In the wealthy suburbs of south Dublin, the redbricked facade of Terenure College has stood out as a beacon of respectability and status for more than 150 years.
A training ground for the elite of Irish society, run by the Carmelite order of priests, it has produced captains of business, pioneering doctors and legal giants.
Legends of Irish rugby have been reared on its hallowed sporting fields, which lavishly sprawl over some of the most valuable land in the country. The school website boasts of an “atmosphere of welcome and warmth” and a “history to be proud of”.
But behind the cloistered walls of this exclusive boys’ school, a dark and chilling chapter from its past is about to be revealed. A number of former pupils have come forward claiming they were subjected to a regime of rampant sexual abuse and sadistic violence at the hands of those entrusted with their care during the 1960s and 1970s.
Middle-aged men now, they tell stories of sordid assaults and relentless groping by predatory teachers, the emotional wounds of which remain unhealed today. Some of the abuse happened openly in class in front of other pupils while the perpetrator taught, showing no fear of being caught or punished. It also took place in the playground, at the swimming pool and in locker rooms as they showered.
For the first time, evidence has also emerged that the Carmelite order has covertly paid out significant sums of money as compensation for sexual abuse.
Until now, this compensation scheme has been kept from public sight or scrutiny.
Despite several requests, neither the Carmelite Order or Terenure College will confirm whether An Garda Síochána were informed about the deeply disturbing allegations behind the scheme.
Former pupils who attended the school in the 1960s and 70s have alleged that a number of staff, both priests and lay teachers, abused them. They identify the same men repeatedly, claiming these individuals engaged in warped paedophile and sadistic behaviour but were never held to account.
Fr Aidan O’Donovan, a long-serving member of the teaching staff, was one of the most notorious.
President of the school’s Pioneer Council and spiritual director of the Carmelite Third Order, an ancient branch of the order established for lay people, in the eyes of parents and staff, he appeared a charming priest and devoted teacher.
But some of his old students recoil in terror at mention of his name.
“He always had a boy on his knee during class”, says Martin, who attended Terenure in the 1970s and whose identity has been protected. “He was a great story-teller and to be asked to sit on his knee during stories was like getting a star. It was almost an honour.
As soon as you sat up on his lap, his hand would go straight up. We all wore short trousers so it was easy for him to interfere with us. He molested me on several occasions in front of the rest of the class not caring whether anyone could see.
Once, I got an infection in my anus because he had put his fingers inside me. I had to stay at home because I had a fever from it. The worst thing was not being able to tell my parents how it happened because you were afraid you wouldn’t be believed.
The sexual abuse was just one side of life at Terenure. It was quite normal to be beaten around the place. You would be brought to the top of the class, stripped from your waist down and beaten with a bamboo cane on your bare backside. It was horrific but from a very early age you were told to ‘take it like a man’. We were a rugby school. We had to be seen to be tough.
I used to go home with red marks on my hands and legs from being beaten and my parents would blame me for upsetting the teachers. I can only imagine how they would have reacted if I had told them about the sexual abuse”.
Another past pupil, now in his 50s, is haunted by a number of encounters he endured at the hands of the same priest.
“Apart from the sadistic beatings many of us endured, they were always touching you up and grabbing you. Fr O’Donovan was a well-known ‘kiddy-fiddler’. I remember him putting his hand down the front of my trousers and holding me while I was going to the toilet. That was the sort of twisted thing we were put through.
If I had gone home to my mother and told her what was happening, she would have killed me. So I used to hide in Bushy Park and just not go to school at all. The abuse destroyed my life, and 40 years later, I am still very angry they have got away with it”.
Another former pupil abused by O’Donovan describes him as the “quintessential wolf in sheep’s clothing.
He would ingratiate himself with parents who fawned over him in the hope that their son might be given a place on the rugby team while at the same time sexually abusing their boy and leaving him permanently damaged.
We called him Donewax. He would take you to his knee smiling and before long have his hand down your pants. If he didn’t take you to his knee he would sit on the edge of the small bench seat at our double desks and while inanely reading from a school book fondle your privates inside your pants. One thing that I vividly recall is the fact that his brown habit had openings where the pockets should be. This allowed him to fondle himself with one hand as he abused you, while appearing to anyone looking to just have his hand in his pocket”.
Fr Aidan O’Donovan died in 2013. Former pupils who claim to have been abused by him say they are outraged he never faced justice. Many have felt unable to speak up until now.
Aged 61 today and living abroad, Martin says he is in no doubt that the school authorities were aware of sexual and physical abuse by certain teachers but did nothing to stop it.
“I visited the school about 15 years after I left. I discussed the abuse with a priest I met that day and was told that Fr O’Donovan had been moved out of teaching. It is my belief he still could have had access to children after that. He should have gone to prison. The school knew exactly what was going on”.
More than a month ago, Village sent a series of public interest questions about sexual abuse allegations to Fr Richard Byrne, the provincial head of the Carmelite order in Ireland which runs Terenure College.
Fr Byrne is a former head of the school and a past pupil.
He is also chairperson of the Catholic Schools Partnership, the body which represents Catholic bishops in the Irish education sector.
