Wrongdoers in health board and HSE carry on unfazed
Last Friday, the day Seán FitzPatrick was arraigned before Dublin District Court – resulting in those memorable images of the former Anglo chief pursued by a flash-mob of paparazzi and darting to his taxi like a wounded, frightened stag – another story of at least equivalent public interest slithered less conspicuously into the public domain. In this case there was no visible villain, which meant it became a less prominent story, which probably means in turn the public consciousness of its importance was stillborn.
The RTÉ news bulletin that evening carried no report of this story, although Saturday’s newspapers published brief accounts. It concerned a former secondary school teacher who had won damages of €736,984 after the High Court found his life had been destroyed by the “grossly reckless” conduct of a Health Service Executive inquiry into allegations that he had sexually abused a male pupil.
Delivering his judgment, Mr Justice Iarfhlaith O’Neill said the man was a victim of “targeted malice” and of a prejudged inquiry by the then area health board and HSE. The judge said the inquiry had manifested “a perverse calculated effort” on the part of the defendants to give effect to their prejudgment that the allegations were true. He said he was satisfied that the malfeasance in public office of these institutions had the consequence of destroying irreparably the life this man had enjoyed, in all its aspects: professional, social and domestic.
The health board had persistently refused to give the man an account of the allegations of a former pupil, made through the auspices of an American counsellor. The judge said the defendants had in effect accepted the allegations from the outset and, at every step of their investigation, had “sheltered the allegations from appropriate scrutiny, thereby ensuring the applicant did not escape his fate as a child sex abuser, as they saw it”.
He added that the investigation was “conducted in a manner calculated to ensure that the predetermined conclusion would not be deflected or disturbed by any meaningful input by the applicant”. The pupil, now aged 24, has never made a formal complaint to the Garda.
The judge said the teacher had endured extraordinarily high levels of stress and great mental anguish and suffering. As a result of the defendants’ behaviour, he would have to live with the consequences for the remainder of his life. “No human being could be expected to face the same experience again,” the judge said.
It is, to put it drily, something of a regret to this columnist that this judgment did not become available in advance of the vote on the so-called children’s referendum on November 10th last – although I know that these High Court proceedings ended some considerable time before that. Several times during the referendum campaign – invariably in the course of debates on the State broadcaster, RTÉ – attempts of mine to describe the reality of the abuse of State power behind the cloak provided by the secrecy provisions governing matters concerning families and children were met with the question: “But why would the State want to do this?”
For someone such as I – who has for many years been hearing about cases like the one described above – this is a bizarre question, either impossibly naive or unspeakably disingenuous in the ignorance it evinces about the reality of life in this State. The fact that the question can be asked at all is a measure of the abdication of journalistic responsibility that has occurred in this area.
But these very factors also serve to make the question almost impossible to address in the context of a television or radio debate. Where to begin describing the reality behind the cloak? How, in a few sentences, to disperse the haze of innocence and complacency that has been allowed to congregate around the public’s understanding of how these things work? It would have been useful, in these circumstances, to have been able to refer to Mr Justice O’Neill’s judgment, but alas the timing of its release rendered it unhelpful in this regard.
“Malfeasance”, “targeted malice”, “grossly reckless” – these phrases jump out as encapsulations of what I was seeking to describe throughout the referendum campaign, against the scepticism and sometimes hostility of fellow journalists as much as of Government Ministers and vested interests. These phrases refer not to a dispute between citizens but to the oppression of one citizen by an agency representing the Irish State, paid for with your taxes and mine. They provide the briefest glimpse of what happens behind the cloak, before it settles once more into place.
The perpetrators in this case will never face a court, will never be photographed as they hurry to elude the public gaze, will never have their names read out on the news. On the contrary, as far as we know, these wrongdoers continue in their positions, unpunished and unfazed.