What is truth?

Dail debate 7

Mary Harney
(Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats)

I wish to share my time with Deputy Mary White.

Brendan Howlin
(Wexford, Labour)

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Mary Harney
(Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats)

The publication of the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, under Mr. Justice Seán Ryan, is the most important social event in Ireland in recent decades. It is a truly profound moment in the life of the nation. It confronts us with an awful truth, the fact that we should be ashamed of our past when it comes to our treatment of children. It is tempting to believe that our shame relates to events long ago, but the sad and disturbing truth is that the hurt inflicted on the survivors of abuse has continued to this day. In the ten long years since the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, apologised for the abuse of the past, we have, until now, collectively failed to fully appreciate the injustices of the past. Nothing less than a full appreciation must now be displayed by society and must inform the actions of the State.

The Ryan report forces us to confront the true scale of the savage inhumanity that has devastated so many young lives, and the awful inertia and neglect of people in authority that allowed the abuse to continue when it should have been rooted out. For too many decades we chose to turn away from this hidden misery. But now we have a solemn duty to face it, to digest its significance and to act in a manner that provides justice to the survivors and protection against such abuse ever happening in the future. While there have been many scandals, and reports on scandals, on child abuse and other evils – some yet to come – this time, it is different, and it will be different. This report is our truth commission.

We owe a great debt to Mr. Justice Ryan and the many people who have served on the commission. Without flinching, the report covers the worst of human depravity and abuse of children. The terrible truth that this report unveils, in the most thorough, judicious, and razor-sharp analysis, calls for the deepest, sustained reflection, so that all that can be learned from it will be learned. It raises profound issues of justice, redress, crime and punishment, the ethos underlying the laws we enact, questions of good and bad authority, the hideous corruption of the values and ideals of founders of religious orders, and the failures and neglect of the State, and agents of the State, purporting to act in the name of the people. In recounting the testimony of the abused children, it finally gives voice to the truth of their suffering. In so doing, it recognises the injustice and hurt of this truth having been suppressed in their childhood, and for most of their lives.

In all the darkness, there are points of light, that final recognition of the truth for those who were abused, the clarity and balance shown in the report, the acknowledgement of good done by some people, even where abuse was institutionalised and systemic, the understanding it helps us reach of what did go on, and of the need for vigilance to prevent such abuse ever occurring again.

Brendan Howlin
(Wexford, Labour)

I know people are very deeply involved in this debate but I ask that Members could be heard without any interruption from the Gallery. I understand how deeply people feel about this matter but it is important that what is being said is heard.

1:00 am

Mary Harney
(Minister, Department of Health and Children; Dublin Mid West, Progressive Democrats

Most importantly, this report is compelling because it puts the abused children of decades past, and the vulnerable children of today, at the very centre of its concerns and compels our entire society to do the same. It is fundamentally about their story and their welfare, and it demands that we, as individuals and particularly as public representatives in Dáil Éireann, ask ourselves the hard questions and deliver a response that fully meets the challenges.

For so many victims of abuse set out in this report, there has been and can be no real balancing of the scales for lives lost, psychological trauma and childhoods starved of human warmth, love and trust. The survivors live in Ireland, England and right around the world. I hope that wherever they live, and in whatever circumstances, whatever their status, health or well-being, they hear the message the Irish people and this House is sending today – you are not forgotten and we are determined to do justice, to repair damage as far it can be repaired, and to honour your lives and your human dignity.

We are determined to ensure that survivors of abuse are provided with full access to the entire range of health and social services they need. Many have ongoing and particular needs in the areas of housing, health care, education, counselling and support services, areas which cut across a number of public service providers. Our job is to align our services so that we are proactive across public services in meeting their needs. Nor will we forget those who live outside the jurisdiction whom we can also help with better services.

We are also determined as a House and as a Government, as the Taoiseach has said, to ensure Ireland reaches the highest standards of child protection. I am confident the Minister of State, Deputy Barry Andrews, will present the Government with a comprehensive set of practical measures needed to implement fully the recommendations of the report. That work is already well underway. The Minister of State, Deputy Andrews, set out yesterday some of the challenges that this will pose for him and for all of us involved in the design and implementation of public services. The challenges presented to us are nothing to the suffering of the survivors. Our challenge is to make sure we put the survivors first in designing the public services they now require.

Redress and compensation is one small part of justice, and an entirely appropriate part. However, our response as a society also demands a greater financial contribution from the religious orders involved to right the wrongs of the past and to take all possible measures to prevent abuse now and in the future. The Government is reflecting the interest of our society in requiring far more from the religious orders, and the Government and the House expect they will meet their responsibilities, which are grave indeed.

