Abuse inquiry error is ‘embarrassing’ not damaging, academic says

Ryan report is not undermined by gross overcalculation of figure, professor claims


The academic who highlighted how the Ryan commission into child abuse grossly overcalculated the number of children who attended industrial schools said the error was “embarrassing” but did not undermine the commission’s report.

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse said on Monday that the 170,000 estimate for the number of children who were admitted to industrial schools between 1936 and 1970 in its 2009 report was a “seriously erroneous statistic”.

The correct figure is closer to about one-quarter of the previously cited figure.

The commission, chaired by Mr Justice Seán Ryan, said that, while it was not possible to establish a precise figure, the Department of Education’s calculation for the number in industrial schools from 1930 to 1970 and beyond was about 42,000 “or somewhat higher”.

Eoin O’Sullivan, a social policy professor at Trinity College Dublin who first questioned the Ryan report’s figure in an academic paper published in 2014, said that the commission had “simply added up the wrong column of figures”.

The commission added up the existing number of children in the schools at the end of each year to reach the 170,000 figure, instead of adding up the number of new children who entered the industrial schools each year, he said.

“It is simply an unfortunate error – that’s all. It has no implications for the rest of the report or indeed the redress schemes or anything like that at all. It is embarrassing but that’s about the height of it,” Prof O’Sullivan said.

He has put the number of children entering industrial schools from 1936 to 1970 at 25,000, or 37,000 if counting from 1922, and in reformatories at 3,600.

Government reports

The Department of Education said that the 42,000 figure had been cited in government reports on the issue since as far back as 1999.

The commission said that it made the correction after receiving correspondence citing Prof O’Sullivan’s work and consulting him, UCC emeritus law professor David Gwynn Morgan, the department and other commissioners.

The department based its figure on the number of individuals discharged from industrial schools and reformatories, though this does not account for those who died in schools or were committed more than once or to multiple schools.

Niall Meehan, head of the journalism and media faculty at Griffith College Dublin, said he believed that the error damaged the credibility of the report because it took the commission several years to correct the mistake.

“They were alerted to the figure some time ago and did nothing to correct it when alerted. It also indicates that the report was read initially uncritically,” said Mr Meehan, who also raised concerns about the 170,000 figure.

Meanwhile, an Oireachtas committee heard from abuse survivors on Tuesday who claimed proposed legislation to seal records relating to historical child abuse for 75 years would make survivors “invisible once more”.

The joint committee on education and skills decided to defer consideration of the Retention of Records Bill, 2019, until Minister for Education Joe McHugh responded to the concerns of survivors and legal experts.