Dáil debates

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Ryan Report on the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse: Motion (Resumed)


4:00 pm

Photo of Michael D HigginsMichael D Higgins (Galway West, Labour)

It is just about ten years since the three programmes that made up "States of Fear" appeared on television. When those programmes were broadcast, the reaction was entirely different from what we are witnessing this week in terms of the Ryan report. Much of the reaction then was to assemble the forces that had so successfully denied every assertion of abuse for decades. One could go back further. When the Kennedy report appeared, a special conference was held at which those who were involved in running the institutions where perpetrators lived and were sheltered decided they had been treated unfairly. It was said the Irish public had been insufficiently grateful to them for all they had contributed to society.

Therefore, there is something new about the universal apology that is appearing this week. It is of the utmost importance that the occasion of this debate should not be used as an opportunity for further evasion, an evasion that has been unjust and immoral and, if it were to happen again, would be a degradation of the parliamentary process.

It is interesting what has happened in the decades in between as the facts of the abuses in different institutions came out. It did not stop religious orders going to the market with their land. It did not stop an order, for example, from exhuming the bodies of 133 Magdalen women in order to clear the ground for it to be sold on the market because the order had lost money investing in shares in GPA. That information is included in the book "Suffer the Little Children".

It is time for us to recognise the necessity of what exists in the historical record. We need a clear acceptance by all sides of the House of the importance of the record being set straight with regard to the opportunities that existed but to which no response was made. Reference has been made to Mannix Flynn. I do not recall an all-party consensus motion following the publication of his book "Nothing to Say". I do not recall conservative politicians in this House, when they saw Patrick Galvin's "Song for a Raggy Boy", saying it was scandalous that should have happened. Even today, the universal apology is in danger of being diluted so thinly that it serves as a mask for something else.

What kind of assumptions create the notion that the body is sinful and that those who are celibate are uniquely better for caring for children than married people? Where do such assumptions lie as an assertion of an authoritarian religion that can defeat spirituality itself? We are not as far as discussing that yet, because of the abuse of authority and the notion that those in authority protect themselves at all costs. The first reaction is to protect the authoritarian abuse, then the property, then with hours or days left, when it is dragged out, the apology becomes available.

I am not conned by that, because 40 years ago next week I stood for election for the first time as a young person in my late 20s. In every election since, I have always been aware of the possibility of being accused of being simply anti-church. It is no credit to the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, that just last week he was at it again, saying that those who wanted to revisit the proper contribution the religious orders should make were, somehow or another, anti-Catholic. Shame on him. That is a disgraceful suggestion to make.

Frankly, there is nothing new in the Ryan report. After I came into this House - most of which time I spent on this side of the House, but with a brief period on the Government side - I noticed that even good and decent colleagues were afraid of saying something that might upset the church. It was not just fear of upsetting those who were ordained, but also those people above the level of principal officer in the two Departments that mattered - the Departments of Education and Science and of Justice, Equality and Law Reform - and all of the others in authority dotted around through the system, in a country that did not respect the principles of a republic and had a deadly intersection of church and State. They were afraid very often to open their mouths lest they would get a belt of a crozier. They were seriously damaged as politicians by the fear inculcated in them by those who were abusing authority. Abuse it they did, and they did so systematically.

Two kinds of defence were suggested when we were coming up to the publication of the Ryan report. One was a curious suggestion that the whole country was "at it", so that the cases dealt with by the commission were only a small proportion of the total. It was also suggested that we should only look at the cases for which the State was responsible. We have a responsibility to ask what quality of mind suggests, on a universal authority, that one's body is dangerous. Let us hope in my lifetime that we will begin to be able to discuss that, and the damage those people who assert deadly notions about sexuality bring to bear.

Mary Raftery's and Eoin O'Sullivan's book, "Suffer the Little Children", deals with the comprehensive way in which the Department of Education set about covering its tracks. I was spokesperson for the Labour Party ten years ago when the commission was being established. It is to his credit that Deputy Micheál Martin, then Minister for Education and Science, read what files he could discover on Daingean. He described, for example, how Donogh O'Malley, who did not live to see it happen, pushed for the founding of the Kennedy committee. That committee of 11 members met 69 times but did not produce a very great report. However, it produced a file on Daingean, which contained an account of a child being flogged at midnight on a landing. The Departments of Justice, Health and Education each had a representative on the Kennedy committee. The young man who was taking notes for the committee became worried and asked the Secretary of the Department what he should do. The two Sir Humphries wrote to each other. One said he feared that including the account in the report would embarrass the Minister because it was something for which he had responsibility. He suggested that if there was agreement that the punishment had stopped in Daingean, the incident need not be included in the report. He went on, crucially, to add that the worst thing would be for the incident to go into the realm of public discourse and upset the public.

Not far from that time, the Secretary of the Department of Education, Dr. Ó Raifeartaigh, visited and had tea with Fr. McGonigle, who was in charge of the reformatory. Dr. Ó Raifeartaigh said, "Such is the spirit of dedication on the part of the staff, religious and lay, that one's principal feeling on leaving is that it is good to know that such people exist". He went on to say how enthused he was by the particular reform of regular visits of the Irish Countrywomen's Association to teach dancing to the boys. The members of the ICA loved the lessons but, as Mary Raftery points out, the experience of the boys is not recorded.

