Monday 16 September 2019

State lost high-stakes game with two nuns

Sam Smyth

Two nuns held a pair of deuces while the most experienced minister in the Government folded a full-house in a winner-takes-all game of poker with the Catholic Church.

That's what happened when Sister Elizabeth Maxwell and Sister Helena O'Donoghue got the then Education Minister Michael Woods to agree on a €128m settlement for the Catholic Church's responsibility for their abuse of children.

But securing an indemnity agreement from the Government against all future claims was an incalculable jackpot for the Church as many details of the systemic abuse in state institutions were still to be revealed.

The astonishing negotiating skills of Sisters Maxwell and O'Donoghue and the Himalayan scale of their deal-making overcame enormously powerful bodies.

The then-Attorney General, the legal adviser to the Government, was excluded from the negotiations, the Department of Finance advised against the deal and was not kept informed, and no memo explaining the agreement was brought to government.

And one of the last acts completed on the last day of the Government in 2002 was the signing off on the agreement by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Mr Woods.

The hostility to the deal in the offices of the Attorney General and the Department of Finance in 2002 didn't halt a deal that has come back to haunt another Fianna Fail-led government in 2008 -- when Mr Ahern and Mr Woods are mere backbenchers.

Through 2001, Sister Maxwell and Sister O'Donoghue met Mr Woods and his departmental secretary, John Dennehy, to discuss compensation for the atrocities visited on children in the care of religious orders.

Over tea and biscuits the nuns would explain that the Church had very limited resources and that if the State wanted to seize their property, they would, for instance, have to evict children from schools.

The Christian Brothers' most admired school in Dublin's Synge Street, where Gay Byrne and other luminaries were educated, would have to be sold, said the nuns.

Then there was Marian College in Ballsbridge, a site that could have raised enormous funds back in 2002: would the Government want to evict the pupils from it?

Then the nuns produced their trump card: the State was equally culpable with the religious orders for any wrongdoing and would have to pay all of the compensation if the Church defaulted.

When the two nuns secured the agreement limiting the Church's liability to €128m in cash and property and an indemnity against further claims, the eventual total bill was estimated at €300m.

And the full details of the appalling crimes against children committed in the houses of horrors run at a profit by the religious congregations were not included in the horse-trading between Church and State.

Those of us of working in Leinster House would see the two sisters arrive with their bulging briefcases, always discreet, always courteous for their meetings with the minister and his secretary general.

At the time, dark rumours abounded about quiet calls between influential folk in the high ends of the establishment, that the Church was calling home favours from old friends in high places.

Sending in the Government's longest-serving minister and his venerable secretary general to negotiate against a couple of nuns would have appeared unfair to a layman, but not a man of the cloth.

Sister Maxwell and Sister O'Donoghue sold their debt for 10pc of its total -- €128m in cash and property against a compensation bill now running at €1.2bn. Maybe the Government should ask them to take charge in the Department of Finance.

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