Eddie Molloy: 'High time State used all its powers to smash the callous 'omerta' shrouding mother and baby homes'
Whenever we wake up to shocking headlines like the burning of Notre-Dame Cathedral, among our first thoughts, once we have recovered from the initial impact, is to ask how could this happen, who was responsible, could it have been prevented and what must we do now to prevent it happening again?
For example, could St Patrick's Cathedral go up in flames? How do we ensure "never again"?
Similar questions surfaced last week when we learned the graves of thousands of infants who died in mother and baby homes remain unknown and - to compound this unspeakable scandal - that people who must have known how the bodies were disposed of failed to co-operate fully with the Commission of Investigation of Mother and Baby Homes, chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy.
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How could this happen? In 'A Small Town Near Auschwitz', Mary Fulbrook provides searing insight into how sustained, systemic cruelty can come to be inflicted on defenceless people.
She documents how local government officials, who saw themselves as "ordinary decent people", turned a blind eye to the deportation of their Jewish fellow citizens; became desensitised to their own role in the ghastly enterprise; and subsequently could say they knew nothing about the gas chambers just up the road.
"What kind of blinkers and blindfolds would be required to have failed to see?" the author asks.
"While people were heavily constrained and repressed by the system", and the pressures to conform were intense, "people have degrees of freedom and can make choices about how to act, so to have played any role in the system was morally wrong".
Their collusion can be explained "only by a tragic combination of careerism, callousness and cowardice… cowardice because they never dared to speak out at the time, and never quite faced up to the truth in later self-representations, distorting dates and forgetting or omitting details in an effort to present a case for innocence and ignorance".
While nothing can ever be considered comparable to the Holocaust, the communal 'omerta' in small-town 1930s Germany is clearly mirrored in contemporary small-town Ireland.
Judge Murphy exposes similar self-serving moral cowardice at a time when new-born babies were dying like flies and their bodies disposed of in sewage tanks, buried in unmarked graves or donated to medical schools and how surviving perpetrators and others in the know back then are today presenting with amnesia, omissions and distortions as we try to unearth the truth and hold people accountable.
The commission reported Galway County Council members and staff "must have known something about the manner of burial" at the Bon Secours home in Tuam, but denied any knowledge about it.
The Sisters of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (God help us!), who ran Sean Ross home in Roscrea and failed to keep burial records of more than 1,000 children and 29 mothers who died there, submitted an affidavit that the Commission considered "in many respect speculative, inaccurate and misleading".
Human suffering and injustice of such biblical proportions are very difficult to take in, because each and every one of these mothers and babies was a unique person. But even when we are confronted with the abuse of a single individual it is difficult to process. One such person is the woman known as 'Grace'.
In 1989, 'Grace' was placed with a foster family in the south-east as a child with severe intellectual disability and, despite evidence emerging in 1996 of brutal sexual assault and multiple physical injuries, the health service left her in that home for another 13 years at the mercy of her abusers, while removing other children deemed to be at risk in the same home.
In 2009, a social worker made a protected disclosure about the plight of 'Grace' but it took this brave woman seven years of tireless effort to overcome determined resistance by individuals within the HSE to prevent exposure of these crimes and deplorable official neglect.
Ultimately she had to rely on disclosures by John Deasy and John McGuinness to, bizarrely, the Dáil Public Accounts Committee to trigger action by the authorities.
In her evidence she accused the HSE of conspiring to cover up the abuse, misrepresenting the facts of the case and cutting funding to the small agency that employed her. As a result of her efforts Judge Peter Kelly awarded €6.3m to 'Grace' and a commission of inquiry, headed by barrister Marjorie Farrelly was set up in April 2017 to establish the facts.
It is 30 years since 'Grace' was placed in foster care, 23 years since the first allegations of sexual and physical abuse, 10 years since the social worker made a protected disclosure and two years since the Farrelly Commission was set up. Yet we still don't have any answers or accountability and the inquiry into what happened to scores of other children fostered in the same home has yet to begin.
This interminable delay suggests continuing obstruction and "self-representations ... of innocence and ignorance", sustained by underlying cowardice, callousness and careerism.
It is high time the State deploys whatever resources and legal powers are needed to bring this charade to a swift end; to initiate criminal proceedings against those who abused 'Grace' and probably other children; and to impose the toughest available sanctions on any health service staff and managers who turned a blind eye to 'Grace's' suffering or who have fought tooth and nail to cover it up.
Another heavily redacted report, like that into the murder-suicide of the Dunne family in Wexford in 2007, with whole pages blackened out and no accountability, will do nothing to change the culture that spawns this seemingly endless catalogue of scandals in our health service and other institutions.
But then we don't do personal accountability in Ireland. Judge Murphy noted the behaviour she observed was not confined to Tuam or Bessborough; it happens all over the country.
It is an aspect of the "Irish thing" acutely observed by Seamus Heaney: "Whatever you say, you say nothing." Hear no evil, see no evil and remember no evil. No comment.
Catherine Corless, whose dogged research led to the Murphy Inquiry, spoke this week of people coming up to her in Tuam to remark on the callous treatment of the children but adding, in whispers, "don't quote me on that".
This communal and institutional 'omerta' is the dark side of the "meitheal" and the "tight-knit communities" which we Irish so proudly trumpet.
- Eddie Molloy, PhD, is a management consultant