Ryan Report that shocked nation offers much but gaps in the detail still remain

The dining room in Artane Industrial School

Ten years on, the treatment of women and children by the Church and State remains a chapter that has yet to be closed, writes Conall Ó Fátharta.

On 20 May 2009, Ireland made international headlines when the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) was published.

The Ryan Report, as it was to become known, quickly entered the Irish national lexicon as bywords to the Church and State’s shameful treatment of children in institutional care over a period of decades.

The report detailed in shocking detail, the scale of physical, sexual and emotional abuse suffered by children in institutions run by a range of Catholic Orders but which were funded and inspected by the Department of Education.

Abuse was reported by over 1,000 men and women in over 200 residential settings between 1914 and 2000. 

The settings included industrial and reformatory schools, children’s homes, hospitals, national and secondary schools, day and residential special needs schools, foster care and a small number of other residential institutions, including Magdalene laundries. 

The report identified some 800 known abusers.

The report concluded that physical and emotional abuse were features of the institutions examined while sexual abuse “occurred in many of them” — in particular boys’ institutions.

It found that the Department of Education had a “deferential and submissive attitude” towards the congregations that ran the institutions to the extent that it compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspection and monitoring of the schools.

The report shocked the nation and made headlines around the world. It had taken 10 years to get to that point.

There had been a number of media revelations relating to child abuse in the 1990s — in particular, the Dear Daughter documentary on RTÉ by Louis Lentin in 1996.

The issue of child sexual abuse in Irish institutions was firmly on the public agenda by this point. 

Then, on May 11, 1999 the then taoiseach Bertie Ahern issued a formal apology on behalf of the State and its citizens to the victims.

“On behalf of the State and all the citizens of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse, for our collective failure to intervene to detect their pain and to come to their rescue,” he said.

Mr Ahern’s apology wasn’t exactly out of the blue. It came just hours before the final episode of what was to become one of the seminal documentaries ever made in Ireland — RTÉ’s States of Fear.

The documentary by the renowned investigative journalist Mary Raftery fully exposed the scale of physical and sexual abuse suffered by children who passed through Ireland’s industrial school system. 

The broadcast caused a national outcry. The ensuing scandal saw demands for a State inquiry made in the Dáil.

Mr Ahern announced that a Commission of Inquiry would be set up to investigate the abuse.

He said that “the primary focus of the Commission will be to provide victims with an opportunity to tell of the abuse they suffered in a sympathetic and experienced forum.”

Residents in Artane Industrial School making carts
Residents in Artane Industrial School making carts

The CICA was formally established on a statutory basis the following year in 2000 and operated through two main strands.

1. A Confidential Committee where victims could relate their experiences in a confidential and private setting.

2. An Investigation Committee where the more pro-active investigative body of work could be carried out and individuals could be compelled to contend.

The CICA was followed up in 2002 with the establishment of the Residential Institutions Redress Board which was tasked with making “fair and reasonable awards” to people who had been abused in industrial schools, reformatories and a range of other institutions.

The CICA was initially headed up by Ms Justice Mary Laffoy. It published two interim reports in May and November 2001. 

However, tensions had been growing between the Commission and the Government which eventually culminated in the resignation of Ms Justice Laffoy in September 2003. 

Her resignation came just one day after the Government of the day announced the second phase of a review into the Commission’s remit. 

The first phase had begun the previous December.

For its part, the Government claimed that, at the then rate of progress, the Commission would not complete its work for up to 11 years and could result in legal fees of up to €200m.

The resignation caused widespread controversy, particularly as Ms Justice Laffoy was scathing of the Government in her resignation letter. 

Ms Justice Mary Laffoy
Ms Justice Mary Laffoy

She claimed that “since its establishment, the commission has never been properly enabled by the Government to fulfil satisfactorily the functions conferred on it by the Oireachtas.”

She also pointed to “a range of factors over which the Commission had no control had produced “a real and pervasive sense of powerlessness”. 

Ms Justice Laffoy also complained that additional resources sought by the Commission since the previous June had not been made available.

She was replaced by Judge Seán Ryan, who was at the time a senior counsel.

The controversy didn’t end there and came in the form of a controversial deal done between the Government and the 18 religious congregations at the centre of the inquiry. Further controversy was to follow — a controversy which continues to echo in the present, over a decade later.

The deal was signed in June 2002 — the dying days of the Fianna Fáil/Progressive Democrats coalition. 

Signed by the then education minister Michael Woods, it was finalised after the dissolution of the 28th Dáil and before the new Dáil had met. 

As a result, it was carried out without any public scrutiny and without a vote in the Oireachtas.

The details of the deal were hugely controversial. Under the agreement, the religious congregations were granted indemnity against all legal claims in return for €128m in cash and property. 

To date, the total liability incurred by the taxpayer is over €1.5bn.

