The Ryan report, published 10 years ago this month, was based on the testimony of over 1,000 people who told the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse about their suffering as children in Irish institutions. To speak out, after decades of being silenced, was a courageous act.
As survivors spoke to the commissioners of their experiences, they did not know what the outcome would be, they had to trust that their words would be listened to, they had to hope that this time they would be believed. Perhaps this is the report’s greatest achievement: the validation and authentication of the testimony of a social group who had been marginalised for so long.
Given their bravery, it seems unconscionable that individuals are now blocked from accessing their own witness statements
The process of giving testimony is often fraught, and the commission process was not an exception. While the confidential committee held private meetings to hear and record survivor testimony, in contrast the investigation committee convened adversarial proceedings, during which survivors were cross-examined.
Unsurprisingly, survivors reported extreme stress and negative impacts following giving testimony to the committee of investigation. These effects were compounded by the process for participation in the Redress Board, which required survivors to sign a confidentiality agreement to receive financial compensation.
The negative psychological effects of this illustrate the significant cost to the survivor of acting as a witness. That this group of people continued despite this difficulty, demonstrating a bravery and resilience beyond many of us, shows not only their determination to be heard, but their generosity in speaking out so that we might all know the truth of our national history.
The Retention of Records Bill, proposed legislation to seal the records of the commission for an unprecedented 75 years, has been deplored by many survivors. Given their bravery, it seems unconscionable that individuals are now blocked from accessing their own witness statements.
Seal the testimony
Moreover, though significant lessons remain to be learned from both victim and perpetrator testimony, we will have to wait for that full knowledge beyond our lifetimes. The decision to seal the testimony is, obviously, a complex one.
Many survivors do not wish their statements to become public. Many survivors have died and cannot grant retrospective permission. In those cases, it is clear that testimony should remain private.
But the blanket application of a 75-year seal is highly detrimental, to both survivors as a group and, more generally, to national history. As Catriona Crowe (head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland) has asked: "What other sets of records exist to which the State would prefer its citizens not to have access?"
It has been my privilege to meet many survivors over the past few years and, most recently, to record some of their memories as part of the UCD survivors’ stories project (funded by the Irish Research Council).
We began this project, in collaboration with the Christine Buckley Education and Support Centre, and the National Folklore Collection to record and preserve some of this important history and to mark the anniversaries of the report's publication, and the first apology to survivors in 1999.
In setting out to include survivors’ voices in the National Folklore Collection, Dr Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh and I simply wanted to address the gap in the national records. We did not anticipate what a profound experience it would be.
The people who chose to share their testimony with us told us of terrible experiences of loneliness, neglect, and dehumanising abuse. Yet their humanity shone through despite this personal history.
Some had positive memories of friends, family or staff who had helped them. Some were still angry; some had forgiven those who hurt them. All of them gave witness because we asked them to.
We talk so often in Ireland about a "culture of silence" around abuse. This suggests that those who have been abused are not speaking out, not giving testimony. It is time to recognise that we don't have a culture of silence, we have a culture of not listening.
In reality, survivors are continually breaking the silence, continually taking on the labour of explaining their abuse to an audience, continually acting bravely. The failure is not theirs, but ours.
Granting access to testimonial records should be the first step in accepting survivors’ experiences as part of our national cultural inheritance. The next step – more meaningful still – would be to include institutional history on the curriculum for second level students. That would represent a way of not only listening, but witnessing, this important part of our history.