these circumstances and how we shut off our feelings because if we were to continue to feel the trauma we would go over the edge into psychosis. We take it a week at a time, with exercises every week and we keep it very simple,’ Ryder says.

People who have taken part in the workshops talk about ‘finding family’ when they meet other survivors. ‘You have your one-to-one therapy but you’re still on your own,’ Niall McCarthy explains. ‘You are still the only person in the world who has been through this. Then you go to the trauma recovery workshop and it’s like finding a new family: you are able to talk to people who have gone through what you have gone through. It’s like a new lease of life. You are not alone. There are people you can talk to outside the one to one.’

His workshop group has continued to meet after the 12-week course finished. ‘I am having a better life because I am dealing with what I kept inside for years and that is a huge change. I wake in the morning now and I’m glad I am alive. I no longer wish I’d died in my sleep,’ he says.

Some have created their own ‘family’ through more informal means. Margaret McGucken speaks for about 300 SAVIA members in Northern Ireland who are eligible for help from Towards Healing. But they don’t want counselling and don’t trust anything touched by the Catholic Church, she says. ‘A lot of our people don’t want to be bringing up the past all the time. They feel everything will go back to the Church and the religious orders. They don’t want to talk to a stranger with a clock sitting on the table. We feel more able to do that talking amongst ourselves. We’ve told the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, we need something practical to help us move on – we want funding for a respite place. But they’re not listening.’

For Catherine Blayney, the feeling of finding a family has been even more intense. Her route to Towards Healing was through a London group of Irish women survivors, which she went to reluctantly. ‘I was terrified. These would have been girls of the same generation as the ones who made my life a misery in the institution. They were very welcoming but I didn’t feel kindred with them. But through this group I discovered there were other mixed race girls with the exact same experiences of colour-specific torture. I was overwhelmed, joyful. I had people who could validate my experience – a first.’

Catherine has since co-founded a peer support group for mixed race survivors of institutional abuse in Ireland. The group is currently lobbying the Irish Government for an apology. ‘We want justice. We want our existence and the nature of our colour-specific torture acknowledged through a debate in Parliament. It’s not about blame; we want Irish society to own our history too,’ she says.

For further information about Towards Healing, visit www.towardshealing.ie