We are all thinking again about the agreement on redress in 2002 and the capping of the legal liability of the orders involved. They might well reflect that, while it sought to limit the damage to their finances, it has had the effect of causing immeasurably more damage to their reputations. It is a lesson for all organisations and institutions that catastrophic reputational damage is caused by allowing injustice to persist and by failing to act, and that damage is only exacerbated by legal or financial moves to deny or evade full responsibility. Reputations are much more difficult to repair than balance sheets. Lest there be any doubt, damaged lives are the hardest thing of all to repair.

Criminal prosecution and punishment is another necessary part of justice and redress. Our response as a society to evil and injustice includes criminal sanction; that is what our laws provide. There cannot be any reason the due process of criminal law should not take place in regard to those who have a very serious case to answer. There is every good reason it should.

In 1999, the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, rightly and unreservedly apologised on behalf of the State for the failures over decades to protect children. Often, when we mention “the State” in these matters, it can sound like a cold, legal construct, an entity we all own but that somehow is above, beyond and detached from us as individuals. The State is all of us, and in a particular way those of us who are now, or were in the past, Members of the Oireachtas. In this debate we can recount all the horrors and the appalling incidents of abuse, reading out parts of the Ryan report. However, the public, and more importantly, the abused, can rightly ask of those of us speaking today, “What about you? Your institutions? Your role?” Let us address this. The failure of the State included our failure. Let us acknowledge that fully. The elected representatives of the people, ourselves, even in this generation, and our predecessors, did not adequately scrutinise, question and call to account the system that caused this abuse of children. The institutions of the State – the Oireachtas, this House and Departments – all failed.

For example, year after year, Estimates for the Department of Education were proposed, analysed, discussed and passed. That process provided an opportunity for a closer scrutiny of the workings of the industrial schools, in particular of the financial incentives underlying them. How often did we and our predecessors raise the question of abuse or the system of industrial schools? Clearly, nowhere near enough.

The report comments tersely on what happened in the 44 years between the Cussen commission’s report into reformatories and industrial schools in 1936 and the Kennedy report in 1970. It states:

The Cussen Report endorsed the system contingent upon the implementation of its 51 principal conclusions and recommendations, but the implementation of these recommendations by the Department of Education was inconsistent and intermittent. Consequently, the system continued largely unchanged until the late 1960s. By the time the Kennedy Report was published in 1970, the system had greatly declined and the report itself was more of an obituary than a death sentence. The events that led to the ending of the system had little to do with policy decisions by the Department of Education, and that also is part of the story.

One of the many lessons in this is surely that we should question more and better, not less or superficially. Whether as Ministers or TDs, we must be constantly vigilant to allow the possibility that there can be another truth other than the traditional line or that which supports the status quo. By this, I mean responsible, considered, deep and balanced questioning. As we know from some parliamentary inquiries, it is only a high standard of questioning and a high standard of ministerial and administrative response and accountability that will ensure scrutiny actually works to prevent failures, including what are often called systemic failures. A lesson of this report is also that any institution, be it religious, political, administrative or professional, can – indeed, will – end up being self-serving and abusive of power if it does not question itself and is left without effective external accountability.

What we mean by “the State” is also all those who run and administer the institutions and arms of the State. Many people advise and act in the name of the State and, ultimately, there is political control. However, there is no small measure of administrative responsibility either. In fairness, the report records the statement of the Secretary General of the Department of Education accepting its failures. However, as important as recognition, acceptance and apology is to learn and fully apply the lessons as quickly as possible.

High standards of public sector management must mean the public service carries within itself the ability to question its own methods and processes so that failures and deficiencies are addressed, not suppressed. The challenge of this report is not just about the past, but about the ability of an administrative system now and in future to question and improve itself constantly. Otherwise, self-preservation, the status quo and even illegality and deep injustices can become institutionalised. The price of not doing so may be hidden in the short term but the long-term consequences can be appalling for individuals.

There often can be unsettling and deeply challenging new facts, or new legal or financial advice, presented to Ministers and Departments. We must listen and apply considered judgment to what we hear. As Ministers, we must never abandon our critical faculties. In this case, the damage to children and the liability of the State simply accumulated over decades. It never went away because not enough people listened, heard and acted. Had we acted earlier, we would have saved both. So, it is a lesson for public administration, Government, Ministers and the Oireachtas to deal with issues when they arise, no matter how awkward, difficult or revealing they are. It is about the courage to speak the truth, as well as the courage to listen and to act. As the report states, “…openness would probably have reduced the level of abuse: sunshine is the best disinfectant”.

