Government hopes to announce schools abuse inquiry before Christmas

Discussions continue in Department of Education over what form inquiry will take

The Government hopes to announce what form an inquiry into past abuse in schools run by religious orders will take before Christmas, Minister for Education Norma Foley has privately told a group of TDs and Senators.

Recent revelations of historical child sexual abuse in schools run by the Spiritan congregation, such as Blackrock College, have led to calls for the State to set up an inquiry into the past abuse.

In a private briefing for the Oireachtas education committee, Ms Foley said the Government was still weighing up whether the investigation should be placed on a statutory footing or not.

Proposed inquiry

Department of Education officials have been discussing whether the proposed inquiry should be limited to schools run by the Spiritans, such as Blackrock College, St Michael’s College and Rockwell College, or take a broader approach.

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Other religious orders, such as the Vincentians, Dominicans, Jesuits and Carmelites, have all disclosed they have received allegations of sexual abuse in schools they ran in the past.

During the briefing on Wednesday, Ms Foley told TDs and Senators she hoped to have finalised what form the inquiry would take before Christmas.

One department source confirmed that was the timeline officials were working towards but added given the complexities involved “nothing is guaranteed”.

At the briefing officials laid out the cost and time it took for previous statutory inquiries, such as the Ryan report and the Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation to complete their work and issue reports.

One source at the meeting said the department appeared to be wary of committing to a tribunal or commission of investigation, as statutory inquiries were costly, would likely take several years, and were often heavily legalistic processes.

Dr Gabriel Scally’s scoping inquiry into the CervicalCheck controversy in the health service, as well as the Ferns report on clerical abuse, were given as examples of non-statutory inquiries that worked well.

The Ferns report, which investigated the handling of allegations of child sex abuse in the Diocese of Ferns, Co Wexford, was commissioned in March 2003 and issued a report in late 2005.

High-level talks

Some Government sources have suggested that an interim “scoping inquiry” to determine the nature and extent of a future inquiry could be an option.

There have also been high-level discussions between department officials and the Minister about who might be approached to lead the inquiry.

It is understood officials plan to inform survivor groups first about any decisions taken on what form the inquiry will take, in advance of any public announcement in the coming weeks.

The Spiritans apologised to all survivors in recent weeks, with the number of alleged victims of abuse in its schools who have come forward reaching more than 300.

In recent days Ms Foley has written to the religious order to remind it of its obligation to retain all records in relation to abuse allegations and also requested that all its assets in Ireland should be retained, given the potential future need to support survivors.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times