‘Shocking, shocking:’ Justice Sean Ryan on the abuses of children uncovered in his report

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse report in Dublin in 2009. Photograph: AP Photo/Peter Morrison

On May 20th, 2009, the Commission into Child Abuse published its shattering 2,600-page report. It investigated 215 residential institutions for children, run by 18 religious congregations, which had existed in the Irish State until the early 1970s. An estimated 170,000 children passed through them.

Set up in 2000, the Commission’s Investigation Committee heard from approximately 1,400 complainants, as well as representatives of the 18 religious congregations, relevant politicians and government officials.

The Commission’s Confidential Committee heard evidence from 1,090 people, and the Residential Institutions Redress Board made awards to 15,579 people, each receiving on average €62,250, costing €1.5 billion.

Justice Seán Ryan, who chaired the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, talks to Patsy McGarry.

Justice Seán Ryan. Photogrpah: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times
Justice Seán Ryan. Photogrpah: Crispin Rodwell/The Irish Times

Q. Ten years after publication of one of the most significant documents in the history of the Irish State, how does it appear to you now?
A. Very remote, I have to confess, because a lot of things have happened since then. I’ve moved on in my own life and career. I went back to the courts and was a High Court judge for five years and then became president of the new Court of Appeal, so that took up a lot of my time.

But looking back, when we were doing the inquiry we didn’t realise how big the whole thing was going to be.

The way I got involved in this was I was asked as a barrister to chair an expert group to advise on redress payments for survivors of abuse. I didn’t know the background to this at the time. I knew that the Commission had been set up in 1999, and the Act was published in 2000 and now, that was about late 2001.

We had hearings at that stage. It seemed like a good idea to invite people to make submissions to us and we did and we produced a report. I think that was in January 2002.

Q. Didn’t you use a Canadian model as to how redress was to be assessed?
A. No, we didn’t. I visited Canada and spoke to people there, and that scheme they were thinking of, I think that petered out because they established a different system.

No, we worked it out ourselves. We came up with the idea of a scale of payments, calibrated. We agreed there is no such thing as mild sexual abuse or mild physical abuse, no such thing. You have to acknowledge at the same time that there are degrees of heinousness.

So we produced what we thought was a fair and reasonable mode of calculating. We also said, ‘If you don’t think this is appropriate, if you think it should be higher, that’s ok. But just explain why you think it should be higher’. I’m not sure it quite worked out that way but I wasn’t concerned with the implementation of it. Once I had done that, that was the end of my involvement in it.

Q. Did you recommend the non-adversarial approach?
A. We didn’t have to recommend that because it was already in the Act. This was the provision that was in the Bill as it was being processed. The provision which was enacted was that a person was entitled to redress on satisfying the board/tribunal that the condition they suffered from was of a kind that was consistent with it being suffered in an institution by reason of abuse.

Under the legislation you didn’t have to prove you had been abused or by any particular person, but what you had to prove was the condition you were suffering from was the kind of thing that... You had to prove that you were in the institution and that you brought yourself within the categories of abuse as defined in the legislation, which was a standard definition: physical, emotional, sexual, and psychological.

Q. Your expert group at that stage had no idea of what you uncovered with the Commission subsequently?
A. This is true, although somehow the indications were that this was very significant. After all the taoiseach of the time, Bertie Ahern, had made this apology in a big glare of publicity in 1999, apologising on behalf of the State. It was clear there were many thousands of people that were in these institutions so we were thinking that this was no small affair, this was going to be big.

We thought the redress would have to be significant. In effect what we recommended was that the scale should go up in accordance with the maximum that would be awarded in a court. There would be no distinction, there would be no reduction because you were getting it from the Redress Board.

Q. And the maximum was €300,000 I think?
A. We recommended you could also give aggravated damages of 20 per cent on top of that. I’m not sure it was €300,000 or €350,000 , but whatever it was you could get something more than that.

Q. But the greater amount of awards were smaller. The average was around €62,000?
A. So it turned out, but that wasn’t my business.

