State and society have repeatedly been told of a much wider abuse problem, but time and again we have failed to address it in a strategic way
Vincent Browne arrived in Belfast, as Northern news editor for the Irish Press, in 1970. He thought he had missed the story. He told me this when I arrived to work for him, almost 20 years ago.
One of the first stories I covered concerned clerical child sex abuse. The great revelations — in documentaries by Mary Raftery and Colm O’Gorman — had already happened. The Child Abuse Commission and Ferns Inquiry were already up and running. I thought I had missed the story.
There may be a useful journalistic lesson in common there, but the tragedies are distinct.
Part of the tragedy of the Troubles, viewed from the perspective of this State, is there was seemingly little that could be done to avert them. The tragedy of the past 20 years of delayed reckoning with child abuse is that there was much the State could have done, but chose not to.
In 2002, the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) survey found one in five women and one in six men (out of 3,000 randomly-selected adults) reported having experienced contact sexual abuse in childhood. A majority of abusers were non-family, but known to the victim; 4.4pc of abusers were religious figures or teachers; and almost half of those abused had never previously disclosed that abuse.
So, at a time of heightened awareness of clerical child abuse, it was revealed (if the survey was to be believed) there was a massive, hidden problem in Irish society, with abuse by clerics a small portion of that.
The most obvious response to that revelation would have been to test it: could the findings be replicated? But the SAVI report was never the subject of a full debate in the Dáil, and it took 16 years for a follow-up study to be commissioned. (That work was anticipated to take five years; the Department of Justice confirmed last week it is “on track” to be published next year.)
In the meantime, we lurched from abuse crisis to crisis.
In 2009, the publication of the Ryan Report provoked wall-to-wall coverage of the issue of abuse in industrial and reformatory schools, but one small chapter of the huge report went entirely under the radar.
Volume three, chapter 17 dealt with abuse in primary and secondary schools, and documented reports of abuse made by 70 witnesses against 80 abusers in 73 schools. Relative to the scale of the school system, and to the prevalence of abuse in the residential institutions, this was tiny.
Those numbers alone, Colm O’Gorman told me last week, made it clear the commission had failed to get to grips with the scale of abuse in day schools. Other reports and research have found most perpetrators have multiple victims — there was no sign of such multiplicity of victims in the Ryan Commission’s statistics.
In 2011, Amnesty International Ireland published a report by historian Carole Holohan in response to the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports. Holohan listed other areas where demands for investigations into abuses had been resisted by successive governments: the Magdalene laundries, symphysiotomy, vaccine trials in mother and baby homes and
A proactive approach would have taken this as a “to do” list; instead, these issues would be addressed only when media and public opinion made it impossible not to do so. (That glare has yet to fall on the psychiatric hospitals, a subject I will return to.)
In 2012, an audit of the Spiritans found there had been 142 complaints of abuse by 47 priests in the order. (Subsequent advocacy by Mark-Vincent Healy, a survivor of abuse and leading campaigner on the issue, forced a correction in this figure to 143 complaints against 48 priests.) It would be another 10 years before the Blackrock Boys radio documentary would provoke an appropriate outcry and response.
In 2014, the European Court of Human Rights found the State had failed to protect Louise O’Keefe from sexual abuse by her teacher in the 1970s. O’Keefe had fought for 15 years to have the State accept some responsibility. A compensation scheme for those abused in schools has been revised and reopened a number of times, having repeatedly been deemed inadequate.
So this State and the society that underpins it have repeatedly been told there was a wider problem that was not being addressed, and we have repeatedly failed to address it in a strategic and systemic way.
Instead, we follow the same pattern: either an indefatigable researcher, such as Mary Raftery or Catherine Corless, exposes an abuse, or heroic survivors, such as “Blackrock boys” Mark and David Ryan, go public with their story; the media and public demand an urgent response; the government hastily sets up a bespoke inquiry.
And then these inquiries hit obstacles. The Child Abuse Commission was thwarted by the Department of Education until the judge initially assigned to it, Mary Laffoy, quit. It was set up in parallel to, but without co-ordination with, the Residential Institutions Redress Board, entailing massive duplication. The McAleese report on the Magdalene laundries was criticised by the UN Committee Against Torture. The Mother and Baby Homes report was rejected by many survivors.
Despite the overlaps in issues being considered by many of these inquiries, there is no institutional memory between them. Every time an inquiry completes its work, massive institutional knowledge is lost. And each time one of these inquiries does good work excavating and illuminating a dark corner of our past, it leaves vast other areas shrouded still in darkness.
Incrementally uncovering abuse, institution by institution and scandal by scandal, will only ever produce a partial and inadequate reckoning with these issues. Repeatedly setting up new inquiries risks failing to learn from the accumulated experience of those that have gone before.
The most urgent issue now is to begin an inquiry into abuse within the Spiritan schools. But that work must happen alongside two larger pieces of work: a broader inquiry into abuse in our schools; and consideration of how, this time, this work might feed into an ongoing process of historical inquiry — one that does not wrap up when this new schools inquiry is finished, but retains its capacity and thinks strategically about where to direct it next.
We will need this capacity because, like the “story” of child sex abuse, the story of the Troubles isn’t over yet either.
The reckoning with the trauma of abuse may have been piecemeal and delayed, but the reckoning with the trauma of the Troubles has barely happened.
I am sceptical about the prospects of a Border poll both being held and being “won”and am affirmed in that scepticism by yesterday’s Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks poll results. But if reunification is to happen — and to succeed — there will need to be reconciliation. That will require some form of process to excavate the truth.
We are slowly acquiring expertise in uncovering dark corners of our past. We should take care to retain that expertise because we will need it again.
This article was amended on 07/12/2022