Survivors of abuse by the Spiritan religious order in Ireland have been urged to come forward to share their stories.
It comes as independent experts have been appointed to engage with victims and survivors of historical abuse at schools and institutions run by the Spiritan Congregation, formerly the Holy Ghost Fathers.
On Wednesday, Father Martin Kelly, on behalf of the Spiritan Congregation, offered a public apology to all victims and survivors who were abused.
Ireland’s police force last week confirmed it had received allegations of historical abuse relating to the Spiritans.
The abuse allegations go back as far as the 1970s and involve schools that were managed by the Holy Ghost Order, including Dublin’s prestigious Blackrock College.
It emerged last week in an RTE Radio Documentary on One programme that the religious order had paid five million euro in settlements towards abuse and support services since 2004.
At least 233 men have made allegations of abuse against 77 priests from the Irish Spiritans.
Fr Kelly told a press conference at Dublin’s RDS: “On behalf of the Spiritan Congregation in Ireland, I want to express my deepest and most sincere sorrow to every person who was abused by a member of the Spiritans, or by a staff member, in any of our schools.
“I sincerely apologise for this. What was done to you as innocent children was cruel and indefensible. We, as Spiritans, are ashamed.”
Fr Kelly also said a “failure to act promptly resulted in children being abused who could have been protected had corrective action been taken earlier”.
“I also acknowledge that failure on our part and apologise for it,” he added.
The announcement of an independent group to engage with survivors of historical abuse at Holy Ghost schools and institutions comes after meetings with a group of past pupils of Dublin’s prestigious Blackrock College last year.
The group that initiated the process and worked with the Spiritans comprised Corry McMahon, Louis Hoffman, Philip Feddis and John Coulter.
On the back of the meetings with past pupils, a restorative justice programme has been set up led by Tim Chapman.
Mr Chapman said he has been impressed by those who have come forward and told their story, demonstrating “incredible honesty and incredible courage”.
“To me, they are our heroes that Blackrock should be proud of just as much as their sporting heroes, their political heroes, their business heroes. These people have shown huge, huge courage and huge honesty,” he said.
“I would say that I think the Spiritans have responded with a great compassion and great commitment and listened.”
Mr Coulter said, as former pupils, he and other victims wanted a restorative justice process established because they felt the existing avenues, such as the legal system, as a means of addressing historical abuse had been “disempowering” and “re-traumatising” for victims.
“What we wanted from the very outset, in our words, to the Spiritans was, we felt there needs to be a victim-led process, a process where the victim is at the centre of the process and where the victim dictates how the process unfolds, and what are the outcomes,” he said.
The Spiritans said the pilot programme revealed “further histories of abuse in our schools and the horrifying impact this has had on some of our past pupils and their families”.
“We acknowledge that its effects have lasted a lifetime, with many still struggling to cope with it,” Fr Kelly said.
“This abuse took many forms: physical, sexual, emotional and spiritual. It was committed by members of the Irish Spiritans and lay staff in its schools.”
He added: “It is clear from this pilot restorative justice programme that there are many more past pupils who were abused and who have not yet come forward.
“We have listened to the experiences of several of our past pupils as they courageously revealed the trauma which they suffered. Many thought they were the only ones abused. It is clear that this was not the case; they were not alone.”
It emerged during the conference that a lay person who has been accused of sexual abuse is still living on the Blackrock College campus.
Fr Kelly confirmed the “elderly” man, who is no longer working and has limited mobility, remains on site.
He added that the complaint has been reported to both gardaí and Tusla.
Spiritans safeguarding officer Liam Lally said: “We received the allegation within the last 10 days.
“Immediately on receiving the allegation, we reported it to the Gardai, we reported it to Tusla. We are in touch with Tusla and the Gardai to see how to proceed.”