The report also offers lessons on what it calls “agency capture”, that is, organisations funded by the State which dictated terms even though one would imagine that he who pays the piper calls the tune. These agencies argued that they were unable to meet standards because they were not receiving sufficient funds. They claimed, for example, they did not have the money to provide meat to children. This turned into a form of blackmail against the State and a means of excusing injustice, wrongdoing and the failure to meet standards. Echoes of these arguments can be heard today. To avoid this danger, a clear and accountable governance system is needed for agencies and organisations which receive substantial State funding so that resource limitations are not used as excuses for bad practice or management.

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was a truth commission for Ireland. It revealed a truth that is both disturbing and shameful but it is infinitely better that the truth be told and the lessons learned for the sake of the abused and all our children, particularly vulnerable ones. If we could give to the born the level of care and concern rightly shown in some quarters to the unborn, we would serve this country better.

As a pupil of the convent in Goldenbridge, I was treated very well and had a good experience. However, I went home to my parents every evening. Many of my teachers were the same people who inflicted such awful pain and suffering on those held in their care. It is difficult to understand how these teachers could treat two students so differently simply because one went home every evening.

Mary White
(Carlow-Kilkenny, Green Party)

Today’s debate addresses a truly horrific chapter in our country’s history and the lessons we must learn as a nation, a country and a human race. The Ryan report documents systemic abuse in industrial schools, reformatory schools and other institutions spanning a period of decades. It chronicles shocking physical and emotional abuse, a climate of fear in the institutions concerned, the endemic sexual abuse of boys by abusers who were protected by their congregations and a catalogue of crimes against the most vulnerable of children, including the emotional abuse that disadvantaged, neglected and abandoned children suffered at the hands of staff in these institutions.

Children with learning and other impairments were even more powerless in the presence of those in authority. The report states:

Children with intellectual, physical and sensory impairments and children who had no known family contact were especially vulnerable in institutional settings. They described being powerless against adults who abused them, especially when those adults were in positions of authority and trust. Impaired mobility and communication deficits made it impossible to inform others of their abuse or to resist it. Children who were unable to hear, see, speak, move or adequately express themselves were at a complete disadvantage in environments that did not recognise or facilitate their right to be heard.

Neglect and emotional abuse were widespread but the Department of Education took a deferential and submissive attitude to the religious orders and failed in its duty to inspect or regulate them. There was a lack of response to the complaints of those who were abused from either the congregational authorities or the Department. Complainants were not heeded, secular authorities were not alerted to cases of abuse by members of the religious orders and the Department generally dismissed or ignored their complaints.

Two industrial schools were located in my constituency of Carlow-Kilkenny, St. Patrick’s and St. Joseph’s. The report states in regard to St. Patrick’s that men who were employed in the school appeared to have ready access to small boys and that awareness was lacking about the risks posed by this. In St. Joseph’s, two periods of serious sexual abuse were not adequately addressed. In the first period, the perpetrator was not reported to the Garda even though the Department confirmed the cases and no comfort was offered to the girls who were abused. In the second period, the Sisters of Charity were found to have failed to deal decisively with two abusers of boys. Both men went on to abuse again after leaving St. Joseph’s.

I cannot help contrasting my own happy childhood in County Wicklow, sitting on haystacks beside my brothers and sister or doing my homework at the kitchen table in the expectation of cocoa and Marietta biscuits with the butter oozing out the little holes, with the horrendous beatings, floggings, sexual abuse, lack of love and lives full of terror experienced by the children in these institutions. The contrast is grotesque but this happened at the hands of the so-called guardians and pillars of the church who wore the soutane and the biretta and wielded the cane to abuse their positions of power and destroy lives.

However, we must recognise the parallel failures of the State during the period in question. The 1936 Cussen report, which recommended integration into the community of those in industrial schools, was not implemented until the 1960s. The Ryan report states that the industrial training afforded served the needs of the institutions rather than the children. This failing was only one of many.

The Ryan report’s recommendations on child care policy and methods of evaluating the success or failure of services are all the more important when we consider that the Government is in the process of reforming early child care policy and provision. The findings of this report confront us with an enormous challenge in terms of examining the relationship between church and State both then and now. The report’s final recommendation on the implementation of national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children is crucial. While I welcome the Government’s commitment in this regard, it must also engage the Catholic church on its currently inadequate child protection guidelines. Guidelines which offer no input from the victims of abuse cannot be deemed adequate. Finally, I suggest that a day of remembrance be called by the Government. This would be an important occasion for us to remember what happened and to listen without interrupting and learn from those who for so many years never had a voice.

