Thursday, 28 April 2005
Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Amendment) Bill 2005: Second Stage (Resumed).
Damien English (Meath, Fine Gael)
As Deputy Naughten says this issue must be considered and cannot be left to one side. If we return in two or three years' time with unanswered questions we will have learnt nothing from this debate. The argument could not have been better put than as Deputy Naughten put it.
There are few occasions on which I speak on matters of great shame to this House and to the country. I join all those who have spoken before me in condemning this practice as morally and socially unacceptable. It is a shameful blot on our history. All abuse is wrong but child abuse is the sickest form of abuse.
The matter before the House today, to amend the 2002 legislation, is unfinished business and will remain unfinished unless certain questions are asked and answered. The need for this legislation springs from the resignation of Ms Justice Laffoy after much debate and pleading with the Department of Education and Science for funding.
I welcomed the Taoiseach's unreserved apology on behalf of the State for child abuse in 1999. Foolishly I presumed that every arm of the State would row in behind the inquiry to try, for the sake of the people involved and of natural justice, to make the inquiry successful. History, and today's debate, show that was not successful, which is a great shame.
The Department of Education and Science refused to pull its weight in this matter. It is a shame for County Meath that a fellow representative of that area, Deputy Noel Dempsey, was the Minister in charge at the time. Although he was a teacher he could not learn from the past. He was part of the Government and did not make this decision alone but it was the wrong decision. He should have ordered his Department to co-operate fully with Ms Justice Laffoy. It was just too easy to accept her resignation at that time. Ms Justice Laffoy knew exactly what was needed but did not receive it. She knew what was needed to ensure fair play and justice for these victims. The question remains why this happened. So long as it remains, how can we even begin to seek closure on this matter?
While growing up in and around the town of Navan I learned much and have more to learn. Two principles I learned that I will always remember were that one does not abuse children and that one respects one's elders. In recent weeks in the House we have seen cases where both these principles have been ignored. When the former Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Martin, told an Oireachtas joint committee he did not know that his Department was overcharging, despite that it was his job to know and most people in the country suspected he knew because he had the reports and it was his job to read them, he set a new level of what is acceptable in public administration. He should have known better.
It is on a par with what is being done in this legislation. Halfway through a process the Government is trying to shift the goalposts to a position that is more acceptable to itself and the Department of Education and Science rather than to the victims. It is not fair and it is not right and I fear lessons will not be learned. At the crux of the matter is that each individual case is not a fact, figure or statistic but a person no better or worse than any Member who found himself or herself, through no fault of his or her own, at the mercy of the State. Sadly, the State had no mercy.
To calculate this inquiry in monetary terms only is to diverge from that facts. While we all want value for money we also want closure for those involved because they deserve closure as well as truth, justice and answers. My understanding of justice is that those wronged are entitled to tell their story in court and, if possible, face the wrongdoer, in this case the abuser. While I know that will not be possible in every case, the State should do its best to facilitate it. The idea of bunching similar cases together to reach a settlement goes against that principle. We are not dealing with overcharging by banks or mistakes made by a Minister in nursing home charges. We are dealing with abuse and people who have been hurt and stained for life. To group these cases together sends out the wrong signal. The State was wrong. Everyone deserves a separate hearing of their case and it is wrong for the State to set rules with which it is comfortable. The rules should be set by the victims and we should at least listen to them in order that they can get what they need out of the investigations. It is wrong that the Department is investigating itself.
This process should not be comfortable for anyone involved because it should become part of the healing process and, if handled properly, it will be. Given that amendments have been tabled, perhaps there will be a change but, as the Bill stands, I am not happy that it will solve all problems, help bring closure for victims and help them heal. This process should certainly not be comfortable for the Department of Education and Science and, in an ideal world, it should not fund it. Neither should this process be comfortable for any arm of the Church or State which is affected by the child abuse issue because questions need to be asked and answered and, above all, lessons need to be learned. Justice and truth must prevail. The victims must get the answers they need to enable them continue with their lives.
The reason the issue has reached the point of needing a second piece of legislation is that it was handled dreadfully badly from the beginning. Having spoken to these people, I know they required that those responsible accept responsibility for what they did. While this has been achieved in some way, it has been an exhausting and long drawn-out process for those involved. They wanted answers to questions that could and should have been answered long before now but for reasons better known to themselves, large institutions chose not to answer.
My firm belief is that if these two issues had been handled properly and in a caring manner, the issue of compensation would have been a very small issue which would have been easily dealt with. Instead, arms of the State chose to issue denials and exhaust the process which annoyed people, caused hurt and cost millions of euro. Has the Government learned anything? The jury is still out but my inkling is that it has not.
Those who do not learn the lessons of history are destined to repeat them and this, seemingly, is the case. Countless elderly people lie on hospital trolleys and countless numbers of children vanish from the care of the State each year. I refer to children who arrive without proper passports and documentation seeking refugee status and later vanish. I hate to think where these children end up. Countless children at the mercy of the courts still end up in institutions not suitable for them while countless others sleep rough on the streets. It does not appear as if lessons have been learned. Each of the cases I have listed is an inquiry waiting to happen.
I plead with the Government and all others to stop blaming the inquiries for costing so much money but rather put the blame on a system or Government that allowed this practice to happen and, to this day, still allows abuse of children to happen. The victims need us to help them to bring back a quality to their lives and they need closure. There is an onus on us to get this legislation right in order that this issue can be dealt with quickly. Will the Minister speak to her colleagues and listen to amendments from this side that might make it a better Bill? Nobody has anything to gain from this politically. We are all here to do what is best for the victims. Any suggestions we put forward should be examined, dealt with and talked through. If we table amendments that are not right, we will listen but we have some good amendments that should be examined. Victims must have their say.