The McColgan Report

 

There is very little good to be taken from the terrible story of the savagery inflicted on the McColgan children in the late 1970s and 1980s. Alongside the rapes, beatings and extreme mental cruelty they suffered, must be ranked the failure of the child-care system to remove them from the hell in which they lived.

But there are some small comforts in the story. Individual field social workers and teachers did try to get help for the children - but their efforts failed when matters went into the hands of managers in the health board. That the McColgans eventually told their story and won a distressing court case also provides comfort - though we can only wonder, with horror, how many other families suffered similar nightmares without the strength to fight the long battles the McColgans fought.

It is dangerous to judge events of the past by the standards of today. During many of the years of the McColgans' suffering, child sexual abuse was never spoken of in the wider society. But even taking that into account, it is difficult to understand why more effective action was not taken at health board management level in the light of the reports coming from field social workers and others. There is something else that is difficult to understand. Why, when the McColgan children as adults took an action for damages against the North Western Health Board and Dr Desmond Moran, the family GP, were they subjected to a harsh and distressing court battle? What message does that send about the attitudes of the child protection system towards its own mistakes of the past?

The answer is that the legal response to the McColgans' action was dictated by the insurance companies who stood to pay - and ultimately did pay - substantial damages. Surely this is a matter which requires examination at the highest levels. Where there is such a glaring issue of justice involved, is it acceptable that insurance companies have such a persuasive say in how claims will be dealt with?

The report also raises the issue of whether health professionals should be given a statutory right, in some circumstances, to interview children in the absence of their parents. Such a right could have made a major difference to the handling of the McColgan case. Mr Frank Fahey, the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, has sought an official report by his Department on this issue. The issue needs careful examination. The rights of parents to oversee the interests of their children should not be set aside lightly. And, as the editor of The Irish Social Worker, Mr Kieran McGrath, has pointed out, the courts can already order the examination of a child without the parents' consent.

The North Western Health Board has long had a reputation as the most progressive in the country in the provision of services in Donegal and Sligo. Yesterday it apologised to the McColgans for its failure to protect them. It is to be hoped that yesterday's report, and the apology, will allow the adult children of the McColgan family to move forward and to heal. And it is to be hoped they realise that, in some measure, they have redeemed us as a society by their resilience in the face of unthinkable pain.