Abused were hidden in clear sight, says ombudsman


FOLLOWING THE Ryan report “we all emerge . . . somewhat lost, unbalanced, the touchstone of our former beliefs and certainties cast adrift,” the Ombudsman and Information Commissioner Emily O’Reilly has said.

“We stood exposed, not as an island of charming saints and chatty, avuncular scholars but as a repressed, cold-hearted, fearful, smugly pious, sexually ignorant and vengeful race of self-styled Christians,” she said

She recalled that at the 2004 Céifin conference in Ennis, Co Clare, she had wondered “what the real us [her emphasis] actually was, the old-style pious Mass-goers, or the new-style materialists.” She continued, “I wonder even more so in the light of Ryan.”

Speaking at the Sisters of Charity Justice and the Downturn conference in Dublin, Ms O’Reilly said that after six years as ombudsman, she had come to the view “that public bodies and agencies begin to go bad when they begin to lose sight of why they are there in the first place”.

Following Ryan “‘we didn’t know’, is the constant refrain,” she said. “Certainly, very few knew of the systemic nature of the abuse, of the near unbelievable extent and depravity of the sexual abuse in particular; of the political, bureaucratic and clerical cover-ups – but no adult living in Ireland throughout the period in question did not, in broad terms, know.

“If things were hidden, they were hidden in clear sight: the crocodile lines of boys and girls that streamed out of the institutions; the certain knowledge that corporal punishment at the very least was practised therein; the incarcerated Magdalene women in their Madonna blues and whites who walked the open streets of towns and villages in church processions. Judges knew, lawyers knew, teachers knew, civil servants knew, childcare workers knew, gardaí knew. Not to know was not an option,” she said.

Noting that the religious congregations had borne the brunt of criticism following publication of the report, she said this was “no surprise”.

She continued that “the hands and fists that descended on the bodies of the children were those of the people who worked in or who had access to the religious run institutions”.

“Yet”, she said, “the forces that enabled the abuse or turned blind, indifferent eyes to it ranged way beyond the institutions’ walls, [were] present within the plusher offices of State, and the boardrooms of so called charitable institutions as well as within the dank, depressing, and frequently terrifying dormitories of the institutions themselves”.

Abuse thrives “when society remains indifferent to the abuse because it is by and large indifferent to the abused”, she said.

Looking to the present, she said “we may think now that we have got it right vis-a-vis the rights of children, or the elderly, or people with disabilities, or immigrants, because we, after all, are the best educated, most liberal, progressive generation ever – but the lived reality is frequently otherwise, despite huge improvements in many areas of the social justice landscape”.

She warned that, on its last day as an independent agency, Combat Poverty must remain “free from political and bureaucratic pressures” as it is absorbed into the Department of Social and Family Affairs. This was “crucial for the achievement of social justice in these recessionary times”.