Analysis

Thursday 21 August 2014

Stories of survival should not be hidden in 'shame'

It was wrong to give a guarantee of anonymity to both victims and abusers

Emer O'Kelly

Published 01/06/2014 | 02:30

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Mr Justice Sean Ryan
Mr Justice Sean Ryan

IT IS exactly five years since the Ryan report into the residential institutional abuse of children was published. When he presented his report, Mr Justice Sean Ryan said categorically that the State authorities had been systematically and continuously "submissive and deferential" to the religious orders which ran the hellholes that were industrial schools (and also the Magdalene laundries, although they were not included in the scope of the report).

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When his commission of enquiry had originally been set up, it had been headed by Ms Justice Mary Laffoy; she resigned in despair because she found herself faced with a brick wall in attempting to get co-operation from the religious orders involved.

Judge Ryan stuck with it; and he gave us a report which proved in the face of every attempt at denial and justification, that children were denied their rights, denied an education, physically abused, frequently sexually abused, half-starved, and terrorised. Thirty five-thousand children were committed to industrial schools over the years.

When the Ryan report was published, Brother Kevin Mullan, the head of the Christian Brothers in Ireland, one of the orders indicted, said he and his people would continue to co-operate with "those seeking to explore" what had happened. But the exploration would not include the naming of the individual members of the order who were responsible for the inhumanity. The Irish State had, after all, guaranteed them protection and anonymity.

A few months after publication of the Ryan report, Judge Yvonne Murphy presented the report of her enquiry into the sexual abuse of children in the Archdiocese of Dublin. Its findings, let us remember, were equally damning. The then Vatican Ambassador to Ireland, Monsignor Giuseppe Leanza said in reaction that communications between the Irish Government and the Vatican would be "improved" to avoid "misunderstandings".

What he described as misunderstandings had been the deliberate attempt to prevent Ms Justice Murphy gaining access to files in the Vatican archives which contained documentary proof of the abuse.

But the evidence came out despite church obfuscation, denial, and obstruction. It came out in no small part thanks to the men and women, the dispossessed who had been abused, often to the point of emotionally and mentally destroyed lives, who found the courage to tell their stories in face of the awesome power of the Roman Catholic Church, the monolith that had been buttressed for generations by the Irish State.

And many of them later went on to give evidence to the Residential Institutions Redress Board, an indignity in itself: their suffering had been proved, but the State was still prepared to subject them to a further ordeal which seemed to many of them to be an attempt to minimise the monetary compensation to which they were morally entitled.

In return for their courage, the State guaranteed that the documents which contained their testimony would be destroyed. It was to be their "protection", giving them some kind of empowerment over their personal dignity.

The guarantee of anonymity applied alike to victims and perpetrators. But neither guarantee should have been given, in the interests both of justice and of compassion. The guilty men and women of the religious orders did not deserve to escape their shame, for whatever reason: "the culture of the time" or any other spurious excuse. Nor should they have been immune from prosecution where their behaviour merited it, regardless of old age or infirmity.

Equally, and for entirely different reasons, the victims of abuse should not have been assured by the State that their documentary testaments would be destroyed. The assurance was akin to the legal custom of not revealing in court the identity of a rape victim: but a victim has nothing to be ashamed of.

The abuse victims whose sad stories formed the evidence for the Ryan report had learned to keep their stories secret: they had been well-trained in the industrial schools which stole their youth, and often their innocence. They had lived their lives believing they were worthless, their childhoods something to be ashamed of, bewildered and bereft. When they summoned up the courage to have their stories heard, they should have been helped to realise that they had nothing to be ashamed of, and that the only people shamed by their experiences were the religious authorities and indeed, the State authorities who had allowed themselves to be browbeaten into complacency by the prevailing Catholic culture.

The victims should have been given the opportunity and encouragement to understand that they could be proud of their stories and their will to survive.

But not having taken the trouble to help the victims to come to terms with that simple premise, the State assured them that what they had lived with as their "shame" would remain a secret. They were assured when they gave testimony to the Ryan Commission and to the Redress Board that more than two million documents which had been the basis for both reports would be destroyed.

And now the Government has agreed in principle that the Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn may bring forward amending legislation to retain the documentation instead of destroying it. It is to be deposited in the National Archive, and sealed for at least 75 years, with access after that to be subject to very "strict safeguards".

Not merely is that a betrayal of a solemn promise to the victims, it is also pointless. In my opinion, the only reason to retain the documents would be for them to remain as a scar on our national consciousness, available at all times to remind us of our inhumanity as a society. It is a reminder that should hang over us, rather than having it concealed until the generation which colluded in the guilt is long dead.

The victims should have demanded, and should have been encouraged, to name themselves in pride. That they weren't was a betrayal. And this latest move is a double betrayal.

Sunday Independent

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