“Inside the mind of a paedophile,” said the headline last Sunday (May 2). The article, by the Sunday Tribune’s Ali Bracken, told the story of the serial abuse of children by the California-based Irish priest, Oliver O’Grady – in his own words.

It was “the affection of the hugging,” that O’Grady particularly enjoyed; it “awakened within me urges to be affectionate in return.” When an altar boy he liked, aged ten or eleven, arrived at the sacristy, he said, “I might go over and give him a hug, and if he responded by allowing me to hug him and offered to hug me in return, that sort of gave me permission to continue at that point.”

The barren honesty of it was striking. O’Grady’s voice was that of a pathetic, deluded, lonely man; the fact that we had his voice at all made the article extraordinary. And it answers, in part, a question I had asked myself about the Irish theatre.

A year ago this month, Judge Sean Ryan published the final report of the Commission to Inquire Into Child Abuse. In over 2,000 pages, the Commission laid bare the extent and nature of abuse in Ireland’s religious-run residential institutions. This abuse amounted to the gravest ever scandal to afflict the Irish state; the neglect of children by the state over decades was a crime perhaps only matched in recent history by the colonial power’s earlier neglect of the children of famine-struck Ireland.

The report didn’t merely document the abuse, it gave voice to the previously voiceless, allowing the victims and survivors to speak for themselves.

In this, it was fundamentally a piece of storytelling. It both comprised hundreds of individual stories, and sought to bring them together to tell the overarching story of systemic neglect.

Storytelling is at the heart of our theatre tradition. So, a year on, how have the protectors of that tradition, the theatre community, responded to the Ryan report?

The Abbey’s response has been notable. Thomas Kilroy’s play, Christ Deliver Us!, had been commissioned years earlier, but its thematic focus on chronically repressed sexuality resonated with the wider debate post-Ryan.

Then the Abbey brought us the just-concluded Darkest Corner season. At its heart was Mary Raftery’s theatrical presentation of the Ryan report, No Escape.

It was revealing that the Abbey’s director, Fiach Mac Conghail, had initially considered simply reading the report, from cover to cover, on stage. (This idea was also explored by some in Dublin’s fringe theatre community.)

That ethos was what drove No Escape: it was at heart both a tribute to the monumental achievement of the report, and to the dignity of the individual stories told within it.

Mary Raftery’s economic synopsis of the report found some drama in juxtaposing its damning conclusions with re-enactments of the testimony of religious leaders at the Inquiry, thus exploring as well as exposing their deceit. But its form was essentially that of illustrated lecture rather than drama. It was a very pure response to the enormity of Ryan’s report: a recognition that the report needed to first be recognised, and read, by the theatre community, before it could be artistically explored.

The question it raises now, for the theatre, is, “what next?” On a practical level, No Escape should now tour. On the artistic level, it now falls to our theatre makers to mine the stories presented by Ryan/Raftery further, and to find drama in them.

Mannix Flynn has probed this area previously. And the young company Brokentalkers are working on a new documentary play about the Irish care system, to include the residential institutions.

But the dark heart of drama to come will lie in the characters of those who committed these acts, and those who covered up and tolerated them. That will be risky territory for playwrights. But it will be necessary artistically, and necessary to understand.

Mary Raftery’s play cites an incident where a young Christian Brother at Letterfrack, Br Sorel, made a boy eat his own faeces. The question that confronts us as citizens, and as artists, is now merely how best to make reparation or to apportion blame, but what happened in the mind of that young man to make such behaviour seem normal?

Ali Bracken’s extraordinary story in the Tribune last week, based on an affidavit by O’Grady that she obtained, provides a journalistic step in that broad direction. On stage, Michael Harding ventures there also, with a timely revival of his 1994 play, The Kiss, at Bewley’s Café Theatre from Monday (1pm, booking at 086 8784001 or info@bewleyscafetheatre.com).

Harding journeys into the mind of an abuser with courage and sensitivity. His priest, played by the wonderful Tom Hickey, is a man corrupted by solitude, loneliness and sexual frustration. He is “a sad young man”, passing his days as chaplain in an old folks’ home, and his spare time following women, discreetly, in shopping centres, eventually allowing his repressed sexuality to overwhelm him, tragically.

Harding’s priest reflects that his predecessors as Irish clergy, hundreds of years before, “lived a raw, physical, earthy life, and in that sense their sensuality was cared for, managed.” In a line in an earlier draft of the play, he describes his story as “the anthropology of chastity.”

The anthropology of abuse is at the core of the Ryan Report. Who are we, as a people, that we allowed this happen? And what relation do we bear to the people who commited these acts? The answers can only come by exploring the characters and circumstances of those people themselves.

This is the territory into which Irish drama will have to venture now. The journey won’t be comfortable. But in the hands of such as Michael Harding, it will be profound.

Published in the Irish Independent, May 8.