Q. Was there an expectation at the time of the numbers? Did you expect it would be around 16,000?
A. Probably, some notion of that kind. That sounds about right. I think there was an idea it would come out at about a half a billion [euro]. It wasn’t our function to worry about that. Our task was quite specific, to recommend a scheme of payment.

We published that report, I think, in January 2002.

There were real difficulties about how the Commission was going to conduct the Investigation Committee’s work. How was it going to deal with… at the time it was estimated there were 1,700 potential applicants or people who had notified or were expected to notify. The Confidential Committee had proceeded along all the time, for people who didn’t want to subject themselves to the ordeal of a hearing, of an examination or cross examination.

I was in limbo at this point because the Commission was going to produce an interim report dealing with where they were. They were writing that report at the time. There was no vacancy in the High Court so the government had said ‘this will be passed very quickly’. Inevitably there are delays and so they asked me to conduct a review with the intention of seeing how we were going to achieve the task of completing a report within a reasonable time.

They had announced I was going to take over. So, from the outside, I produced a report… and it was published. Then in January I took over.

Q. The Christian Brothers had challenged the Commission in the Courts to prevent members being named?
A. They were really challenging, as I recall, their big challenge was … ‘we have members who are deceased and members who are frail of intellect or of memory by reason of old age, and it is unfair and unreasonable to expect to be naming and shaming them in a report’. That was their case and it was rejected in the High Court and they promptly said they were going to appeal.

The critical section in the Act said the Commission in its report could not identify an individual as being responsible for a specific act of abuse. It struck me, on an interpretation of it, I could say, ‘Well, Br Ryan is an abuser. Br Ryan is a sexual abuser’, but I couldn’t say that ‘he sexually or physically abused on such a day in the following circumstances’.

So that struck me as being an impossible conundrum. I think the reason why that section was there at all was in the belief or expectation that it might be possible, after the Commission reported, to have prosecutions. I thought ‘this is a very difficult section to apply’ and, secondly, ‘how are we going to deal with the 1,700?’.

We engaged in a series of meetings. We came up with a policy paper. We were not proposing to name people. It did strike me that it’s much more likely someone is prepared to admit something, so the people who got named were more likely to be the honest, confessional souls.

It was decided to drop names and the Christian Brothers dropped their appeal.

It began with two groups, the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers, but the Sisters dropped out and the Christian Brothers continued to the end.

Artane Industrial School
Artane Industrial School

Q. How did you decide to hear evidence from the 1,700?
A. We took the big institutions. In some there was no problem as the number wasn’t intimidating. There were some like Artane and Letterfrack and I think Ferryhouse, possibly Upton as well

So we said we will take as many as we reasonably can to make sure that we get a full range of all the allegations of abuse, all the periods, all the circumstances, and so on...

That left another group. So we suggested they could go to the Confidential Committee if they feel like it. Alternatively, we devised another [way] whereby you could go and speak to one of our lawyers, the idea being that would give people an opportunity to be heard. That covered everybody.

Q. How did you select institutions out of the 215?
A.We worked on the basis of every institution that had more than 20 people who applied to us….

Q. You had that element of your investigation in private?
A. Correct. As required by the legislation. We tried to do as much of this as we could in public. We thought it was important to get started and get started early, so the first thing we devised hearings on how the whole thing emerged. So the taoiseach came along, minister [Micheál] Martin, minister [Michael] Woods, ministers of all kinds. People complained because we said there is no cross examination on this. We simply wanted to hear from people on how they recalled it. So we got that started.

Then, let’s say, we started with Artane. We gave the institution an opportunity to say what it wanted, about what we were about to embark on… no cross examination. The idea was, now is your chance to say…

The institutions

Q. The performance of some congregations before the Commission were very different to others?
A. Very much.

Q. I remember the Rosminians being very co-operative but I also remember the Christian Brothers being anything but, and I remember the recalcitrance of the [Sisters of] Mercies and, in particular, the Oblate over Daingean...
A. That’s very true. The Sisters of Mercy oscillated, it seemed to me, from one position to another, and I do remember that different representatives seemed to take different positions.

