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Case of hunger striker Tom and the system which failed him

TOM Sweeney enters his 12th day on hunger strike today outside Leinster House.

He is accompanied in his hunger strike there by his son, Mark.

Tom Sweeney, who is 57, is in dispute with the findings of the Redress Board in respect of his experiences in Artane where he was physically abused; and in St Joseph's, Salthill, Galway where he was physically and sexually abused over a period of three years.

His first award, under the settlement stage in the Redress scheme, was for ?113,333. He took this to the second-stage hearing, where the amount was reduced by ?50,000.

In every category of the points scheme used by the Redress Board, he was downgraded.

In the third, review stage the overall figure was increased by a small amount, but still stood at half the original award.

He has declined to accept this and has gone on hunger strike, describing what he has been through with the Redress Board as the worst experience in his whole life.

His wife and six children, aware already of the time he spent in Artane and in St Joseph's, have had to endure again hearing the full details of Tom's experiences in both places as they were assessed and re-assessed by the board.

Tom Sweeney is just one of an increasing number of people who have gone before the Redress Board and met with a range of reactions and contradictions that have left them bewildered, angry and dissatisfied.

During last week, Tom was visited by the Coadjutor Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who spent up to an hour talking to him.

The Archbishop, soon to replace Cardinal Desmond Connell, is known to be concerned at the way in which abuse has been handled by both Church and State and is anxious to remedy a situation that looks unending.

The key problem facing the Government and the victims is that the board, which is the creation of government legislation, is simply not giving the results promised by the State.

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On two critical occasions during the framing and passage of the legislation which set up the Commission on Child Abuse - over which Judge Laffoy presided until her resignation last year - and the Redress Board under Judge Sean O'Leary, former Education Minister Michael Woods claimed the awards made for abuse would parallel the substantial awards made in the High Court.

He said, in January 2002, that the State's investigation of what should be paid, and how it should be done, had concluded with a particular view. This was that "the injuries received by a number of victims of abuse are among the most serious kinds of personal injury known to the law; many survivors not only 'lost' their childhood, but much of their adulthood as well".

He recommended that the best guidance for the Government should be "by reference to the level of awards made by the Irish courts for pain and suffering and loss of amenities arising from serious personal injury".

This has simply not happened.

By comparison with court awards for sexual abuse, the offers and the handouts from the Redress Board have been derisory.

The State has created a legal process based on secret hearings where neither the public nor the media can discover what is being done.

This is an abuse of the European Convention on Human Rights. Openness in public hearings is vital for all parties.

Bishop Martin is himself aware of this, and is concerned at the continuing damage to the Church of a system that was meant to resolve the distress of past victims and bring to an end the controversy.

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