Scoping inquiry has begun interviews with survivors of abuse at schools

Inquiry set up in wake of extensive revelations of clerical child sex abuse at schools run by religious congregations

An independent non-profit organisation has been employed by the scoping inquiry to assist it in interviewing survivors of abuse including at private fee-paying schools about their experiences

The inquiry was set up last March following extensive revelations over previous months of historical clerical child sex abuse at schools run by religious congregations.

It is to make recommendations to the Government by November as to what form of inquiry might be set up to investigate such abuse.

In a letter to survivors, the inquiry said it had brought in Quality Matters, “a not-for-profit organisation with extensive experience of facilitating interviews with people who have experienced trauma and with survivors of institutional abuse,” to assist them in interviewing survivors. Those interviews have been taking place in recent weeks and will continue until September 30th.


Survivors who have agreed to take part in the process have been sent two booklets: one explaining what is involved with the interviews and a second “Guide to Potential Government Responses”. The latter booklet outlines the possible forms of inquiry which may be set up into abuse in the schools being investigated and asks for the opinions of survivors on each.

They are presented with three options: a tribunal of investigation; a commission of investigation; a non-statutory public inquiry, or a restorative justice process.

“You may favour one, or a combination of the above responses, or you may have different views on what the Government response should be. The Scoping Inquiry wants to hear your views,” it says.

In particular, the inquiry has asked survivors to note that “any public inquiry process by which abusers or institutions may be publicly named will generally involve a court-­like process, requiring that survivors give evidence and be cross ­examined, usually in public if the public inquiry is a tribunal, or in private if it is a commission.”

It further points out that, where a large numbers of survivors come forward, an approach has been to hear from a sample of survivors, “as investigating each account and/or each institution may take many years to complete.”

Survivors should also be aware, it points out, that current data protection requirements suggest “that any future inquiry into historic sexual abuse will need to be on a statutory footing to enable the necessary information to be provided.”

The booklet notes that a tribunal of investigation had not been used to investigate clerical child sex abuse to date. A tribunal has court­-like procedures and full statutory powers to compel witnesses attend and to obtain documents. Evidence at tribunal hearings is generally in public. The average length of a tribunal to date was six years but if it dealt “with a large number of complaints, this may take longer”.

A commission of investigation has similar statutory powers to a tribunal but generally held its hearings in private. Such commissions resulted in the 2009 Ryan report, the 2009 Dublin report, the 2011 Cloyne report and the 2021 Mother and Baby Home report.

The commissions leading the to the Ryan and Mother and Baby Home reports involved a confidential committee operating alongside an investigative aspect. This allowed survivors give an account of their abuse in a private and informal environment without lawyers.

“A confidential committee cannot make any findings or name abusers or institutions,” the Scoping Inquiry points out, “However, survivors’ accounts are anonymised and included in a report of the confidential committee.”

Such a commission could take between three years, as in the Dublin report, and up to nine years, as in the Ryan commission report.

A non­-statutory public inquiry relied on “the voluntary co­operation of all concerned.” The Ferns Inquiry, which reported in October 2005, was an example. “Public inquiries do not have powers to convict or imprison an abuser, and do not directly lead to any criminal prosecution,” it says, while they also had “difficulty making negative findings against named individuals or institutions because it would not have the power to compel that documents be provided or that witnesses answer questions”.

The booklet also notes how “there is a risk of further emotional harm to survivors in recounting their experiences to public inquiries and, in particular, in being cross ­examined.”

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry

Patsy McGarry is a contributor to The Irish Times