Just shortly before we had a public hearing, I remember it was in the Hilton Hotel overlooking the canal, and that very morning I think there was a new statement from the Sisters of Mercy that was significantly, maybe subtly, but significantly different from the existing one. They did take a tougher line afterwards and essentially their line was a tough one.

'When you looked at the things the boys were incarcerated for, they were small things, or they were not attending school, or whatever. Ranging from that to poverty'

The Rosminians, pretty uniquely it seems to me, faced up to the fact that their institutions had been very abusive, and the witnesses themselves were quite candid and their attitude, their instructions to counsel in how they handled the witnesses, and which they told us about, were very different. They were very much non-confrontational. And I seem to recall that they were the only one. I think they were the only congregation where we had a witness who was a member of the congregation who had been in the industrial school.

It tells you something that only one, actually, there was no progression. In a way this was the natural way, if things had been different. Whatever you might think about industrial schools, this might have been a possible recruiting ground, given that kids were recruited into the Christian Brothers at 14. So here they were up to 16 in these institutions but that wasn’t [how it played out].

Q. I recall that, when it came to the Christian Brothers giving evidence, it was raised with them that they had left it very late to do a search of their archive in Rome.
A. Yes. They were queried about this because that’s where they found huge records, numbers-wise [of abusers]. They adopted a very aggressive defensive stance with counsel for the Commission...

I think they were very defensive, there’s no doubt. There’s two ways of looking at this. Their position was: ‘How can it be? We have a duty to our own members, our dead former colleagues and we have a duty to defend them.’ But they also had information in their records. They knew what was there. They had actually some good systems of inspection and it was a strange attitude when all this material was going to come out. It would have been easier if they had said, ‘We know these institutions were abusive, we know they couldn’t work’.

I mean it’s hard to think how you could have imagined that they would work. Take kids ranging from – kids who got into trouble with the law, the trouble was pretty minor. When you looked at the things they were incarcerated for, they were small things, or they were not attending school, or whatever. Ranging from that to poverty.

Then you had, in the case of boys, little orphans, a curious expression which doesn’t quite mean what it says… kids who had been brought up from birth in nuns’ institutions, and where there were boys they were shipped off at the age of 10...

Archive Images of St Conleth’s Reformatory School at Daingean, Co Offaly
Archive Images of St Conleth’s Reformatory School at Daingean, Co Offaly

There were pictures conjured up of a little group of kids in this situation brought into Artane where – I mean it was like the Wild West – Artane had 800-plus boys ranging from 10 to 16 and these little munchkins come in. They stuck together as best they could but they were … it was a feral atmosphere. And that wasn’t to condemn the kids who were already there.

The whole regime was one of incarceration. When you think back on it, how could it have worked, and the people looking after them got no training. They didn’t even get training in the sense that somebody who had been there previously would give a talk when they were going in. The youngest members of the Christian Brothers, with the deal made with the Department of Education for the two-year National Teacher training, they did Year 1 at the beginning and, so as to give you a golden hand cuff, you couldn’t do Year 2 as a Christian Brother for maybe five years.

The Department sanctioned this deal naturally enough because the Christian Brothers wanted it, so you now had people of say 18-19 looking after kids ranging up to 16, some of them rough kids. The whole situation was a kind of powder keg. My sense was... how could anybody have thought it was going to work?

St. Conleth's Reformatory School, Daingean, County Offaly. Photograph: James Flynn/APX
St. Conleth's Reformatory School, Daingean, County Offaly. Photograph: James Flynn/APX

Q.Daingean [reformatory in Co Offaly] was another brutal institution…?
A. Shocking, shocking. I mean utterly. That was, this is where a lot of people who were later notorious criminals came out of [The General, Martin Cahill being one]. Frankly, no surprise. The conditions and the way they were treated were truly shocking and there was an episode where the resident manager was... he described how this was happening within earshot. It was truly awful. Kids were lined up in a big old barrack of a building at the bottom of a stair well and they had nightshirts on or were completely naked for the purpose of being beaten by two Brothers and the screams, of course, in waves went all over the place…

The details of the physical abuse in Daingean was quite shocking and the terror of the place. In the Christian Brothers’ institutions, one of the problems was that nobody was there long enough to actually become knowledgeable and experienced about it and pass it on to anybody else. In Daingean [run by the Oblates] the problem was the opposite, they couldn’t get out of it. So a person was there, and was there for life, more or less, as far as I can recall.