Fr Byrne was asked to confirm whether his religious order had received any complaints about sexual abuse at the school at any time in its history, and if so, how such complaints were handled. He was also asked to confirm if any complaints were investigated internally and whether the appropriate authorities were informed including An Garda Síochána.
We also enquired whether the order was aware of any cases where abuse complaint/s had been made against any teacher against whom an earlier complaint had been received. Some victims believe that if the school had not ignored what was happening, other children could have avoided a similar fate.
Not only has Fr Byrne refused to answer any of these questions, he has failed to reply at all, ignoring numerous requests by email and telephone.
Fr Éanna Ó hÓbáin, the current head of Terenure, has also ignored our queries.
An Garda Síochána too has dismissed a request for information as to whether it was aware of abuse allegations at the school.
A response from the Department of Education, which gave more than €2m of public funding to the school during the last academic year, is also outstanding.
While most of the historic abuse claims are against former clergy at the college, a number of retired lay teachers have also been accused. One is alleged to have had access to minors after he left Terenure.
Sean (not his real name) describes one alleged incident with this teacher which happened during class. He was looking forward to getting the results of an assignment, thinking he had got a good grade. But his excitement turned to terror when the teacher called him to the top of the room and began to humiliate him in front of his classmates over the quality of his work.
“It was an experience that still leaves me cold”, he recalls. “He grabbed me and pulled me into him under his gown as he ridiculed my work in front of the rest of the class. Then he started reading the winning essay, and as he did so, he started rubbing his erect penis against me. It happened in front of the rest of the class. I was about 14 at the time”.
Another former pupil John was going through a difficult time at home when he claims he was targeted by the same teacher at the age of 14.
“He knew I was going through a tough time and my grades were going down. He told me he understood but I would still have to be punished for it. He asked me to come to his office one afternoon after school. I always remember walking through that door. He stripped me naked, put me over his lap and started spanking me. He then started to fondle my genitals. It must have gone on for at least half an hour. It was the last day of term. I left the school that day and never went back. He picked on me because he knew I was vulnerable.
Apart from the sexual molestation, I witnessed the most horrific violence at that school. Some staff seemed to have a penchant for punching young boys”.
“Terrorism was employed to keep order”, another ex-student recalls.
“Bamboo canes and leather straps (two lengths stitched together and weighted with a metal insert at one end) were used with great fervour. I recall sitting beside one of my classmates who was fond of a laugh. Class had just started and in order to get us all to settle down quickly, a heavy duster for the blackboard was employed as a missile. Flung with great force from the hand of a Carmelite, it struck my friend on the right temple. He dropped to the floor unconscious. When he awoke after a few moments, he was told to sit where he was and behave himself”.
This survivor describes another priest who plagued certain students and made their lives a misery.
“I can still smell him nearly half a century later. It was smoke mixed with body odour. He loved to rub up against you and slobber over you. His brown habit was filthy, covered in ash, spit and dribble. He got a quick rub or feel in whenever he could. He was a marksman with the duster and fond of the ‘chin wag’ as we called it, where he would grab your earlobe and jerk it while pulling you up off the seat, then let go and rap you with his knuckles on the chin. This was his punishment for talking in class.
He liked to lean in close, rubbing something hard in the area of his groin up against your back as he pretended to check your jotter”.
Several survivors in their 50s and 60s say it is only now they have been able to cnfront what happened to them at Terenure after years of repressing painful memories. They say they have been tormented by issues of trust, poor selfesteem and shame throughout their adult lives, which has led in some cases to failed careers and broken marriages. Their sense of betrayal is overwhelming, aggravated by the fact that they never got to see their abusers held to account.
“There was no room for self-pity or wallowing”, says one ex-pupil in his early 60s.
“Our parents worked hard to send us to a private school. It’s not as if we were orphans in residential institutions. We were privileged children. But in some ways, because we were middle class from comfortable homes, the lid was kept even tighter on the abuse because there was so much more to lose. The social stigma and the shame were much greater. Our world was supposed to be civilised and respectable. It was anything but”.
Until now, revelations about sexual abuse in educational institutions have been confined to those attended by disadvantaged children from working class backgrounds. Private schools have been more adept at keeping such scandals at bay, dealing with allegations in-house and avoiding reputational damage to their powerful institutions which have schooled the great and the good.
But Terenure College is one of a growing number of fee-paying Irish schools who may have to confront decades-old abuse in the coming years, as survivors gain the courage to come forward and seek redress and compensation.
The financial implications for private colleges which find themselves exposed to historic claims could prove catastrophic. Some may face the prospect of having to sell off valuable chunks of their campus or even closure.
But many victims believe the time has come to blow the whistle, regardless of the consequences. They say their ‘alma maters’ should no longer be allowed to hide from the dark secrets of their past, which have shattered so many lives.
“As a survivor of the violence and sexual abuse at Terenure, it saddens me to think that success on the rugby pitch was put ahead of child protection. When past pupils admire with pride the trophy cabinet in the college containing the Leinster Schools cups, they should be aware that they were won at the expense of innocent boys whose lives were destroyed by perverts disguised in brown Carmelite habits and grey suits. A few bad apples in the barrel yes, but nobody ever cast them out. Why not? The public, who subsidise private schools, have a right to know what happened. We can’t keep brushing abuse scandals under the carpet”.
By Gemma O´Doherty