'No legal way' to review abuse deal with Church

Thu, May 21, 2009, 01:00

There is “no legal way” that 2002 deal granting religious congregations indemnity against child-abuse claims can be renegotiated, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe said this evening.

Opposition parties today called for a review of the deal following the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse which was published yesterday. The report found endemic abuse in State institutions with children living in “daily terror” of physical violence.

The Cabinet will discuss the commission's recommendations next week, and the report is to be debated in the Dáil.

Under the 2002 indemnity agreement between the State and the congregations, the religious orders were awarded indemnity against all future claims if they paid €128 million in cash and property.

But Mr O’Keeffe said this evening: “There is no legal way that I can coerce the Church to go aback and renegotiate this particular deal.

“In fact it would create a lot of difficulties. It is, of course, open to the Church for them to make further compensation available if they so desire,” Mr O’Keeffe added.

Asked if the controversial deal would be reviewed, Taoiseach Brian Cowen said the Government would “take legal advice on that matter but it appears at the moment that that may not be possible,” he added.”

Fine Gael education spokesman Brian Hayes said today a review of the entire deal was necessary "if legally possible".

"When the deal was done initially in 2002, without any public scrutiny, I have to say, it was done on the basis that the total liability would be somewhere in excess of €300 million.

"Now, the total liability that we know about currently is about €1.2 billion, and I think it's only fair at this stage from the victims and taxpayers' perspective, that if at all possible to renegotiate this, we should do it."

Mr Hayes said some of the properties involved in the deal had still not been handed over to the State, adding: "The crucial point is that when the deal was done, it was done on the basis of an asset value that has significantly depleted now due to the reduction in property prices.

"The current cost of €128 million is a total misnomer," Mr Hayes said.

He said there were still "substantial question marks" over the 2002 deal done "in the dying days" of that government.

"The Department of Finance clearly expressed reservations over the deal. We know that the PAC [Public Accounts Committee] some years later asked huge questions about the deal, and to this day, we still do not know exactly why that deal was struck by the-then minister for education and his government."

Fine Gael has called for several days to be set aside in the Dáil to debate the report's findings.

Labour spokesman for justice Pat Rabbitte today claimed the abuse report vindicated the party's stance on the "supine" indemnity deal made with religious orders.

"Nine times alone during 2003, I raised the matter on Leaders' Questions with the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern. We got little support from any other side of the House at the time, but the extent of the compensation paid and the full details now revealed in the Ryan report vindicate the concerns we raised," the former party leader said today.

"The publication of the report has once again focused attention on the extraordinary deal concluded by the then Minister for Education, Dr. Michael Woods, on his final day in office in 2002. The deal was agreed without a memo being brought to government and with limited involvement of the Office of the Attorney General," Mr Rabbitte said.

"While the original recommendation of the Department of Finance was that the liability for financial compensation for the damage done to these children should be shared 50:50 between the state and the religious congregations. However, the deal agreed by Dr. Michael Woods capped the congregations' liability to €127m, which we know now represents only around 10 per cent of the actual cost.

"There is now an unanswerable case for reopening the indemnity deal. We now need to find an appropriate mechanism to allow the deal to be reopened and recast to reflect the appropriate share of liability between Church and State."

Mr Rabbitte also called for an independent investigation into the circumstances of the deal agreed.

Sinn Féin spokesman on children Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin called for an early debate while speaking in the Dáil today.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland earlier, Minister for Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin said the Government was "considering comprehensively" issues surrounding the indemnity deal. But he refused to be drawn directly on whether the Government would move to redraw its terms.

He said yesterday's commission report was "very clear" about the State's responsibilities.

"The advice would have very much been that people may have gone after the church, the church may have pleaded inability to pay - inevitably those who would be suing would have gone after the State. I think we can look at that again, and in my view the issue is how both the orders and the State continue to support the survivors.

"The Government are considering this comprehensively," Mr Martin said.

"As far as I'm concerned, the key point is the survivors, and the focus should be on the survivors in terms of education provision, all of the various supports the State can give people, and that's something that has been lost sight of terms of all the litigation and so forth," the Minister said.

"I think that sometimes people get into the deal and as if that's the paramount issue. The paramount issue for me has to be the survivors."

"Compared to other countries across the globe . . . what this entire episode represents is that this State, belatedly yes, but did lift the lid on a very dark period of our history where children were committed wrongly in the first instance to institutions," Mr Martin said.

Speaking on the same programme, Mr Hayes also said the notion that €2 million could be cut in the budget of the Residential Institutions Redress Board was "scandalous".

In a statement today, however, the Department of Education and Science said it has "no control or influence" over the Redress Board awards and that the State pays whatever award the board determines.

The department said that money is allocated based on an estimate of the level and number of awards being made, and that the amount set aside this year was reduced because of reduced award patterns. It added the Redress Board is not constrained by the amount set aside.

Green Party MEP candidate Senator Deirdre de Burca urged church authorities to volunteer more funds for redress purposes.

“I’m not a lawyer and I cannot say whether or not this deal can be revisited. But, before we get ourselves into another legal tangle at a time like this, I see a much simpler way forward,” Ms de Burca said.

“To be blunt, I believe they [church leaders] can and should come up with more funds to help provide redress and reparation,” she said.