There were some people, some members of the congregation who were quite candid about the way things went and there were records. All I can say is that the physical abuse in Daingean was quite shocking...

Q. In evidence the Oblates [who ran Daingean] too were very defensive…?
A. I think the Oblates said that they would make no apology.The Christian Brothers and they had one thing in common. They said [to the Commission] ‘it’s your job to find out what happened’, in effect. I think the Christian Brothers may have said it in those words.

The Christian Brothers had apologised, but to anybody who knows anything about words it was obvious that it was written by a lawyer and it was designed to say – you could say it about the people of Lithuania – that, in so far as I have done anything to injure them I apologise deeply and profoundly for it. It was calculated to say nothing. We [the Commission] did a bit of analysis on it…

The orders

Q. Then there were the female congregations, with the Sisters of Mercy running the largest number of institutions. They apologised, then rowed back, then apologised again…?
A.I think it very much depended on who was in the driving seat.

Q.Was there any marked difference between co-operation of male and female congregations with the Commission?
A. You have to draw a distinction between the official congregational posture and individual people, and it was often quite surprising what even the apparently toughest people would [say]. In some respects it appeared to me the individual religious – I’m not sure you could say [it] – welcomed the Commission but were quite satisfied to talk with a reasonable degree of candour. Obviously it wasn’t easy for them, and in some instances they were there with the Superiors from their own order in attendance and there were some differences…

Sometimes they were pretty candid. The Christian Brothers tended to be more defensive. Some of the nuns were defensive, others were more prepared to acknowledge the faults to the system. They had reflected on it.

The Sisters of Mercy, in fairness to them, I think after Dear Daughter [documentary about abuse by Sisters of Mercy at Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin, broadcast on RT É in 1996] they got a person to do an investigation to inform them as to what position they should take re the Commission, and they made all this available. Whoever it was spoke to Christine Buckley and Bernadette Fahy [who had been in Goldenbridge as children and featured in Dear Daughter] and some of the other people...

There was the stuff about making rosary beads and that could be very cruel because some girls, like some boys, would be naturally adroit and dexterous and others would be clumsy about this. And there’s not much use beating me if I’m not able to do it and keep up my quota…

For some people it could have been, at certain times of the day, of occupational use but the tyranny with which it was imposed meant that was impossible. When people were to be punished they were often told to wait on the landing, cold and miserable in your nightwear, and the nun who was to discipline them mightn’t come up until 11 or midnight and you were waiting there wondering what was going happen, knowing it was not going to be nice, not knowing how bad was going to be…

Somewhat to my surprise there was no dispute [by the nuns] about that.

One of the things I was just curious about was who was the most savage person, who was the person against whom most complaints were made and it turned out to be a Brother in Artane named in, I think, over 80 complaints.

'I left school in 1966. There was an awareness, there was a consciousness, but there was no idea... there was the story of the few bad apples and that sort of thing'

A very curious thing happened. He was the disciplinarian, a fairly chilling title. So while I expected an awful lot of criticism to come about him in fact people said ‘Oh no. He was very tough but he was fair.’

And it’s funny, he would punish, maybe on the severe side,but for something you had done wrong. And that’s an illustration of one of the biggest complaints in the whole inquiry – getting abused and beaten around for nothing, or because it was wrong, or because nobody had listened to you that you hadn’t done it, being blamed in the wrong. The sense of injustice remained. That was a big thing.

Q. How was it decided to hear evidence in public?
A. If you gave evidence in public it was because you weren’t a respondent, in the sense of an allegation being made against you. But everybody who was alive and able to give evidence we called them in. Everybody who had been accused by somebody else.

