Lack of accountability at heart of abuse of children


ANALYSIS:THE ABUSE and exploitation of tens of thousands of Irish children in State-funded institutions, as detailed in the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports, is arguably the gravest and most systemic human rights failure in the history of our State, writes COLM O'GORMAN

These reports tell us what those children endured, abuse that amounted to acts of torture and inhuman and degrading treatment.

But what we don’t know fully is why. And it is the why that matters now even more than the what. Why was abuse on such a scale and why was such depravity possible? Why did the State so abjectly fail to put in place a proper system to care for and protect some of its most vulnerable children? Why did wider society show so little interest in those same children? And why, despite the fact that deep veins of knowledge existed about what was happening to so many children, did society not demand effective action from the State?

Research published yesterday by Amnesty International Ireland attempts to begin to provide some answers. This research, titled In Plain Sight, is intended as a contribution to a much-needed public discussion about what the various reports reveal about the nature of our State and our society. Listening to Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald at the launch yesterday, I was struck by what she has taken from the report. “The fundamental lesson for me in this is that we must create a society in which no one is afraid to speak,” she said. “In which no one is afraid to challenge authority and power, because deference to the powerful is a guaranteed way to help that power corrupt.”

For power to remain uncorrupted and effective it must be accountable. And it seems to me that it is a failure of accountability that lies at the heart of much of what is wrong with Ireland.

In Plain Sight shows how privileged members of society were allowed to commit the most appalling crimes because of a culture of deference.

No criminal charge has been laid against those in positions of authority who concealed crimes against children and allowed known sex abusers to continue to have access to children and to continue to abuse with near impunity. The reports raise serious questions about the rule of law, given the evidence of deferential treatment shown to priests and bishops by successive governments and by members of the Garda.

The Ryan, Ferns, Murphy and Cloyne reports reveal a deep-seated failure to appreciate and incorporate effective accountability into our society and systems. This is true at the level of the State, but also, I believe, at the level of the individual. It has become a cultural phenomenon, part of being Irish.

Polling undertaken as part of the research for In Plain Sight certainly suggests that Irish people feel that wider society must take responsibility for the failures revealed in the various reports, but there is a feeling for many, especially those from working class and marginalised backgrounds, that their ability to do so is restricted.

An overwhelming majority of people – some 85 per cent – believe that individual members of society should have done more to protect children. Eighty-eight per cent believe that individual members of society should have demanded that the State act to prevent child abuse. Encouragingly, almost two-thirds believe that government acts when society demands that it acts.

However, when we look more closely at the polling we see that social class determines whether or not one feels powerful enough to act decisively.

People from working class and disadvantaged communities were 50 per cent more likely to agree that members of society were powerless to protect children than those from more affluent backgrounds. That sense of alienation from modern Irish society, of being unable to act, of not being included when decisions are made, is a deeply worrying one.

Many of our citizens clearly believe that their role is a passive one, that they cannot, and should not, demand change or accountability because they will be ignored or belittled for doing so. There is something deeply wrong, something broken, about a society where a group of people feel so powerless and so unequal. It undermines our notional claim to be a republican democracy.

The genesis for this research was my belief that many Irish people, including those who feel they are not listened to, understand that we all, at the level of the individual and as members of wider society, bear some responsibility for ensuring that such violations are not permitted or tolerated. This belief was based upon many conversations I had with people around the country following the publication of the Ryan report in 2009.

Women and men spoke to me of their sense of sorrow and shame at the society that we had allowed ourselves to become and expressed a real desire for change. I was struck by how this kind of insight and honesty was not reflected in many of the debates that followed the publication of the various reports.

Much discussion has understandably focused on the failures of the institutional church and of the State. While this was essential, it has failed to address the wider issues about what this terrible chapter in Irish history can tell us about how power operates in this State. Most particularly, it has failed to address the question of how power might be best held accountable by wider society.

Put simply, if in this area power operated to protect the powerful to the cost of wider society, it is likely that this dynamic was repeated in other spheres, be it in banking and business, politics or other sectors of society controlled by powerful interests.

That will require real leadership. Political leadership which recognises that a government must be engaged with and accountable to the people it serves and a people who demand that it be so.

The Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports reveal disturbing truths about our recent past. But they also reveal challenging truths about how our society operates today. The reports are not yet history.

The past only becomes history once we have addressed it, learnt from it, taken responsibility for it and made the changes necessary to ensure that we do not repeat the same failures.

Colm O’Gorman is secretary general of Amnesty Ireland

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