Report a monument to a society's shame
OPINION:IT IS quite simply a devastating report. It is a monument to the shameful nature of Irish society throughout most of the decades of the 20th century, and arguably even today, writes MARY RAFTERY
Mr Justice Seán Ryan and the child abuse commission have produced a work of incalculable value to this country. They have painstakingly charted the vast scale of abuse of tens of thousands of children within institutions. Crucially, they have ascribed responsibility for that abuse by examining the role and reactions of the authorities concerned – the twin pillars of church and State which colluded so disastrously in the misery of so many children.
Irish society has a long record of running away from the appalling truth of the physical and sexual torture experienced by so many children across over 100 childcare institutions. Many have found a myriad of ways to remain in denial.
Just a few bad apples, they say. And it’s all in the past anyway. Most disgraceful have been the snide suggestions that those revealing their abuse are motivated by compensation rather than the truth. These are the excuses which have been peddled by the religious orders, most notably the Christian Brothers, over the decades. The Ryan commission report makes clear that it has been a deliberate strategy by this and other orders to deny, to obfuscate and to challenge any and all of the allegations against them. What is so important is that it is not merely a historic failing on their part – it remains their approach to this day. Only a single religious order is singled out as having a more open and accepting approach to both the inquiry process and to the victims themselves – this is the Institute of Charity, known as the Rosminian order, who ran viciously abusive schools at Ferryhouse in Clonmel and Upton in Cork and who now seek to understand how their ideals could have become so debased.
While some of the other religious orders, and indeed the State, have made public apologies, these are of highly questionable value in the face of the continuing attempts by both church and State to evade responsibility and intimidate victims.
The Ryan report is particularly interesting on this particular form of hypocrisy. On the public apology by the Christian Brothers, it says it was “guarded, conditional and unclear”, and that “it was not even clear that the statement could properly be called an apology”.
Crucially, the abject failure by most of the congregations to accept any responsibility for the abuse has been identified repeatedly by the commission. In this respect, its findings are targeted directly at the current leadership within these organisations. Again in the case of the Christian Brothers, the report draws a pointed distinction between the evidence of contrition given by many individual Brothers who had worked in the industrial schools, and the attitude of blanket denial coming from those who are currently in charge of the congregation.
The commission describes a range of problems encountered when dealing with the Christian Brothers: assertions “known to be incorrect or misleading”; relevant facts omitted; and a policy of denying that a Brother was ever in an institution where “a complainant had got a name even slightly wrong”.
It should be remembered that many of the religious congregations implicated in the abuse continue to run hundreds of primary and secondary schools across Ireland today.
The Christian Brothers remain the largest provider of schools for boys, while the Sisters of Mercy provide the same facility for girls. Another savagely abusive congregation – the Brothers of Charity, whose abuse of mentally handicapped boys is catalogued in the report’s chapter on its institution at Lota in Cork – continues today to be the largest provider of care facilities for both adults and children with intellectual disabilities.
This asks important questions of us as a society: are we simply to sweep this under the carpet, to conveniently agree that everything is much better today? Or should we instead look to change a system where so much of the educational and care provision for our children is farmed out to organisations who are unaccountable and now proven to have a long track record of abuse and cover-up?
And what of the State and the Department of Education? They too stand condemned for their abject and grotesque failures to protect the children in their care. Grossly inadequate inspection and regulation, combined with wilfully turning a blind eye when complaints were made are detailed repeatedly in the commission’s report.
And again, we perceive a pattern where
this is no mere failing of a past era. We know that the Department of Education is currently fighting child sex abuse victims in the courts to ensure that the State is declared to have no legal responsibility for what happened to them. The State has even gone so far as to threaten victims that it will force them to pay its own legal costs (as well as theirs) should they continue to attempt to hold the State to account. This kind of bullying, threatening behaviour is redolent of the attitudes which the Ryan commission report describes as pervasive in the 1940s and 1950s. Nonetheless, hundreds of victims of child sexual abuse by day-school teachers continue today to experience what can fairly be described as a campaign of State-sponsored intimidation in their attempts to seek justice in the courts.
We have heard all about the ordeal of Louise O’Keeffe, terrified that she might lose her house to pay the State’s legal bills on foot of her case against the Department of Education over sexual abuse by her school principal, which she suffered at the age of eight.
A number of cases concerning another primary school teacher, the notorious former Christian Brother Donal Dunne, are similarly being fought by the State. This sexual predator is the subject of an entire chapter in the Ryan commission report, which also included day-school abuse within its remit.
It is an account of staggering negligence on the part of every single element of the educational system involved. Dunne (referred to as John Brander in the report) moved blithely from school to school across the midlands, sexually assaulting children in each of them, despite detailed knowledge at senior government and Catholic Church levels that he was a paedophile.
It should be pointed out that the report has some failings, most particularly the decision not even to name perpetrators of abuse who have been criminally convicted. It is difficult to fathom the rationale for this, and it is likely to lead to a certain understandable frustration from victims.
Further, the report’s recommendations are disappointingly vague and brief, and do not do justice to the meticulous attention to detail and the plain, frank language of the main body of the report.
In particular, there are two key issues which are not addressed. In the face of such an avalanche of abuse of highly vulnerable children, the question of a specific constitutional provision for the protection of the rights of children should become central to any debate flowing from this report. It is painfully clear that the general protections for children as part of a family unit were pitifully inadequate to save these tens of thousands of children from abuse in times past, and seem similarly incapable today. A recommendation in this area would have been helpful.
Secondly, there is the issue of mandatory reporting of child abuse. This has been a highly controversial area, with strenuous opposition from various professional groups responsible for child welfare. A White Paper on the issue, promised by the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern when he made his historic apology to child abuse victims in 1999, failed to materialise. It remains up to any individual as to whether information about a child at risk is passed on to the appropriate authorities.
The Ryan report is a testament to what happens when discretion prevails. While there has undoubtedly been enormous progress in child protection mechanisms since the days of the industrial schools, we do know that children at risk continue to be let down by the State, remaining in abusive conditions without protection. At the very least, it would have been useful for the child abuse commission to have again raised the reporting issue for debate.
However, what the Ryan commission report has done with great thoroughness is to give us a compelling vision of the hell to which so many children were consigned. It is up to ourselves as a society to demand from Government a series of guarantees, constitutional in part, to ensure that it is never again repeated.
Mary Raftery is a freelance journalist who has written extensively about how children were abused while under the care of both the Catholic Church and the State