The Departments of Justice and Education colluded comprehensively at the most senior level in the suppression of information which might have been in the public interest. This rolls on to the issue of the treatment of the survivors at the Redress Board. I remember going to the committee meetings and I watched carefully as they tailored the manner in which one could establish some kind of responsibility. It was proposed that evidence should be limited to the physical building of the institutions where abuse took place. It was proposed that responsibility should be confined to the person in charge of the institution, the person in charge on the actual day when abuse took place or the person who actually carried out the abuse. Later, in the court hearings, unless one was part of the goldmine industry which was making money over on the other side, a simple mistake in a person's name could be used as a further source of trauma.

There is evidence of an institutional collusion that was deep, continuous and sinister in terms of its relationship between church and State. We must ensure that the construction of a form of collective apology is not used to dilute the responsibility of those who are perpetrators of sexual and physical abuse. It is important to bring to account those who were aware of such abuse and those who covered the perpetrators rather than bringing them to account.

I have sympathy for those working in the circumstances which existed in institutions. My argument, so far, is about cover up, secrecy and institutional collusion. General society was at fault. The people who had been through such institutions were at the back of the church and not at the front. They were treated differently in their parishes. They were pariahs. Dr. James Good describes, for example, how the allocation went. On page 211 of Volume lV of the Ryan report he says of Greenmount industrial school in mid-1955:

Babies born in the home for unmarried mothers at the Sacred Heart Convent, Bessborough, normally stayed there for two and a half years with their mothers. [He does not say if there was a screen between the mothers, as was the case in some institutions.] Between the age of two and a half and ten they lived in a junior industrial school, generally Passage for boys and Rushbrook for girls. On their tenth birthday, the boys were usually transferred to Greenmount or Upton. At age 14, they were out of books and usually worked in the bakery or at shoe repairs. At 16, they were released to farmers, for whom they worked as labourers, or to take up employment in the army, industry, domestic service or the trades.

It was much worse than that. Because of the stigma attached to their experience, which the State had made possible, they were now not participating normally as citizens. A tale related to me was of one such agricultural worker, working in the fields with other casual labourers. When the farmer's daughter was bringing milk to them at the end of the day in the field, she served the milk to everybody but threw it at him. His attempt to disguise his past in the school was being blown. I met these people in England. That is why it is important to eliminate all the obstacles to those who want to open up the Statute of Limitations or extend the remit of what should originally have happened.

The Ryan report states there was physical abuse in 90% of the institutions and sexual abuse in more than 50%. Yet, the Department used every resource it could, when we were establishing the legislation, to make sure that physical abuse could not be included. The suggestion was that there was a body of guidance on jurisprudence and law for the handling of sexual abuse but not for the handling of physical abuse. The truth is that it was all about money. That is why it is necessary to revisit this.

I have referred favourably to the former Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Micheál Martin, who made information available in May 1999. However, I disagreed with him when he suggested that the discovery of the independent rights of the child was late in Ireland. That is not true. Ireland ratified the European Convention on Human Rights on 26 February 1953. One of the Henchy judgments established as fact that Ireland was bound, on signature, by the principles of the convention. It did not enter municipal law until 2003. I expect this report to bring Ireland to Geneva to be questioned about breaches of the convention. Article 3, under which no one shall be subject to torture or inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, was breached. Deputies should read the Ryan report and arrive at their own conclusions in this regard. It is also clear the convention was breached in the case of the rape of children. In every judgment under the convention rape is regarded as a form of torture.

With regard to the failure of states to fulfil their responsibility, the convention describes as torture any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as intimidating or coercing him. This occurred in the institutions. We should also note the importance of the special stigma attached to this issue, which returns us to events in the Daingean institution. When asked the reason for the approach adopted there, the head of the institution stated it was found to be more humiliating. This crime, involving an institution assisted by the State, is a special category under the convention.

Those of us who were on the streets yesterday heard about those who, through forced labour, made rosary beads and so forth. Did they have a choice about whether to make rosary beads? Did those in the Christian Brothers institutions have a choice about whether to put pieces of metal into instruments that would be used to hit them? These practices also qualify under the convention. In signing the convention in 1953 the State clearly assumed responsibilities. It comprehensively failed to live up to the spirit of that to which it committed the Irish people.

Where do we go from here? My colleague, Deputy Burton, will speak of the amendments required in legislation. On the property side of the issue, let us have no evasion or fraud and let us not invoke any notion that there is some greater demand on the resources of any of the religious orders. Any older person in any religious order is entitled to the same treatment as any citizen of the State. While none of them should be short or in penury, none of the orders should stand in the way of the victims of abuse getting that to which they are entitled, namely, justice, be it in terms of the punishment of the perpetrators or the provision of an independent resource which will enable them to put their lives back together.

As a non-practising sociologist, I do not want to hear that therapy is a substitute for justice. Therapy, care, training and education are necessary but so too is compensation. We must review the law and the cases decided in the redress board to ensure people are treated fairly. If we had done so, Parliament would not have degraded itself. To issue a universal apology and then fail to deliver would be the worst outcome of all.


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