Q. How long was the investigating period itself?
A. We began in or about September 2004, and after the emergence hearings we proceeded more or less to the end. Then there was a massive amount of material to be absorbed and discussed, and to actually write the report. We also got experts in to do things. We produced the report in May 2009. I would say it took us a year and a half of writing the report, even say a year…

Q. Were you shocked at the discovery that sexual abuse was endemic in all boys’ institutions, and considering that period of time in Ireland, up to the 1970s?
A. I think, in short, everybody was. I mean I left school in 1966. There was an awareness, there was a consciousness, but there was no idea. When I think back, let’s say 820 boys in Artane aged between 10 and 16, and let’s say 50 Christian Brothers aged between 18 and 35. I thought, at various times, that there had to be a cloud of testosterone, a cloud of sexuality hanging over that area of Dublin and not terribly high up in the sky because here was this enormous group of kids in very close confinement and yet most of the evidence was sex didn’t come up. Then there was the story of the few bad apples and that sort of thing.

But when you actually think about it the conditions were not, just conducive. We knew from the discovered materials that the Brothers had wrestled with this problem – ‘How do you deal with Br Ryan?’ or ‘Br Ryan is at it again’. You mightn’t have a specific description.

I remember certainly there was a case where they’d be writing off to the... the Rosminians would be writing to the superior in Italy and he’d be writing back about ‘the usual problem’... there was a sort of code it’s clear.

There’s an example in the report on Salthill [Co Galway], because that’s where this problem first manifested itself… first came to notice of the Congregation...way back.

This Br began his career in Salthill. A kid woke up in the dark, recognised his voice. Unusually the kid went to the resident manager, very unusually. And he said he recognised his voice and the Br said, the classic, ‘I was just checking under the bedclothes to see if he had wet the bed’. That was an old one. He [the manager] records this, all this is quite unusual. And when the Visitor [from head quarters] comes down that year he interviews your man. Then he writes his report and said ‘I’m not very convinced about this from Br X. I think we have a problem here’.

He’s quite candid about his thoughts and so on. As I say, very unusual. So they shift him and a whole succession of events now takes place and the guy ends up many years later after a career that we get episodically, having what he’s pleased to call an affair with a boy. 

St Conleth’s Reformatory School, Daingean, Co Offaly
St Conleth’s Reformatory School, Daingean, Co Offaly

This came out in public at some stage. There was a family who protested and the Christian Brothers treated them shamefully. They said ‘how dare they?’, and thought they had gone to the press.

Everywhere you went with this story … it was very complicated to get the story down, and what it showed was that the man had abused left, right and centre, all over maybe a career of 40 years, and these are only the bits we knew about, and it progressed from one level up to actually his having an affair with a boy. The Brothers didn’t tell the parents this was the story. They pretended they were investigating.

The State

Q. What about the State's role in all of this? Is there an explanation for why it failed so miserably? 
A. We’re looking at this from the 21st century. It’s very hard to put ourselves back into the 1960s. When the State was founded, 1922, you removed one element, namely the British influence, that was not in thrall to the Church and the vacuum was filled by the Church. My sense is that the Catholic Church – and it’s easy to blame the Catholic Church for everything – my sense is that the attitude was this is our responsibility. We own this. Butt out.

Q. To the State?
A. To the State. ‘Now you have to pay for it’. But in a sense the State is us, because the civil servants are all sorts of Catholic Christian Brothers’ boys, everything else and so on, and the bishop is. The politicians are scared out of their wits. Nobody is going to challenge the Church and the Church owns the system.

One of the things, a lesson, is ‘who owns the system?’. You could say the same about the health service, education, anything you like, ‘who own’s it?’. The State technically had the legislative capacity to affect things but the relevant people could say ‘Oh no you don’t’…

The State, in fairness to them, in the 1930s set up the Cussen Commission. It was wondering about Artane and its 800, and the Christian Brothers made a big submission to them, ‘how dare they?’ , there were ‘alien influences and so on’, an alien and the native thing , a real pulling out of all the stops.

Nevertheless the Cussen Commission recommended [in 1936] that Artane be divided into four in the belief, naive in my opinion, that 200 was a reasonable number. But whatever about 200, 800 was monstrous.

