The long story of an abuse case, doggedly pursued

 

Loretta Byrne is one of those who feels sceptical about the measures announced by the Government in the past year to deal with abuse in children's homes.

She has been seeking action on an allegation of abuse she came across when working in the Department of Education in 1988. Nothing was done, she says; she also says she was forced to retire, on health grounds, in 1993. She is convinced this arose from her determination to pursue the allegation.

Ms Byrne was a civil servant in the Department of Finance in 1987 when she was seconded to the Department of Education for six months, with responsibility in the special education section. There two institutions came to her attention, Finglas Children's Centre and Trinity House school in Lusk, Co Dublin.

In Finglas she came across allegations both of financial mismanagement and of physical and sexual abuse of boys in the centre. The latter allegation had been made by a staff member there.

She brought up the allegations at a meeting between officials of the Department and the director of the centre, which was run by the De La Salle order. She also wrote of her concerns to the Department. Ms Byrne was also asked to look at Trinity House, where she also encountered financial irregularities.

When she returned to the Department of Finance, she says, she confronted hostility because of her persistence in pursuing these allegations. She was asked to report to the Chief Medical Officer, which she did.

From then until 1993 she felt that her credibility was under attack. Her health suffered and at the end of that year she retired on health grounds. She insists that she was forced to do so.

Meanwhile the allegations about Finglas were not being investigated. "I was told I was the problem," she said.

However, she continued to pursue both her allegations and her concern about her treatment in the Department of Finance with various politicians. In 1992 the staff member of Finglas who had made the allegations retired, also on health grounds.

Last year this affair was brought to light in the Dail by the Fine Gael spokesman on health, Mr Alan Shatter, who considered that Ms Byrne had been treated badly. On May 18th he asked the minister for education, Mr Martin, about the March 1988 meeting, and subsequent action from the Department.

The reply confirms that a meeting took place on March 21st, 1988, to discuss allegations of both financial mismanagement and sexual abuse at the Finglas centre. "It was complained that this matter had been reported to the then director and had not been investigated," it said.

The minister said that the Department advised the director, Brother Augustine Murphy, to investigate this properly. It wrote to him again in August 1988 seeking a full response on the matter, and he replied in December that year "stating that the allegations relating to sexual abuse were unfounded."

The parliamentary reply continues: "There is no record of any further action at that time."

In 1992 a Comptroller and Auditor General's report referred to financial mismanagement in both Finglas and Trinity House. Ms Byrne felt this vindicated her criticism of the centres.

In 1994 the Brendan Smyth crisis broke, and, feeling the atmosphere concerning such questions had changed, she renewed her pursuit of the allegation of sexual abuse in Finglas. She was told this would be investigated.

There was an investigation, according to the reply to Alan Shatter. "In 1994, following fresh allegations of abuse at the centre, a Garda investigation was carried out. No prosecution was brought as a result of that investigation," it said.

Other allegations of abuse at the centre emerged, including one from the mother of a boy who later committed suicide in England, according to his mother.

At this point Ms Byrne enlisted the help of Mr Shatter, who asked a number of pointed parliamentary questions about the allegations made by her and the staff member in Finglas, and about what had happened to them.

In one written reply the minister said: "More recently, arising from further allegations of ill-treatment and abuse at the centre, the gardai, in conjunction with the Eastern Health Board, my Department and the present management of Finglas centre, have been engaged in a look-back investigation into all reports of abuse which have come to light in relation to the centre . . .

"Arising from this investigation, the gardai have recently sent files to the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to allegations of abuse at the centre."

That was last May, and earlier this month a spokesman for the Department told The Irish Times that of the two such cases of which the Department was aware, the DPP had decided not to bring a prosecution in one case and was pursuing a prosecution in the other.

In the course of this investigation Ms Byrne was interviewed by gardai and she told The Irish Times she specifically drew their attention to the meeting in March 1988.

The outcome of this last investigation tends to vindicate Ms Byrne's long commitment to bringing these allegations into the open. But, as far as she is concerned, that is not enough.

She considers that she has paid with her career and her health for this campaign, and, more importantly, that it shows how difficult it was for victims to get heard.

"I tried to get lawyers to take this up and I hit a brick wall and no one wanted to know. How dare the Government tell these people they should have done something individually about what happened to them! These were people who ended up in prisons and mental hospitals," she said.

Further, she thinks that despite the setting up of the Commission on Child Abuse, it puts a question-mark over the commitment of the State to a full and open investigation of what happened in the various institutions under its control. "If there is evidence of the Departments of Finance and Education colluding, where does this leave the State in relation to these allegations?" she asked.

On May 19th last year Mr Shatter told the Dail: "It is time it was publicly acknowledged that Loretta Byrne got it right and those with whom she dealt in various departments got it seriously wrong."