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Fintan O’Toole: State risks being complicit in conspiracy of silence unless it acts on religious orders’ records

If the public is liable for what the orders did, their records cannot be regarded as private. They’ve been paid for already

Information is power. Which means, of course, that ignorance is not bliss. It is impotence.

If there is one thing the State can and must do immediately, in the face of a new wave of revelations about abuse by religious orders, it is to take possession of the archives of those orders. This is so obvious that failure to do it looks less like neglect and more like complicity in a conspiracy of silence.

There is no meaningful sense in which these records are private. Religious orders are not social clubs or friendly fellowships. They were, and in some respects still are, a state within a state.

They ran most of the hospitals and many of the schools. They managed Ireland’s vast complex of coercive confinement – the industrial schools, the Magdalene laundries and the Mother and Baby homes.

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At the crudest level – money – the notion of privacy ought to have evaporated when it became clear, after the Ryan report was published in 2009, that the State (which is to say all of us) would have to pay redress to the victims of abuse in the industrial schools.

These costs are staggering. A special report by the Comptroller and Auditor General in 2017 found that, at that stage, the State had paid out €1.5 billion in relation to the industrial schools alone. In spite of an agreement that the religious orders would pay half of the costs, they actually contributed much less than a quarter.

Likewise, it is the taxpayers who have had to take on virtually the entire cost of redress for the survivors of the Magdalene laundries and Mother and Baby homes. Between them, these two compensation schemes will cost at least €1 billion.

Overall, a very conservative estimate of the costs to the State of inquiries, redress schemes, court cases and extra medical supports related to the actions of Catholic orders would be €3 billion.

And now the State is almost certainly going to have to compensate the victims of abuse in religious-run fee-paying schools. Why? Because it paid the salaries of teachers in those schools and is therefore liable for their actions. In 1981, for example, the State gave £15 million (equivalent to about €60 million today) to fee-paying schools.

It is hard to find figures for individual schools going back to the 1970s or 1980s, but in 1996 the State gave £1.5 million to Blackrock College to pay teachers’ salaries. It gave more than £1 million each to schools such as Terenure College and Belvedere College, where boys were also abused.

This was always bad policy from the point of view of social justice. But it now looks even worse – it exposes taxpayers to liability for crimes committed and covered up by members of religious orders that were, in effect, a law unto themselves.

If the public is liable for what the orders did, the records of those orders cannot be regarded as private. Even in this most crude form of calculation, we’ve paid many times over for these archives.

But beyond money, there is memory. The redoubtable Catriona Crowe, former head of special projects at the National Archives, has been arguing for years now that “The history of the Catholic Church in Ireland is intensely bound up with the social, economic and political history of the country. It needs to be integrated into that general history.”

That can’t be done without the nationalisation of the archives of the religious orders. Those records are part of the DNA of modern Ireland. Our genetic code cannot be cracked without them.

There is already, for individual citizens, a general right to access these records insofar as they contain information about themselves. They are all subject to GDPR, the European Union’s data-protection regime, under which the orders are obliged to provide access to those whose names are in their files.

But this is far too limited. People have to know that the records exist before they can access them. And there are much bigger questions than those that can be answered by personal data.

At the moment, the archives held by religious orders are kept in different places, with varying degrees of professional care and with different approaches to the granting of access. There is nothing to stop any order from simply shredding records, or moving them out of the country, to the Vatican for example.

The first thing we need is an emergency law that prevents the destruction or export of any records held by religious orders. This should be followed by the taking of these records into public ownership and the establishment of a national repository. Over time, and with appropriate protections for the privacy of living people, they should be digitised and made available online.

We can’t go on with disclosures erupting randomly, followed by (perfectly reasonable) demands for inquiries into this or that institution. We have reactive, improvised approaches to horrors that were clearly systemic.

“Private” in this context really means “secret”. So long as the records are not public property, they will remain part of the toxic culture of secrecy that continues to haunt us.

We cannot own this crucial part of our collective story psychologically until we own its archival traces literally.