Woods gives preview of the conservative fightback

Mon, May 25, 2009, 01:00

ANALYSIS:In the former minister’s media appearances we heard arguments the religious will likely use

IT IS easy to discount former government minister and senior Fianna Fáil member Michael Woods. A former minister, he is no longer a prominent figure. He has, however, left a festering sore behind him which continues to weep poison every now and then.

The infamous church-State deal on redress for victims of institutional child abuse, under which the religious orders pay a mere 10 per cent of the compensation bill, was at its most septic over the weekend.

Woods, the main architect of the deal, defended it on the television news and gave a long RTÉ radio interview on Saturday. We were beginning to hear some of the defences likely to be chosen by religious conservatives as soon as they manage to regroup and fight back.

First among these is that it was all the fault of the State. To this end, Woods uttered his first untruth: “the Department of Education had control, management role, organisation”.

It is a simple fact that the department had no management role within the industrial school system – management was exclusively a matter for the religious orders. This has been legally determined in recent years by two separate High Court judges. However, while this may be the strict legal position, it is apparent from the Ryan report that, morally speaking, church and State were to blame in equal part for the abuse suffered by so many thousands of children. It is thus peculiar to see Woods, as a former cabinet minister, exaggerate the responsibility of the State and minimise the culpability of the Catholic Church. It makes you wonder who exactly he was representing all those years he was in government.

Returning to his radio interview, he went on to state that “when the government went into this in the first place, we saw and we knew the kinds of things that had happened”.

Interesting to contrast this with the evidence he gave at a public hearing of the Ryan commission in 2004. Asked if he had formed a view as to how much abuse had occurred in the institutions, he replied: “No, not really, because we hadn’t enough information at that time.”

The time he was referring to was the period during which he was negotiating the church-State deal on compensation with the religious orders.

Nonetheless, as he said on Saturday, the State was taking full responsibility “and it was a question of whether the religious orders would make a contribution towards that”.

Well, no, actually – that was not the question. It was instead whether the religious orders wanted to buy an indemnity from the State for the amount on offer, namely €127 million. In other words, for that amount they could get the taxpayer to foot the bill for all future damages found against them.

Woods explained that the congregations said at the time that they had estimated their legal liability at under €60 million should they have to fight the court cases on their own. It appears that he believed them. What he did not mention was that their estimate was based on a belief that only about 10 per cent of cases against them would succeed, in other words that they would fight and beat in court nine out of every 10 victims who sued them.

The congregations’ confidence in such a high attrition rate was based on the protection afforded to them under the statute of limitations. This is a simple piece of legislation limiting the time after an injury during which a legal case can be taken.

The statute, however, could have been altered, lifted or amended at any time, and indeed in the wake of the States of Fear documentaries in 1999 it was suspended for a short period to allow those sexually abused to pursue their legal actions. Victims of physical abuse, though, were specifically excluded from the exemption. What is clear is that without the statute, the exposure of the religious orders would be hugely magnified. And therein should lie the key to government strategy on how to renegotiate the abysmal church-State deal.

Arguing palpable bad faith on the part of the religious orders – entirely reasonable on foot of the Ryan report revelations – the State should break the deal. It follows that it must then lift the statute of limitations for all cases of child abuse, not just sexual assault, as the only way to permit victims to seek appropriate legal remedy against the religious orders.

This would open the floodgates on the religious orders, who would have to defend against a tidal wave of abuse cases not only in their institutions but crucially also in their day schools. Given that there is hardly anyone in Ireland over the age of about 45 who was not beaten in school – often far in excess of what was permitted under Department of Education rules – hundreds of thousands of cases could ensue.

And, of course, as we know from the recent Louise O’Keeffe case, the State carries no legal responsibility for abuse suffered by children in schools. The entire liability for decades of violence against children in schools and institutions rests with either religious orders or with the bishops who continue to appoint schools’ boards of management.

This then brings the hierarchy into the picture. Michael Woods was at pains on Saturday to claim that none of this concerns the Catholic Church itself, but rather the religious orders – a somewhat Jesuitical distinction. The truth is that the entire church edifice is compromised, morally, legally and potentially financially. This appalling vista may well have dawned on the bishops.

It possibly explains the apparent breaking of ranks we witnessed at the weekend, with three senior churchmen indicating clearly that the religious orders should increase their contribution to the redress scheme for victims.

However, the religious orders are tough customers. The Christian Brothers, in particular, have been fighting off similar demands for compensation across three continents for the past two decades, ever since their appalling abuse of children in Canada and Australia was revealed.

It all depends on whether the Government has the backbone to face them down, to break the shameful church-State deal, to terminate their indemnity, and to remove all obstacles to the victims’ pursuit of the congregations (and the bishops) through the courts.

As the Ryan report points out, deference and submissiveness characterised the government’s dealings with the Catholic Church during much of the 20th century. It was clear that little had changed during the negotiation of the church-State deal in 2002.

Today, the Government faces a clear choice: will it continue its supine and cowed attitude – so disastrous in the past for the children of Ireland – or will it at last on our behalf stand up to those who have bullied and intimidated us all for so long?