Saturday, June 20, 2009

A Tale of Two Reports

Something that has served to blight life in Ireland in recent weeks has been the release of two harrowing commission reports. The first was the Monageer Report on the death of a family in Wexford two years ago in tragic circumstances. This report was non-statutory and as a result had large portions "redacted" - a new word in the national lexicon that involved blacking out large portions of text and testimony of witness statements and is censorship by another Orwellian name. This led to much speculation and conspiracy theorising about what was concealed and why there wasn't full disclosure in such a case of public interest. That is not merely prurient interest, as there are major unanswered questions arising about our social services and the gaps therein, whereby there is no social work cover at weekends and if a family crisis emerges it has to be dealt with by the Gardaí (police).

Also the lack of inter-departmental communication leaves a lot to be desired with no feedback between professionals involved in the same case. In an infamous case over 15 years ago, known as the Kilkenny Incest Case, there were over 60 visits by social workers and public health nurses yet there was no communication of concerns between both disciplines. Child protection guidelines were amended and laws introduced to prevent recurrence but it sometimes seems little has changed on the ground. It is a damning indictment of our priorities that resources are not put into resolving the staffing levels and ensuring 24/7 cover for such situations. There will never be a way to prevent some tragedies, but at least you could say that all that could have been done was done.

This family were actually on a Garda watch after a diligent undertaker reported concerns after the family visited enquiring about family funeral arrangements should they all be killed in a car crash. The Gardaí watched the house over the weekend and once the car was seen to be there they didn't intervene. The Parish Priest visited and left once reassured by the father who was apparently very manipulative and convincing. There were numerous missed hospital and health appointments detailed in the commission report which alone mightn't be picked up but collectively would show a pattern and raise concern about the family's commitment to engaging with the services and their welfare. We are all questioning our professional practice and trying to plug gaps to ensure tragedies like this can be averted and prevented in the future.

The other report is the Ryan Commission Report - an enquiry into institutional child abuse in religious-run institutions from 1930-1990. The full report runs to 5 volumes and about 3000 pages. I have linked to the Executive Summary here It has been years in the making and has opened the Pandora's Box on this dreadful issue. It is another damning indictment on our society's attitude to poverty and to children, and the power the church as a body had over the entire country and especially the government. Since child sex abuse came to light in the past 10-15years this stranglehold has been loosened forever, and FOI (freedom of information) has revealed the extent to which this power was abused through much of the life of the Irish State. Government and societal collusion ensured that the perpetrators could act with impunity, as these children were already abandoned by a society that was happy to have them locked up and not be a burden or embarrassment on the country.

The report has shaken the whole country in its graphic portrayal of the abuse these children suffered, and the deal the government struck with the religious bodies to cap their financial liability to compensation at a paltry €127 million has been pilloried. They are being shamed into offering further compensation to the victims who had to go through a court-like redress board to get their claims recognised, and were bound up by all kinds of confidentiality clauses. It is clear from the Ryan report that the religious challenged and denied the allegations of abuse right to the bitter end, and it was only following irrefutable evidence and realising that the Ryan commission members were getting to the heart of the matter and believing the victims, that they climbed down and showed some latter-day humility. This is despite the promise that the redress board would be a non-adversarial forum for the victims to get justice. A former inmate of Ferryhouse in Clonmel, Michael O'Brien, spoke eloquently on Questions and Answers(, RTÉ's flagship topical issues programme, about his experiences of the same board. He went on to become Mayor of Clonmel and was a staunch government supporter and felt very let down by their deference to the religious orders. He refuted any illusion that the government or the public may have had about the impartiality of the hearings of this board.

This report came out in late May and it is still headline news with daily revelations of the lasting impact of such horror, on the victims, their families, frequently hugely dysfunctional, and the stigma that led many of them to alcoholism, homelessness, suicide, and ultimately destroyed their lives by ruining their childhood. It makes for sobering reading albeit in very small doses, as it is so hard to read. Letterfrack and Artane were among the most notorious industrial schools, and one of the Industrial schools was in Cappoquin, only 4 miles from Lismore, on our own doorstep. Paddy Doyle, who was abused there, wrote one of the first of many first-hand accounts of life there in The God Squad. Everyone of a certain vintage, myself included, has a memory of the crocodiles of scared boys on Sunday walks, heads downcast and looking gaunt and miserable. It turned out that many had stunted growth from virtual starvation, as the capitation from the government was often diverted into other "more deserving" schools, like the mainstream day schools.
There is a huge national and public guilt at all the years of turning a blind eye and as recently as last week one priest outraged his flock by seemingly justifying some of the treatment by suggesting in his Sunday sermon that the boys at one reformatory, Daingean in Co. Offaly, were "ruffians", as if this made them deserving of whatever abuse was meted out to them. There are those church members who still think the people and government will respond to a "belt of the crozier" if they have the temerity to speak critically on chuch issues - thankfully those days are gone and it can only be for the good of the country. The younger generation cannot credit how church-ridden the governments of the past were, and yet we had this deal struck as recently as 2002 by then Minister Michael Woods in the closing hours of a government on the eve of a general election.

I hope the publication of these reports will serve to prevent any authority from losing the run of themselves in the future, we can all hang our heads at the collective shame of the treatment shown to vulnerable sectors of society and be vigilant to ensure no recurrence. It wouldn't be the first time that we hear "never again", and history repeats itself yet again.


Niamh Griffin said...

We can definetly hope that it's a case of never again this time, surely people would never 'bow down' to priests like this again? It's hard to fully comprehend what went on in those schools and how anyone could think it's a decent way to treat children - or adults for that matter. It's depressing to think that it's only now we are able to do something about it...

Peggy said...

Hi catherine, I am just skimming through as I am caught for time but this looks to be a very intersting post which I will come back to when I can read thoroughly and follow the links which you have taken the time to put in.

Peggy said...

Hi Catherine, great post to come back to.I read Paddy Doyle's book years ago when it came out first and how the authorites did not investigate then is a mystery.I remember when reading it he was sent to the Mercy hospital here in Cork in the mid fifties, I was horrified that he could be suffering so much in what we thought were modern times while I was enjoying a normal childhood not very far away.Great credit must go to the few who spoke out and kept the pressure up until they were believed.