Thursday 27 June 2019

'Brave and positive step towards healing'

David Quinn

THE three members of the leadership team of the Mercy Sisters who appeared before the press yesterday to read out their latest statement of apology to abuse victims were visibly nervous and ill-at-ease.

One reason was surely the difficult subject matter they were there to discuss. A second reason, presumably, was that these ladies would never have imagined themselves having to appear before a phalanx of cameras and reporters when they first entered their Order all those years ago. Such are the vagaries of life.

Perhaps the chief reason however was that they had no idea how victims would react to their statement. Would they welcome it, or reject it, or something in between?

Happily for them, they have broadly welcomed it. The words of Christine Buckley of the Aislinn Centre, a group supporting abuse victims, will especially have been music to their ears.

She said the apology was a "very brave and positive step towards healing", and that victims who had contacted her through the day were "overjoyed."

One woman described it as "the best day of my life." The reason Christine Buckley's reaction is so important is that she was the person who first brought to light the abuses that took place in Mercy Sister-run institutions.

Eight years ago RTE broadcast Dear Daughter, a drama/documentary focussing on Christine and a number of her fellow residents and their account of what befell them while resident in Goldenbridge orphanage.

One nun alleged to have inflicted abuse was Sr Xavieria who ran the institution in Buckley's day. Sr Xavieria, who denied the allegations of serious abuse, had her defenders, but she was only one of a number of nuns who were alleged to have emotionally or physically abused those in their care.

For her part, Christine Buckley became the symbol of all those abused by nuns down the years and so her reaction to yesterday's statement was absolutely crucial. Had she rejected it, it would have devastated the Mercy Sisters. That she has accepted it may now provide a way forward for both the Congregation and the victims.

The latest apology by the Sisters was really a bolt from the blue. Most other statements of this sort by Church organisations had usually come as a result of intense public and media pressure. This one emerged following a long period of consultation within the Order.

The leadership team of the Mercy Sisters, led by Sr Breege O'Neill, were well aware that their previous apology, issued in 1996, had not been favourably received by victim groups. Although it did not deny that abuses had taken place, and both apologised and sought forgiveness from the victims, just as this one did, it also offered a partial defence of the record of the Mercy Sisters making the apology seem equivocal and conditional to some.

That is why yesterday's apology was issued. It was aimed at clearing up any such misunderstanding and that is how it has been received in the main.

What now? First of all, victims will be anxious to discover what will happen when they take up the invitation of the Congregation to contact them. Will a given victim be put in direct, face-to-face contact with her abuser, for example?

To be fair here we must say alleged or otherwise because some nuns strongly deny that they ever abused anyone. Be that as it may, should such face-to-face meetings take place, will victims derive some satisfaction from them?

Will Christine Buckley meet Sr Xavieria, now called Sr Maura? If so, what will the outcome to this be? Also, what will happen with regard to the Investigative Committee of the Ryan/Laffoy Commission? Both Christine Buckley and John Kelly of Survivors of Child Abuse (SOCA) have stressed the importance of this matter.

A continual complaint of victim groups is that the 18 Congregations that ran the country's residential institutions have taken an adversarial approach to them at the Commission, fighting every allegation every inch of the way.

This is a tough one. If a member of a given Order insists that he or she is innocent then the Order has little choice but to fight for that person's good name.

That is necessarily adversarial. On the other hand, does every allegation need to be tested to the utmost? Are there no priests, brothers or nuns willing to put their hands up and admit to the abuses they carried out?

If not, then the Orders will have no power to force them to do so. As citizens they have their civil rights and these are not nullified as a result of being a member of a Religious Order.

However, this is for the future. Yesterday was a good day for the Sisters of Mercy and those who suffered while in their care. As Christine Buckley put it, it was "a positive step towards healing."

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