Gulf between congregations and public opinion laid bare


ANALYSIS:THE DISASTROUS Morning Ireland interview with Cori director general Sr Marianne O’Connor last Tuesday morning was the final straw. Her sometimes pert tone and the “that is closed” response to Cathal Mac Coille when asked whether the congregations would revisit that controversial 2002 redress deal with the State, provoked deep fury.

Adding to those echoes of a “that is out” Margaret Thatcher phraseology, was her insistence that the congregations themselves knew best how their resources might be used to help former residents of their institutions. She seemed to be dictating terms in a context where by then few believed those same congregations were in any position to do so.

It also became clear during the interview that, come hell or high water, and whatever about the injustice of a nine to one disproportion between the State contribution to the redress scheme and that of the congregations, it was a case of “not a cent more” to that scheme where those same congregations were concerned.

What resources the congregations might have would go directly to the former residents and the congregations themselves would see to that, she indicated. She repeated these sentiments in an interview on Newstalk almost immediately afterwards. Following on from statements the previous evening from the 18 congregations and Cori, this was red rag stuff to survivors’ groups. In those statements the congregations reiterated a “commitment to working with those who suffered enormously while in our care” and continued “We (my emphasis) must find the best and most appropriate ways of directly assisting them.”

Following on from the powerful intervention of former Clonmel mayor Michael O’Brien on Questions and Answers the night before, the response was utterly, outrageously outlandish. It proved, as if it was needed, that the congregations just still did not get it. So much so indeed that Sr Marianne is believed to have been rewarded with flowers and many messages of congratulations afterwards. If ever there was an illustration of the gulf that lay between the congregations and public opinion up to that point, there it was.

Until Tuesday morning the 18 congregations were content to let Cori do the running for them on the growing controversy over the 2002 deal. Fine, the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy, the Oblates, the Sisters of Charity, all issued separate expressions of remorse and promises of things to come, on publication of the Ryan commission report last Wednesday, May 20th.

But for the next six days, until Tuesday, their public relations people were idle, except for the press releases for Cori and the relevant 18 on Monday afternoon, May 26th. It is believed the congregations themselves were convinced that all would have blown over by Tuesday.

But they had not reckoned on the interventions of Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin on Monday or of those by Bishop Noel Traenor and Fr Tim Bartlett on Sunday.

They had not reckoned at all on Michael O’Brien. And they most certainly had not realised that their sometimes leisurely rhythms were, daily, adding highly-combustible fuel to the flames fomented by events.

But there was never a split among the 18. Nor is there a split now among them, even if they are suddenly acting more independently of one another.

Some of the smaller congregations may believe they have made a more proportionate contribution to the redress scheme than larger congregations, but this has never become an issue.

However, a split in unity among the 18 could arise over the issue of transparency. Those with debts or fewer resources will have no problem agreeing to transparency. Others with more resources are expected to resist.

Indeed, some congregations have already been suggesting that the Sisters of Mercy ought to hand over ownership of their hospitals to the State while it is being said that the Christian Brothers should do the same with the property in the Edmund Rice Schools Trust, thus adding to the State’s assets, as a further contribution to the redress scheme.

It is not expected, however, that such suggestions will be welcomed by either the Brothers or Sisters of Mercy.

Whatever the view of congregations, it is also expected new charity legislation will make transparency imperative for even the most recalcitrant of them.

Within the broader membership of Cori itself, there has always been tension over its leadership and the fact that it has allowed itself to become a public front for the 18 relevant congregations. This goes back to 2000 when Sr Elizabeth Maxwell, Cori’s then director general and now Cori president, and Sr Helena O’Donoghue led negotiations with the State on behalf of the 18 congregations.

There was deep unease at this then among many of Cori’s 120 other congregations who quickly identified the risks involved for them all, through association.

But the case for Cori leading negotiations was helped by the fact that the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity are among the largest congregations in Cori. This matters to a body where contributions are per head and proportionate to membership of a congregation.

But the unease of the 120 congregations never fully dissipated.

It blew up into their darkest nightmare last week.

Being tarnished by association with the contents of the Ryan commission report has been a deeply horrible experience for some members of those other congregations and has brought them close to despair.

There was deep anger among these other congregations over the weekend at Cori being seen as “defending the indefensible”, when it came to the 2002 deal and at the damage being done to its good name.

Much of this was directed at the Christian Brothers whose television appearances on the issue were seen as too casual.

However there was a change of policy on Tuesday evening when the Christian Brothers issued anabject and lengthy statement in which they promised to make what resources they did not need for accommodation or to meet commitments available to help former residents of institutions they ran.

This was followed by a similar gesture from the Oblates.

Late that night, the Taoiseach spoke. He called on religious orders to provide additional funds.

The next morning the offices of a much wider number of public relations companies than heretofore began to hum and statement after statement was sent out until the majority of the relevant 18 congregations had signalled their intent to co-operate with the Government in negotiating a fresh deal.