Oireachtas committee hears call on Caranaua chief executive to resign

‘We make mistakes...and when that happens we say we’re sorry’, responds Mary Higgins

Senator Lynn Ruane called on Caranua CEO Mary Higgins to resign from her role, at the Oireachtas Education Committee. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Senator Lynn Ruane called on Caranua CEO Mary Higgins to resign from her role, at the Oireachtas Education Committee. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

The chief executive of Caranua, the independent statutory organisation charged with managing a fund to improve the lives of survivors of institutional abuse, should “step aside” an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Senator Lynn Ruane called on Mary Higgins to resign from her role, at the Education Committee on Tuesday. All committee members present said they had had significant complaints from survivors about their engagement with Caranua.

Ms Higgins said she was not aware of the complaints and it was difficult for Caranua to address them as a result.

Caranua, which means ‘new friend’, was established under the 2012 Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Act, to manage a €110 million fund provided by the religious, to improve survivors’ lives. Survivors can apply to the fund for grants for such services as counselling, medical treatment, education or therapies.

The organisation has come under fire in recent weeks following claims by some survivors that they had been “retraumatised” by their engagement with it, and due to statements by Ms Higgins about survivors in March, in an interview with The Irish Times and subsequently on RTÉ radio, in which she said some survivors “would never be happy”.

Senator Ruane quoted from a letter sent to survivors after the value of the services they had received had reached a cap of €15,000, in which they are told: “We hope you will continue to enjoy the benefits of what you have received”.

She said the language was offensive as it implied the fund was a “gift” for which they should be grateful. She could not believe the board could support her in her position as chief executive.

“I feel in my opinion with language like that... I believe you should step aside from your position.”

She asked why the cap of €15,000 had been imposed in June 2016, when Caranua had committed to meeting survivors’ ongoing needs. She said “ongoing needs don’t have caps”.

Catherine Connolly, TD, said it was her belief Caranua had established an “unjust” and “inequitable” system, while committee chair Fiona O’Loughlin, said she had heard mainly “negative” reports from survivors of Caranua.

“They have felt they were not respected...It is very concerning.”

Catherine Martin TD described the language Ms Higgins had used about survivors as “disgraceful”, and said she found it difficult to believe Ms Higgins was unaware of unhappiness with the services.

Ms Higgins said Caranua could only address issues that were brought to the organisation’s attention. “If the complaints are not brought to us there is nothing we can do.” She asked Oireachtas members to bring the complaints to her attention. “We make mistakes. We get things wrong...and when that happens we say we’re sorry...We are an open organisation. It is very difficult to hear all this negativity,” she said.

She said Caranua would meet survivors face-to-face in the new premises into which Caranua would move once a legal issue was sorted out over the lease. “It is our intention that we will diversify the offering we have for survivors,”

“We do try earnestly to write to people in a way that conveys warmth.... in a way that people will understand and get the message....We are here to provide something additional. And I do think sometimes there are misunderstandings about what we can do.

She said it wasn’t Caranua’s role to seek more money from the religious to add to the fund. “It’s the role of the Minister,” said Ms Higgins.