28 May 2009 Edition
OPINION: Report of Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse
Power of church and state destroyed the lives of children
BY MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA
The Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is a hugely damning and damaging indictment of the powerful and the privileged in Irish society over decades. Religious orders, the Catholic Church Hierarchy, successive governments and the Department of Education stand indicted for the torture and murder of children and for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
The lives of children were destroyed in every possible way in institutions run mainly by Catholic religious orders. The destruction ranged from general neglect, deprivation of adequate food and clothing, denial of the right to proper education, forced labour, emotional abuse, physical assault, sexual assault and murder. The survivors were left with a lifelong legacy of physical and psychological damage that tortures them to this day.
This was a regime of fear that ruled on the dark side of Irish society for most of the 20th century.
Because of the courage of the survivors in speaking out we have known for a long time of the horror of what went on in these institutions. But the report of the commission gives, for the first time, a widespread view of the full extent of that regime, based, as the report is, on the direct testimony of the victims.
The Confidential Committee of the Commission heard evidence from 1,090 men and women who reported being abused as children in these institutions. Abuse was reported to the committee in relation to 216 school and residential settings, including industrial and reformatory schools, children’s homes, hospitals, national and secondary schools, day and residential special needs schools, foster care and a small number of other residential institutions, including laundries and hostels. There were 791 witnesses who reported abuse in industrial and reformatory schools and 259 witnesses reported abuse in a range of other institutions.
More than 90% of witnesses who spoke to the commission reported that they had been physically abused. They were beaten, kicked, flogged, scalded with hot water, held under water and burned. Many beatings were carried out in public in order to humiliate. Physical assaults were often carried out randomly and without pretext, creating a terror in children who never knew when they might be assaulted.
Half of the witnesses reported being sexually abused. It is worth quoting the report on this point:
“The secret nature of sexual abuse was repeatedly emphasised as facilitating its occurrence. Witnesses reported being sexually abused by religious and lay staff in the schools and institutions and by co-residents and others, including professionals, both within and external to the institutions.
“They also reported being sexually abused by members of the general public, including volunteer workers, visitors, work placement employers, foster parents, and others who had unsupervised contact with residents in the course of everyday activities.
“Witnesses reported being sexually abused when they were taken away for excursions, holidays or to work for others.
“Some witnesses who disclosed sexual abuse were subjected to severe reproach by those who had responsibility for their care and protection.
“Female witnesses in particular described, at times, being told they were responsible for the sexual abuse they experienced, by both their abuser and those to whom they disclosed abuse.”
The report is damning in the extreme on the role of the Department of Education.
This government department was charged with ultimate responsibility for the children. It carried out too few inspections, was aware that abuse was taking place but did little or nothing about it and, in the words of the report, the department “made no attempt to impose changes that would have improved the lot of the detained children. Indeed, it never thought about changing the system.”
The department’s secretary general, at a public hearing, told the Investigation Committee that the department had shown a “very significant deference” towards the religious congregations.
The state, in the form of the department, and the religous orders were in fact working hand in glove in this system of terror.
Out of taxpayers’ money, the department paid a capitation grant to these institutions for each child they detained within their walls. This created a strong incentive for the orders to push for more children to be put in their ‘care’. The larger institutions, in particular, could thus accumulate large sums of money which were spent on enriching the orders who ran them rather than improving the lot of the children whom they held in their virtual prisons.
And who were these children? They were predominantly the children of the poor. Because their parent or parents or other family members were deemed not to be able to look after them, the children were effectively incarcerated by the courts. The state abdicated its responsibility to the children and handed them over to the religious orders.
This was a conspiracy of the powerful against the powerless. People were afraid to speak out because to defy the Catholic Church was to face social death. And the poor were the least well equipped to stand up to the church.
When the victims finally began to be widely heard in the media in the 1990s, the state was compelled to accept its responsibility. Taoiseach Bertie Ahern issued an apology and a redress scheme and commission of inquiry was established. But even then the “deference” towards the religious orders was not dead.
The deal negotiated with the religious orders by then Education Minister Michael Woods, on behalf of Bertie Ahern and the Fianna Fáil/PD Government, was fundamentally flawed. The religious orders’ contribution to the compensation scheme was capped while the state’s was unlimited. That deal has now become totally discredited and the whole issue has been blown wide open again by the commission report.
It was pathetic to listen to Bertie Ahern this week attempting to defend the deal and describing its critics as “anti-Church people”. But Ahern’s typically mealy-mouthed intervention has had little impact, such is the public anger at what was done and such is the support for the victims’ demand for justice.
So what should be done now?
Firstly, all the recommendations of the commission report should be implemented. These recommendations focus on alleviating the effects of abuse on those who suffered in the past and preventing abuse of children in care today.
Secondly, there needs to be a new deal from the religious orders. They need to fully accept their moral obligation to the victims and a new scheme needs to be worked out. The Government has to accept that the previous agreement was flawed and that it too has a moral obligation to ensure justice for the victims. The Government should now initiate an independent international audit of all the assets of the culpable religious orders.
Thirdly, the Government must act urgently to protect vulnerable children today. The child protection and care system in the 26 Counties is totally inadequate, as shown most recently by the refusal of the Government to implement the first recommendation of the Monageer Inquiry, which was to establish an out-of-hours social work care service. A proper system must be put in place.
Finally, the separation of church and state must be completed. In the 26 Counties today, the state pays for education through capitation grants, teachers’ salaries and a range of other funding. But the vast majority of primary and secondary schools are not under democratic control. They are predominantly under the patronage of Catholic bishops and in the ownership of the Catholic Church. This must change and we must move to a democratically-controlled education system, truly representative of the community, respecting the rights of people of all religions and none, and totally child-centred.