'Society has failed a child' - priest questions efforts to tackle bullying

Thu, Nov 1, 2012, 00:00

MOURNERS AT the funeral of Erin Gallagher, the Donegal teenager who took her life amid complaints of being bullied, were told that “society has failed a 13-year-old child”.

Addressing Erin’s family and schoolfriends, Fr John Joe Duffy urged young people to talk more openly about their problems, but he also questioned whether the authorities had done enough to tackle cyberbullying.

“I would rather be anywhere else but here at the funeral Mass of a 13-year-old child, and I know, as Erin’s mum Lorraine has stated in the last number of days, she would not want anyone to suffer this great pain, this great suffering both she and her family are going through, the loss of a child, and there is a message in that for all of us.”

Speaking of the sense of “disbelief” and “unrealness” her death brought, Fr Duffy, recently appointed chaplain at Finn Valley College, where Erin Gallagher went to school, said: “Any one of us would love to be able to turn back the clock so we would not be here today but, by its presence, this community wants to tell you as a family it also feels your pain.

“This community wants to reach out to you, to heal hurt, to heal sadness, to heal broken hearts,” Fr Duffy told her mother Lorraine (36), who sat with Erin’s sister Shannon (15), and brother Seán James (4), along with a wide circle of relatives and friends.

Members of Erin’s boxing and GAA clubs were among the hundreds of people who attended the service at St Mary’s Church, Stranorlar.

Her classmates sat together, many wearing flourishes of pink, Erin’s favourite colour. They held hands and wept, with the dazed expressions of children suddenly thrust into a very grown-up world.

Fr Duffy had special words of comfort for them, noting: “Erin’s death may be the first experience of death and loss for many of you. You may feel overwhelmed by your feelings which may possibly be one, or many.

“On the other hand, you may not have a strong reaction at this moment in time . . . It is okay to ask questions such as ‘why?’ But be patient with yourselves and allow yourselves to grieve. Don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings to your family, to your teachers, to me or to the other priests and indeed to your friends.”

He said any young person in crisis should not be afraid to speak to “someone you trust”, or to organisations such as the Samaritans, Childline, the HSE or the Garda. He also urged them to rethink their use of social networking websites such as ask.fm, which Erin had been frequenting before her death. “I am now asking each one of you: is it necessary to have ask.fmin your lives? . . . When we see the consequences of what such discussions can do to some people, I am asking you to seriously think about going home today and to delete ask.fmand never agree to frequent that site or any other sites . . .

“Is there any regulation of social media pages? There is not. Authorities may hide behind technical and other difficulties but these sites can be regulated and they must.

“Unfortunately today is not the first tragedy we see in our country but let it be the last . . . But it can only be the last if we face the reality of what we need to stand up to as a society,” Fr Duffy continued.

“I ask parents to familiarise yourselves with these sites, to familiarise yourselves with the safeguards and to act in the way that is most necessary to help protect your children.

“As a country, we are very good at aftercare – after the fact – but we fail miserably on prevention. We have seen the excellent support of these last few days from professional services but let all of us take a step backwards. Let us go back to last week. What levels of support were available and where were they before this tragic event? . . .

“Have we the resources and personnel necessary to man the frontline with regard to prevention? Have we the national policies in place?

“Have we the guidelines for intervention and prevention to avoid a terrible and unnecessary tragedy like this in the future? . . .

“I am asking all agencies in Ireland responsible for the care of children to finally come together and formulate a comprehensive policy of prevention and support for helping individuals so this day will never have to dawn on another parent . . .

“That is the challenge we as a society now face. We are only here today because society has failed Erin Gallagher, has failed a 13-year-old child.”

Erin was remembered as someone “full of life, of fun, from the very start of life”. She had “a very hearty laugh . . . always made sure her hair was perfectly done”, and enjoyed her music, liked metalwork at school, while “the time she spent with her family and friends was precious to her”.

At the end of Mass, her classmates gathered on the altar to read the poem Angels Are Hard To Find. When one of the teenagers faltered over the lines, another finished the reading. Afterwards, they formed a guard of honour outside the church, releasing pink balloons as the small white coffin was carried past.

Members of Erin’s family stopped to embrace the schoolchildren before rejoining the cortege which passed through Stranorlar in light rain to Castlefin cemetery.