Eight hundred suited the Christian Brothers, there was a huge income from it.

Q. It was profitable?
A. Hugely. In one of the inter-party governments ... the congregations come up [seeking more funds]. And of course the Christian Brothers would have their clique meeting beforehand, like the Communist Party, a meeting before the managers’ association. The Christian Brother’s association would meet and they’d agree their line. They went to the minister and the minister was very impressed and he thought ‘these fellas are pretty good’. Even in poor times. He said ‘send me up your accounts’ in an entirely sympathetic way with the intention of bolstering the case he was going to make to his colleague in the Department of Finance.

‘How dare he ask for this’ [was the Christian Brothers response]. And of course that reflected the reality. The civil service was as defensive about the system as the Christian Brothers were. They were invested in the system ‘I know you well. You’re running the system. How could there be anything wrong in Br McGarry’s place when he assures me that nothing is wrong and we couldn’t have scandal getting out.’

The investigation 

Q. You and your team were up close and very personal with some of the most shocking things that have ever been revealed about Irish society. Did it affect yourselves?
A. Inevitably. Let’s take the Investigation Committee. I had Marian Shanley, an experienced solicitor, and I had Fred Lowe, principal psychologist. So everybody brought something different to this and I dare say everybody was affected in different ways. We did agree that there were certain people or kinds of evidence that were more affecting on one person than the others. It wouldn’t always be the same thing. Inevitably it had an impact.

In my own case, first there is the kind of lawyer thing that says ‘well look, I’ve been around. I’ve seen it all. I’m not going to get shocked by anything’. That’s true up to a point. One is used to the discipline of being a little distant from the task. And there’s a job to be done. This is a project. There’s a report to be written. So, I can’t get too involved and I can’t declare that I’m accepting everything you’re saying because I have to hear the other person, and then we have to try to make a decision on it as best we can. And people are very understanding about that.

But, of course it has an impact. Even when you allow for all the things.

But I think I’m the worst person to say what the impact was on me personally, but I have to say I found the people very interesting. I found the challenge of finding a way of doing this job intriguing, was hugely interesting and the people were very nice. Occasionally, people would get very upset...

The former Christian Brothers industrial school at Letterfrack, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The former Christian Brothers industrial school at Letterfrack, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Q. Occasionally people could get quite disruptive, as I recall at hearings. You had to suspend a couple of hearings, when some survivors interrupted..?
A.But for the most part people were… at the beginning people were not sure what was happening. One lady said ‘why should we trust you?’.

I said ‘I think that’s a very good question to be honest. If I were you I wouldn’t. Wait until the report comes out.’

Her repost was very good – ‘What’s your address?’

Q. Any stand-out individuals?
A. There were some. There were some genuinely charming, amusing people. Sometimes counsel would be able to solicit something wonderful that you weren’t expecting. There were some very impressive people. And there were pictures of the kind of world we had left behind.

Some people who showed extraordinary courage, resilience.

Q. On both sides?
A. Yes, in fairness. I had a notion at one stage that you could talk about parallel lives, of somebody who left school at 14 to go into the Christian Brothers, as compared to somebody who found himself in an institution. Yes, there were people on both sides, in circumstances, in truth, that children in the institutions, they had very little chance. Whatever age you went in at, if you went in by the courts you were there until 16.

And if you were in from 10 to 16, you then came out as a 16 year old and whatever home you had, you were a stranger. Brothers, sisters, mother, father, whoever was there, you hadn’t, in effect, seen them for six years. If you were in Letterfrack it would have been very difficult for them to get down to see you because there was very little transport and no way I think for people to go down and visit and get back the same day. So, your heart would go out to them.

Seán Ryan, after being appointed chairman of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in 2003. Photograph: by Frank Miller
Seán Ryan, after being appointed chairman of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in 2003. Photograph: by Frank Miller

The report

Q. You produced a huge report, 2,600 pages, an enormous work. Did you or your team - or were you so close to it?- realise the impact it was going to have? 
A. Frankly, no. We wanted to present ourselves when the report was coming out. We wanted to say, ‘here we are, here’s the report’. I do remember in the morning looking out and seeing television crews lined up in Earlsfort Terrace and I began to think ‘my goodness, where is this going?’.

