The Irish Times view on child abuse files: Room for compromise
New legislation must allow survivors to access their own personal records
Mr Justice Sean Ryan, who chaired the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, has said those who gave evidence before it, did so on the basis of “absolute protection”, as provided for in Acts of 2000 and 2005. Photograph: Frank Miller
It may take something of the wisdom of Solomon to resolve wholly reasonable disagreements surrounding the retention of more than two million files generated by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, the Residential Institutions Redress Board, and the Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee.
The proposed Retention of Records Bill 2019 provides for these historically significant and sensitive documents to be preserved and transferred to the National Archives, where they will be sealed for 75 years. There will be a review of that release date after 25 years.
Some survivors are demanding personal and public access to the files, as are some academics and archivists. There are also survivors who want the files to remain sealed.
Mr Justice Seán Ryan, who chaired the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, has said those who gave evidence before it did so on the basis of “absolute protection”, as provided for in legislation from 2000 and 2005. Such evidence, he said, was “utterly confidential, full stop, end of story”. Meanwhile no one who appeared before the redress board is allowed by law to discuss proceedings or awards received.
A total of 2,490 people gave evidence to the two strands of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, while 16,650 made application to the Residential Institutions Redress Board. Survivors of the institutions who appeared before the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills last Tuesday spoke passionately against the files being sealed for 75 years, particularly their personal records. Some have spoken eloquently of their sense that the 75-year rule would constitute a further injustice by hiding their individual life stories and making them “invisible once more”.
But even among survivors there are differing views. One written submission to the committee noted how “many of us have given the most intimate details about abuse (sexual or otherwise), and about our personal experiences we would rather forget. The thought of this being released to the public without our consent is abhorrent even if it is 75 years away. Some of us may not even want our families to see it, ever.” This person also said “I believe in passing it [personal records] on to a national archive for society”.
At issue is the availability for public scrutiny of deeply personal information. Whatever the resolution to the conflicting positions, the concerns of living survivors must be prioritised. The youngest of these would now be aged in their mid to late 60s, as they left the institutions at 16 and the last of those closed in 1970, almost 50 years ago.
With them in mind the proposed sealing of the records for 75 years – and a review after 25 years – sounds reasonable. But new legislation must also allow interested survivors to access their own personal files.