McColgan case must be judged in context of professional approach of a different era

While disclosures of serious child abuse have become an all too common feature of Irish society, the McColgan case plumbed new…

While disclosures of serious child abuse have become an all too common feature of Irish society, the McColgan case plumbed new depths of depravity and suffering. Little wonder, then, that the £1 million settlement reached on Friday has been greeted with such relief.

We can only hope that such restitution for the survivors can contribute something to relieving their pain and advancing the healing process.

In the light of the settlement, then, it may seem peculiar, and even contradictory, that the North Western Health Board did not accept liability for negligence in the case. This seems to me a justifiable decision and one that becomes more understandable if we distinguish between what we now know of the appalling abuse and the requirements for effective child protection as against the level of knowledge and accountability that was operating in a very imperfect system between 1979 and 1984, when the case was opened. Reaching a perspective on this is crucial not only to learning from what happened then, but also to reaching an informed judgment about the well-being of the child protection system today.

The tragedy is that the case spanned a period when awareness of serious physical and sexual abuse was only beginning to develop. The first guidelines on how professionals should deal with the new phenomenon of "non-accidental injury" to children were issued in 1977, while it was another 10 years before procedures even dealt with child sexual abuse.


Knowledge of the dynamics of these forms of child abuse was so underdeveloped on the ground in Ireland at that time that cases were still approached under a kind of welfare model drawn from a tradition of working with neglectful "problem" families. This partly explains - but does not, of course, condone - how some children who did allege sexual abuse had their behaviour redefined and labelled as disruptive.

The sense-making practices that led to such a judgment have to be seen in the context of a time when the kinds of child sexual abuse that we now know to have been going on were almost literally unthinkable. Although Gerard McColgan himself made it clear to the court that he felt that his disclosures of sexual abuse in the early 1980s were believed by his social worker, some other professionals appeared to be further back in the process of being able to recognise the existence of such abuse. Enormous emphasis was placed on gaining the co-operation of "inadequate" parents and attempting to "nurture" them into being good enough parents, primarily by working on their relationship. This therapeutic philosophy extended to actively keeping the police out of child abuse cases.

As the classic practice text of the period, At Risk, produced by the NSPCC in the UK in 1976, expressed it: "Our intention was to avoid any direct interrogation about the circumstances of an injury, and we were anxious that our parents should avoid this experience from others". It is in this context that the child abuse guidelines of the time were extremely cautious about police involvement, which was left entirely to the discretion of health professionals.

It is painfully evident now that this led to a practice that was not nearly child-centred enough and which, with the benefit of hindsight, we can see led to all kinds of tactical manipulation of the family and the professionals by fathers such as Joseph McColgan. It is, however, in terms of this kind of philosophy of child-care practice - however much we would like it to have been different - that the McColgan case begins to make some kind of sense. Within the norms of the time it might even be argued that social workers may have been practising in an exemplary way in the efforts that they did make to protect the children.

It is disturbing, then, to note the evidence of one expert witness in the case, Mr Paul Gilligan, director of services with the ISPCC, who in evidence described the health board's intervention as "completely inadequate", including in this the view that it would have been beneficial to have involved the gardai. Of course we know now that it would have been, but this is an obligation that was placed on professionals only through new child abuse guidelines published in 1995. Meanwhile, 18 years ago, good practice suggested the opposite.

Such distortions of historical realities are all the more peculiar coming from the representative of an agency that itself was arguing trenchantly in the 1970s and 1980s that child protection laws were woefully inadequate. "There are many instances where we feel that if we had better legislation for the protection of children, we could provide a better service," the ISPCC claimed in 1973. It was only with the publication of the report of the Kilkenny incest case in 1993 that these major deficiencies in the system began to be rectified through the implementation of the Childcare Act, new procedures and more resources and understanding of child abuse increased accordingly.

This does not mean that similar cases of system failure could never happen again. The unpredictable nature of human behaviour is such that the safety of children can never be guaranteed. What it does mean is that it is quite inappropriate to project the vastly increased understanding of the problem that we have today back on to the conditions that existed some 18 years ago.

Clearly there are many other issues that had an impact on the outcome of the case between 1979 and 1984, the relationship between the health board professionals and the role of the GP in the case being a particularly important one. These issues will be further clarified when the report from the North Western Health Board's inquiry into the McColgan case is published in due course.

The aim of offering the kind of analysis conducted here is not to defend the health board and to give it the benefit of the doubt rather than the McColgans. The truth of the horrific abuse they suffered is beyond question. But the more sensitive we are to understanding the struggles that professionals faced in making sense of the needs of abused children all those years ago, the less likely we will be as a society to fail children in this tragic manner again

Dr Harry Ferguson is a senior lecturer in the department of applied social studies, University College, Cork. He had been due to appear in the McColgan case for the health board as an expert witness