After the report was published and it was on all the news and everything else, Ruth [his wife] and I went out for dinner, didn’t watch the news or anything. There was a kind of eerie silence for a few days and I didn’t know if the report was going to be challenged. I’m guessing that people considered challenging it but if they did they did, it was now out of my hands.

It was certainly eerie for a while, then the Sisters of Mercy came out and they accepted the report and it took some time for other congregations to accept the report. It was only really then I began to realise what we had been doing and just how much we’d all been tied up in it.

Q. Recommendations? Happy with how addressed since?
A. In one way, and I don’t mean this in a cynical way, in one way I felt that our job was complete and I know a Ryan report implementation scheme was set up and they outlined a large number of items.

Here’s a point about the recommendations: We were keen that the recommendations would emanate from the investigation, that was our job, to investigate child abuse. And obviously there was this issue, we were looking at something that had happened. Different people were now experts at what should happen now and obviously the circumstances were different, there weren’t industrial schools.

The level at which I can look back and see lessons really are at a more general level: about ownership of the system; control, management, inspection, issues of that kind. But the detail of how should children be looked after in Ballydowd, what do you do with troubled children, how do you deal with them, I have no more expertise in that than anybody else has.

So mine was more a quasi-judicial job, which is a long way of saying I’m not the best person to say what’s the best way of dealing with children now. And in a way experts in that field are much better to say how the conclusions and recommendations of our report should be dealt with.

'One of the issues we looked at was what’s the story with the money, and it’s clear that the State was providing a lot of money to the institutions'

Certainly I am satisfied with one thing, inspection is vital and outside inspection is vital. I’m not sure that you always need an expert to inspect. Of course you need experts, but I’m not sure that you always need experts to conduct inspections. For example, suppose in an institution you had former inmates to conduct an inspection, well who better?

I don’t need to look after an old folks home to see that people are being properly looked after. If somebody said, ‘show me the food bill’, or if somebody went in and simply said to the people around the place ‘how are you doing?’, and somebody has a black eye and somebody complains bitterly. They might all be totally wrong but you don’t have to have a degree in nursing or medicine in order to carry out that. A lot of these things are common sense.

One of the things that I am pleased about, and I can boast about this because I didn’t actually do them, is the expert reports. In the last volume of report we have a series of these.

Q. Do you feel that the report represented a cultural shift in attitudes to children and child care in Ireland?

A. I think for an official report to endeavour to assess a whole system of dealing with children – that was very unusual, if not the first. And to do it on a national scale, to try to reach clear conclusions based on our evidence. The very fact that we were doing that, the very fact that the Government set that up as a Commission and that it followed the taoiseach’s public apology, they were the unusual features. That was already suggesting a sea change. I think it reflected it. It may have assisted it…

The Justice

Q. You grew up in the Ireland where a lot of this happened. These places were opened until the 1970s. You were educated, presumably, by the church, because the free education didn't come in until te year after you left school in 1967. So you came out of that system. When you were growing up and going through that system, did you suspect this was going on? Or the scale of it?
A. I was educated by the Christian Brothers. Tom Boland, principal officer I think at the time in the Department of Education, gave evidence at the emergence hearings and he said – and it resonated with me – he said people knew these were not nice places.And John Banville, a couple of days after the report [was published] on the front page of the New York Times, said ‘we knew and we didn’t know’.

Q.Where were you at school?
A.O’Connell’s [Christian Brothers school in Dublin].

The Christian Brothers’ commitment to education was tremendous, in my view. I am a huge admirer of their work in education. But that didn’t apply in industrial schools. Here was an opportunity to give kids who had no other chance. It was a way of giving their young members a real opportunity to teach, to make something extraordinary out of this. That surprised me, I have to say. Leave aside being shocked or anything else I would have thought with such a commitment the primary focus being on incarceration was strange…

The legacy

Q. It has been argued that monies made by the Christian Brothers in Artane and such places was used to fund their middle-class schools. Is that facetious?

