Apology to victims of abuse in institutions was right, says Ahern


FORMER TAOISEACH Bertie Ahern has described his apology to the victims of child abuse in State institutions as “one of the best decisions” he made in government.

The apology was made in May 1999. It led to the setting up of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which is due to report in May, and to the Residential Institutions Redress Board, which has paid out €825 million to almost 10,800 former residents of such institutions. The final bill is likely to be about €1.1 billion.

Mr Ahern visited the Aislinn Centre in his constituency yesterday to present Further Education and Training Awards Council (Fetac) certificates to victims of abuse who studied over the last number of years. The visit was to mark 10 years since the apology was given. Mr Ahern was greeted warmly by his audience, which was mainly comprised of those who had been in such institutions.

He said he had come under strong pressure for legal and financial reasons not to apologise to the victims of abuse, but had taken the decision to do it anyway.

“There were plenty of people telling me not to do it and there were compelling arguments, financial and legal, why we should say nothing, but they did not hold water with me.” He said warnings that compensation for victims would be expensive was “not an incorrect assumption”, but it was worth doing anyway.

“Just to take that as the basis of it would have left all these people, and the hundreds and thousands who were in England, with shattered lives. It was a costly decision, but it was still the right thing to do.”

He defended the controversial decision to cap the contribution of the religious institutions at €128 million. “If you were to add up what the religious gave to the State, the State owes the religious far more.” He had been persuaded by abuse survivor Christine Buckley to issue the apology. Dear Daughter, Ms Buckley’s account of her time in the notorious Goldenbridge orphanage, was made into an RTÉ documentary in 1996. It shocked the nation and galvanised other victims into seeking redress for what happened to them.

“I think her sincerity and passion for justice made a lasting impression on me and my colleagues,” Mr Ahern said. “She was a great source of knowledge and counsel to me in making sure the government sought to do the right thing and to help those who had the terrible misfortune, as many had, to suffer child abuse.”

Ms Buckley said she had first contacted Mr Ahern about the issue in the 1990s, while he was opposition leader. “He said when he got into power that we would make history. That is exactly what happened.”

Mr Ahern said institutional child abuse was a “scandal of monumental proportion” and successive governments had ignored it.

“There was a reluctance to admit that as a State and a society we failed many of the children of the nation in allowing them to be incarcerated in places where they were not cherished, but poorly treated.”