DUBLIN – The Catholic orders responsible for abusing Ireland's poorest children say they're struggling to come up with money to help their victims. Yet investigations into their net worth paint a very different picture — that of nuns and brothers with billions' worth of carefully sheltered assets worldwide.
Irish government leaders said Wednesday they expect the 18 religious orders involved in abusing children in workhouse-style schools to pay a much greater share of compensation to 14,000 state-recognized victims. They also demanded that the secretive orders reveal the true scope of their wealth for the first time in face-to-face negotiations with the government.
"We have to ascertain how much they actually have. The government is adamant and determined that they will make an appropriate contribution," Defense Minister Willie O'Dea said.
The push follows last week's publication of a nine-year investigation into the widespread sexual, physical and psychological abuse of children in church care from the 1930s to 1990s, when the last of the special schools, reformatories and orphanages closed.
On Wednesday, about half of the 18 orders announced they would meet with the government. All reiterated apologies for their role in harming children — but none said they would contribute more than promised in a 2002 deal with the government that left taxpayers paying almost all of the euro1.1 billion ($1.5 billion) bill to settle the abuse claims.
Under that agreement, the orders received a state indemnity from civil lawsuits from the victims in exchange for a euro128 million ($175 million) contribution, barely a tenth of the eventual costs. Church leaders also admit they haven't even given the Irish government all that money yet, because their earmarked donations are largely in properties — some of which still remain in church hands, and most suffering heavy falls in valuation amid Ireland's recession.
The orders this week have ruled out paying more compensation, even though the report found them principally to blame and guilty of far greater abuses than they admitted to in 2002. Instead the orders have proposed unspecified contributions to a new victims' welfare fund.
The Conference of Religious in Ireland, an umbrella body, said the 18 orders are planning a private strategy session Friday in Dublin to decide on a common approach to the government.
Experts on the global fight against abuse claims say the orders won't shed light on their finances voluntarily.
"First off, don't trust anything they say," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, an American Catholic priest who is an expert on canon law and a champion of abuse victims' rights. "And be prepared to follow up the urging for voluntary donation or contribution with some form of force."
Doyle said the Irish orders "must be forced by a power greater than themselves, and that's the courts and the Irish government, to make sure the compensation comes, even to the point of forcibly divesting them of properties."
The order most deeply implicated in the abuse report, the Christian Brothers, was founded two centuries ago in Ireland but has spread across the globe. It has the biggest property empire and faces exposure to abuse claims ranging from the United States to Canada, Australia and Ireland.
The order still owns hundreds of boys' schools in 20 countries worldwide. But U.S. and Canadian lawyers who have won multimillion-dollar sex-abuse cases against the Christian Brothers accuse the brotherhood of making itself appear as poor as possible by shifting school ownership to individual members, trusts, corporations or offshore bodies.
"Their assets and how they hold assets is of Byzantine complexity," said David Wingfield, a Toronto-based lawyer who has won abuse settlements from Christian Brothers schools in Canada, from Newfoundland to British Columbia. "They have unlimited financial resources to mount litigation, and they have absolutely no shame in doing so."
A 2001 investigation by Irish broadcasters RTE into Christian Brothers' mounting legal fights worldwide estimated the order's global property assets, including its Rome headquarters, in excess of euro1 billion ($1.4 billion).
Brother Edmund Garvey, spokesman for the Christian Brothers in Ireland and the order's former world leader, estimated this week that its approximately 100 schools in Ireland alone are worth euro400 million ($560 million).
Last year it transferred control of its Irish school network to a Dublin-based trust. Garvey insisted the trust was designed to defend the long-term viability of the order's schools, not protect the order from lawsuits. He said the order was ready to surrender Irish assets but was struggling financially to care for its 250 largely elderly brothers in Ireland.
Garvey said his order would try to find more funds to compensate victims, but wasn't sure that was realistic.
"At this point in time, I don't believe we can," he said Tuesday.
Stephen Rubino, a New Jersey-based lawyer who specializes in class-action lawsuits against Catholic authorities in the United States, said the Christian Brothers often sought "to disassociate themselves from particularly pregnant assets that could be given over to, or awarded, in a judgment."
"It's what corporations do when they feel like they're in trouble. The question is whether it's lawful," Rubino said.
Mary Raftery, the Irish journalist who exposed church abuse cover-ups in Ireland, said Christian Brothers' leaders in Australia and Canada behaved the same way during 1990s abuse scandals in those nations as it was doing now in Ireland.
"They denied the abuse, accused the victims of lying, and set about ensuring that their assets were protected from survivors and lawsuits by either creating trusts or splitting various schools and assets away from central control," she said.
Other Irish-founded orders exposed as serial abusers have a big footprint overseas, particularly the Sisters of Mercy nuns, who run scores of girls' schools in Britain, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States. The Sisters of Mercy also own key hospitals in Ireland.
Their nuns were identified in the Irish report as serial abusers of girls, chiefly in the form of beatings and humiliation rather than molestation. Like the Christian Brothers, they have vowed to cooperate with the Irish government — but made no commitments on providing more funds for victims.
The Irish Times, Ireland's newspaper of record, urged the government Wednesday to go harder after the orders.
"Their clumsy and self-serving efforts to protect their own interests are rapidly alienating whatever limited support they have. This is how institutions perish. The gross imbalance which leaves the state paying 90 percent ... is indefensible," the newspaper said in an editorial.
Some victims want the government to hold a national referendum to amend Ireland's constitution so it would permit seizures of church money and property.
Michael O'Brien, 72, was separated from his seven brothers, sisters and cousins when they were placed in separate church-run residences in the 1940s. He suffered repeated rapes and beatings from age 8 onward in an industrial school run by the Rosminian order in the town of Clonmel.
O'Brien electrified the nation this week by denouncing a government minister on live television, detailing the perversions and terror he endured as a boy and demanding a constitutional crackdown on church wealth.
"Don't say you can't change it! You are the government of this state. You run this state. So, for God's sake, stop mealy-mouthing because I am sick of it!" he shouted.