A. One of the issues we looked at was what’s the story with the money, and it’s clear that the State was providing a lot of money to the institutions. There came a point, and we say this, that there was a bizarre inversion. Instead of the institutions existing for the children, it was the other way round. And the Brothers were complaining bitterly that the District Justices weren’t sending enough kids to the institutions, loud in their complaints. So we tried to investigate this.

We said look, please give us your accounts and they produced their records . And we sent them to a professional firm, Mazars, and we said please do a report on that. Certainly the original idea was that they would produce fact and comment and the Christian Brothers’ advisors would say there were mistakes of fact, if they so thought.

It worked to a degree. What was clear is that a lot of money was coming in but whether it was funding the institution as a whole or the institution including the retired members it had to carry, who might also be getting pensions or whatever from the State, it is difficult to see that the money was all spent on the children...

One of the extraordinary events that happened in or about 1960/1961 was that a District Justice in Kerry wrote a play called The Evidence that I have Heard. That was Richard Johnson. His son is the former president of the High Court, Ricky Johnson. It went on in the Abbey. Here’s a mystery. Here’s official Ireland going to the Abbey. It had a long run and that was that. As far as I could see there wasn’t a single reference to it in Department documents.

It was quite dramatic because it concerned shaving the heads of girls. Apparently Earnán de Blaghd [in charge at the Abbey then] insisted on a happy ending, contrary to what Johnson had written. He had heard this case and wrote a play about it. And that was about a situation where kids were forced into an institution where their mother died and their father was living on his own, and according to the play they were escaping to see how he was.

Q. There were 215 of these institutions, 10 Magdalene Laundries, 14 mother-and-baby homes along with four county homes – all the latter currently being investigated by the Mother and Baby Home Commission – and all those psychiatric hospitals. This is the Ireland we came out of. What is your judgement on that Ireland?
A. Ian O’Donnell and Eoin O’Sullivan in Coercive Confinement in Post Independent Ireland described all the various types of institutions.

Eoin O’Sullivan is a fantastic expert on this whole area. He gave evidence, he opened our emergence series. He gave evidence for a day and a half and one of the things that sticks out in my mind was he said the number of people in institutions in Ireland was, he said, an astonishing percentage of the adult population.

If you include in it the number of religious serving in the institutions, the number of nuns enclosed and not enclosed orders, the number of priests and Brothers and religious, and the number of people, children, old, young. You mentioned psychiatric institutions, I mean anybody awkward was put somewhere.

If you were a closed, defensive, nationalistic, xenophobic [state]… no television .. there was Radió Éireann, that was it. Look at the situation, extreme poverty, no jobs, no prospects, contraception unlawful, sex for procreation only, desertion among poor people widespread – a fella gets fed up of all this, he had no job and he goes to England. There were no children’s allowances until sometime in the 1940s. So the depths of need and sheer total deprivation…

Censorship. You couldn’t buy a book. When McGathern produced The Dark, it flew out of the Eblana bookshop before the ban hit...

Q. There is controversy over Government’s plans to lodge documents from the Commission, the Redress Board, and the Redress review committee to the National Archives and that these be closed to the public for 75 years, subject to a review 25 years after this becomes law. Do you have a view on this?
A. The problem about the publication of records is, from the survivor’s point of view, they gave their evidence on the basis of the legislation of 2000 and 2005. That has, as far as possible, [provided] absolute protection for Confidential Committee material, and as for the Investigation Committee there is a prohibition in legislation from revealing not only the identity of an alleged abuser described in the private hearings but on giving information that might lead to the identification of that person. That’s a problem. The material will reveal the names of the survivors who participated in the Commission’s work.

From the Congregations’ point of view, they will contend that the materials that are not in the report are allegations that may or may not have been proven. What was proven, and the way it was proven, is the way it’s set out in the report, and that was the original intention of the legislation. So there could be issues, and as a lawyer, leaving aside any view I may have, I have to acknowledge that there are issues of considerable legal complexity in trying to resolve either of those interests. And of course it depends also on how people choose to respond when the legislation is actually proposed.