A child told a priest in confession how Brother X held him down while Brother Y sexually abused him... The priest called the boy a liar

They lied. They stole. They terrorised. They assaulted children. They manacled them to their beds and flogged them. They starved them. They beat them with pokers and hurleys, scalded them and held their heads under running water. When the children tried to abscond, they locked them up in a small room or in the pig sty for days on end. They raped them. They gang-raped them. And throughout it all, they – and the whole world – thought they were holy men and women.

Children were made to lie in bed at night with their arms piously crossed over their chests. When they slipped out of this position unconsciously in their sleep, they were woken up and beaten. Holy men came into the dormitories at night, sometimes two at a time, and put their private parts in the children's hands and in their mouths. If they wet their beds, they were made to wrap the soiled sheet around them in the morning and to parade in front of everyone. They watched powerlessly as their siblings were tortured. Sometimes they were forced to participate in the abuse. If they tried to tell anyone what was going on, they were beaten. Dignitaries came to visit. The children dared hope afresh they would get the chance to tell. But the holy men and women brought the politicians and the bishops, even the President of Ireland, to the parlour and kissed their rings and intoned God's name.

They told the children their parents were dead when they were still alive. They told them they themselves were worthless and unlovable. They made them wear threadbare, filthy clothes. They punished girls whose clothing got stained with menstrual blood. They took children out of class to do menial work. They terminated their formal education at sixth class. They ridiculed them and humiliated them and undermined them. They shaved their heads bald. They set them against one another. At mealtimes, the more assertive children were allowed to bully the others and take their food. Emaciated children scavenged for scraps in the bins. In Daingean reformatory, Co Offaly, gangs of boys ran an "anarchic institution" where vulnerable children repaid older ones for their protection with sex "and the authorities were dismissive of any complaints".

Homelessness, destitution

It went on for 70 years and more. Hundreds upon hundreds of brothers, priests and nuns took part. Thousands upon thousands of children fell prey. The ripple effects on families and communities were as pervasive and devastating as the repercussions of alcoholism on society. In many cases, what was done to them in the schools was the unacknowledged cause of Ireland's historically high incidence of alcoholism. Some of the children grew up to become destitute and homeless. Some resorted to drugs, drink and gambling. Many tried to kill themselves. Huge numbers of them fled the country. Of 1,090 witnesses to the child abuse commission, 396 were living overseas when they came back to do an extraordinary service for the country that had failed them abjectly.

Church and state conspired in sheltering criminals, in facilitating their access to victims and in acting as accessories after the fact. Rome knew what was happening. In complying with the commission's request for records, the Rosminian order – one of the most genuinely contrite – unearthed a trove of 68 documents stored in Rome, dated from 1936 to 1968. The papers detailed, among other things, the reign of seven sexual predators who worked in St Patrick's industrial school in Upton, Co Cork. In another institution, a child told a priest in confession how Brother X held him down while Brother Y sexually abused him, and then they swapped places. The priest called the boy a liar. "I never spoke about it again," he told the commission.

Mother Ireland knew what was going on too. The Department of Education was informed of the abuse and "it colluded in the silence", the report says. Men with histories of sexual abuse as members of religious orders were allowed to seek voluntary dispensation from their vows, were provided with glowing job references, and continued molesting and raping children as lay teachers in state schools. In St Joseph's, Kilkenny, run by the Sisters of Charity, a handyman employed for 30 years was discovered to have been "grossly sexually abusing girls from as young as eight years old". The Department of Education investigated and confirmed the abuse. It offered no comfort to the children. It did not tell gardaí.

Profit the principal motive

The church and the state ran a cosy cartel. Children were their commodity and profit a principal motive. The state's capitation system of funding for industrial schools was an incentive for mangers to cram as many children as they could get into their institutions. There were 830 boys in Artane alone. The Christian Brothers, who ran it, siphoned off a proportion of the grant designated for industrial schools and spent it on their mainstream schools instead, leaving the children it was intended for mired in squalor and drudgery. They benefited from a steady supply of child slave labour. From a very young age, children were put to heavy manual work on farms and in industrial halls and, in the case of Goldenbridge in Inchicore, making rosary beads.

The Brothers of Charity installed one of their members as a teacher in Lota, a special needs school in Glanmire, Co Cork. His congregation knew the man had abused children in England and that he was known to the police there. Allegations were made that he sexually abused children in Lota. The brothers accept this to be so but to this day, says the report, "they have not accepted congregational responsibility for it".

Nobody shouted stop then. The question is whether those shouting stop now really mean it. Many holy men and women have been wringing their hands since Wednesday afternoon when the report was published. Many words of apology have been uttered and many echoes of mealy-mouthed insincerity have filled the air. Agents of the state refused witnesses admission to the Conrad Hotel for the release of the report, and called gardaí to the scene as if those heroic survivors were criminals.

Education minister Batt O'Keeffe's anodyne response strove to avoid incriminating his department. "Child abuse is an abhorrent, inexcusable act whenever and wherever it occurs," he said. The Conference of Religious in Ireland (CORI) seemed to attribute everything to poor architecture and naive management. It said: "By their design, lack of support and supervision, the institutions were unsuitable to deliver the kind of care the children needed. Consequently, such institutions failed to meet the needs of many vulnerable children."

There have been carefully moderated expressions of "regret" for the "pain" caused to children. The equivocation of the church's language of contrition is disturbing, for it suggests that those in the highest positions of responsibility today still do not acknowledge that a culture of perversion visited horrors on children at the hands of their so-called brothers and sisters in Christ. Their carefully-chosen words offer scant reason to hope that the savagery of what are being called Ireland's concentration camps could not happen again.