Brendan Howlin
(Wexford, Labour)

This is a very important debate. I ask people in the Gallery to allow Members to make their contributions in this national Parliament on this most important issue without applause.

Róisín Shortall
(Dublin North West, Labour)

I am glad to have several minutes to make a short contribution on this motion. Unfortunately, the limited amount of time allocated to the debate means that many Members who would have liked to make contributions do not have opportunities to do so.

I hope the publication of the Ryan report heralds an honest and sincere response from the State and the religious congregations which were responsible for the gross depravity and savagery inflicted by many of their members on the most vulnerable in our society. I am not sure, however, whether the current debate on this all-party motion is the correct way to deal with the issue. A lot of breast beating is going on, accompanied by talk that I find difficult to stomach. We should have dealt with the issue differently and I would have liked more honesty in the debate.

Regrettably, we continue to await a full acceptance of responsibility on the part of the State. The rewriting of history which Deputy Woods engaged in this morning is not helpful. Time does not allow me to provide the details but I utterly refute many of the Deputy’s assertions. The agreement reached with the 18 congregations was grubby in the extreme. It entailed the State stepping in and taking on legal responsibility for clerical abuse not just in the distant past but up to 5 June 2002. Essentially, it was a cheap insurance policy for the perpetrators of criminal abuse and the fact the State was party to that is a disgrace. It flew in the face of modern day thinking on the need for those perpetrators to take responsibility for their actions and it is not until this requirement is satisfied that people can begin to recover. How can the survivors of abuse ever start to move on if the perpetrators of abuse continue to refuse to take responsibility for their actions?

The State, in reaching this deal with the 18 congregations, facilitated that avoidance of responsibility on the part of the congregations. The religious fought tooth and nail to limit their financial liability for this open-ended indemnity provided by the State. They succeeded in including in the deal many properties that had nothing whatsoever to do with redress. They put a €10 million price tag on their counselling services and that is a measure of the hard-nosed approach they took to this. This was not about atonement or seeking forgiveness or facing up to responsibility; this was about striking the toughest bargain they possible could. They had the State and the then Minister, Deputy Michael Woods, over a barrel and God did they strike a tough deal.

Seven years after that deal in the middle of 2009 they have yet to honour it. Incredibly, many of the properties have not yet been transferred and as of December last year less than 50% of those properties had been transferred. I am glad to say the Committee of Public Accounts continues to monitor this issue and we are seeking six-monthly reports from the Department of Education and Science to ensure the congregations live up to their responsibility and to ensure the Department ensures they live up to their responsibility. We will continue to do so until each and every one of those properties is fully transferred. Worst of all, the congregations are still more concerned with saving their own faces than in honest atonement. As recently as two weeks ago, some of those orders were still apologising “if” they caused hurt; in spite of all the money they spend on public relations and all of the spin in which they are engaged, they are still talking about apologising “if” they caused hurt. This country has serious questions to ask itself on the morality and legal liability of continuing to allow our education services and large parts of our health services to be controlled by organisations which have been proven to be systematically and systemically abusive, depraved, criminally violent and which have not yet faced up to that culpability.

We know that down through the years at political and senior official level in some Departments too many people were prepared to turn a blind eye. Worse than that, some senior officials facilitated and were complicit in the abuse. This was not just in the distant past; up to very recent years certain officials with responsibility in this area were moved around by more senior and political figures in those Departments, much in the same way as abusing priests and other religious were moved around by their superiors. Will the Taoiseach undertake to carry out an investigation into the manner in which senior officials in the Department of Education and Science in particular, but also within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, handled complaints about systemic abuse in our education and health services over the years up to the present? People who are still alive, some of them still in positions where they are paid by the State and others who have recently retired, have serious questions to answer in this regard. If we are serious about dealing with this, the Taoiseach will be determined to get to the root of it and to find out who are those officials responsible for facilitating this abuse. This is not something that happened in the long and distant past; it continued up to very recent years and there is an onus on the Taoiseach to take responsibility to root out that attitude at certain levels in certain departments of the Civil Service . Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to ensure this happens?

I will ask three questions which members of the survivors’ groups in the Gallery asked me to pose and they relate to an entirely different aspect of the issue. They are very anxious to find out the answers to them. Who decided to add a gagging clause to the redress board scheme? Who decided to add the threat of imprisonment if people spoke about their experience after having been before the redress board? Was it the former Attorney General, Michael McDowell, who was responsible for adding those two provisions? He is not in a position to make a statement in this House but I call on him to make a public statement on those provisions.

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