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Years of stalling indicates State will get nothing from religious orders


Former Education Minister Ruairi Quinns Photo: Tom Burke

Former Education Minister Ruairi Quinns Photo: Tom Burke

Former Education Minister Ruairi Quinns Photo: Tom Burke

Simon Harris is the latest to join the ministerial chorus criticising the "pathetic and paltry'' contribution of 18 religious congregations to the compensation fund for victims of abuse in residential institutions.

He wants the Pope, no less, to intervene and put pressure on the congregations to cough up more money. But I wouldn't hold my breath on them agreeing any time soon to a 50/50 split of the €1.5bn bill, which arises from the work of the commission that investigated the institutions and the report detailing the abuses, as well as the costs of the subsequent redress scheme. The scale was shocking, with truly appalling examples of physical, sexual and psychological abuse meted out to vulnerable young people incarcerated by the courts or through tragic family circumstances.

There is talk of putting moral pressure on the religious but that has been applied on an ongoing basis by the Department of Education and by Ruairi Quinn, who inherited the problem when he took up office in that department in March 2011. There was no shortage of meetings and correspondence at which the same moral argument was used, but to little or no avail.

Mr Quinn made it clear he was not out to bankrupt the orders, which have responsibilities to their elderly and retired members, but he believed they could do more, particularly in terms of giving some of their property to the State. They could, for instance, give the title deeds but continue to run their schools as long as they wished. However, once they ceased to be used as schools, the ownership of properties would transfer to the State, rather than be sold off, with the profits accruing to the congregations.

His fear was that the Rome-based headquarters of religious-owned schools in Dublin could, at some future date, decide to sell them and keep the proceeds. If those congregations had been earlier involved in residential institutions, they would have no legal obligation to hand over any of the profits for the redress scheme.

He particularly wanted this idea to be considered by the Christian Brothers, whose running of a large number of residential institutions warranted eight chapters in the scathing report published in 2009. History may be kinder to the Christian Brothers for its role in giving free secondary school education to many generations of young Irish males when the State was reluctant to do so. But its management of residential institutions was a shameful stain on its history.

Far from making any headway since Mr Quinn left office, Education Minister Richard Bruton said last week that "in fact, the progress has gone into reverse, with one substantial offer having been withdrawn and some valuations [of property offered] falling".

The substantial offer referred to was made by the Christian Brothers, which had suggested a joint trust between the department and the Edmund Rice Schools Trust (ERST), which was set up in 2008 to take over the Brothers' schools.

This was rejected by the department, which felt the State would never be able to benefit as ERST would effectively have a veto on how the properties would be disposed of. Instead, the department suggested ERST take over the properties but they could not be sold without the State's permission. This, in turn, was rejected by the Christian Brothers and stalemate has ensued.

Moral pressure has not worked before now but, because of an indemnity deal signed by then education minister Michael Woods in 2002 with the religious orders, the reality is that the State has nowhere to go legally. And the taxpayer must pick up most of the €1.5bn bill.

John Walshe was special adviser to former education minister Ruairi Quinn

Irish Independent