Collar and cuff making in Artane Industrial School
Collar and cuff making in Artane Industrial School

In short, the deal opened the State up to unlimited liability while the liability attached to the religious congregations was effectively scrapped in return for a financial contribution which subsequently emerged to be far short of what would be required.

For example, the following year, in a scathing report, the Comptroller and Auditor General put the bill at €1bn. 

It also revealed that during negotiations on the indemnity deal, not a single government department did a forensic analysis on the exposure of the State with regard to the agreement.

Following the publication of the Ryan Report in 2009, the congregations offered a further €352m. As of last year, just €253m of the total €480m pledged has been transferred to the State.

The circumstances surrounding the indemnity deal remain controversial to this day. 

Just last month, in an RTÉ documentary, the then attorney general Michael McDowell said the State “effectively signed a blank cheque” in agreeing to the deal.

The Ryan Report was finally published on May 20, 2009 and made headlines around the world and shocked the nation. 

It heard from more than 500 witnesses and revealed how children lived in a “climate of fear” in the institutions it examined and that “sexual abuse was endemic in boys’ institutions.”

It was scathing in its assessment of the Department of Education which it said had a “deferential and submissive attitude” towards the congregations that ran the institutions. 

This compromised its ability to carry out its duty of inspecting and monitoring the institutions in question.

The report made some 20 recommendations all of which were accepted by the then Government.

An implementation plan was prepared and published in July of 2009 and set out 99 actions committed to:

  • Addressing the effects of past abuse.
  • Developing and strengthening national child care policy and evaluating its implementation.
  • Strengthening the regulation and inspection function.
  • Improving the organisation and delivery of children’s services.
  • Giving greater effect to the voice of the child.
  • Revising Children First, the national guidelines for the protection and welfare of children and underpinning the guidance by way of legislation.

How successful the Government has been in addressing the needs of survivors in the aftermath of the Ryan Report is questionable. 

For example, the Caranua fund was established by the Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Act 2012 to oversee the use of cash contributions of up to €110m, pledged by the religious congregations, to support the needs of survivors.

It has proven to be a deeply controversial initiative and has been routinely criticised by survivors.

Survivors have routinely spoken in extremely negative terms of the Residential Institutions Redress Board process with many referring to the hearings as being adversarial in nature.

Ten years on, what is the legacy of the Ryan Report? Historian of child welfare, childhood, youth and gender in Ireland Dr Sarah Anne Buckley said the report offers much when looking at class, gender, power, welfare and the treatment of generations of vulnerable groups of Irish children but noted that “the gaps are also stark”.

“Children from the Travelling community, children nursed out, thorough investigation of the foster care arrangements from the schools, the list goes on,” she said.

Ms Buckley also said the report had arguably “grossly underestimated” the role of the ISPCC/NSPCC in the transferral of children to industrial schools. 

The historian also raised concerns at the Government plan to seal the records of the Commission, the Residential Institutions Redress Board, and Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee for 75 years.

The washrooms and toilets in Artane Industrial School
The washrooms and toilets in Artane Industrial School

“What is of utmost concern to survivors, academics and activists today is what will happen this archive, where will it be placed, when will it be made accessible and will consultation occur. Historical justice is central to this conversation and I believe the role for historians and archivists remains critical today and in the future,” she said.

Similarly, Emilie Pine, Susan Leavy, and Mark T Keane wrote in Re-reading the Ryan Report: Witnessing via and Close and Distant Reading that despite its length and level of detail, “the Ryan Report is not comprehensive”.

“There were institutions (such as the Magdalene laundries) that fell outside the remit of the CICA and hence are not discussed in the final report. 

"The report does not constitute an exhaustive archive, but often only a sample of the archive.

As a result, the archives of the religious orders and the state departments are described and excerpted but not fully available to the reader.

"Yet even though it is a limited source, it constitutes the only publicly available access to those closed records and hence provides the means for valuable insights.”

What followed the Ryan Report was more scandals and more reports on the same theme. 

We had the Ferns Report in 2005, the Murphy Report in 2009, the McAleese Report in 2013.

We await the report on Mother and Baby Homes. 

Ten years on, the treatment of women and children by the Church and State remains a chapter that has yet to be closed.

Actually listening to survivors is best redress

Public discussions are the most meaningful kind of redress because they represent not only listening to, but hearing survivors, writes Emilie Pine.

It is 10 years since the publication of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, commonly known as the Ryan Report.

Ten years since we read of the “systemic” abuse that children suffered in Industrial Schools in Ireland. Ten years since survivors were vindicated.

There are few moments in a social history when attitudes experience a complete sea change, and the publication of the Ryan Report was one of those moments. 

But what has that shift in attitudes resulted in? How can we measure the impact of the report now?

The Ryan Report definitively proves that children in institutions suffered terrible abuse, including physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. 

This endemic abuse was sustained by the Catholic Church through the silencing of allegations of abuse, the transfer of abusers, and a reliance on physical and emotional punishment of children.

Abuse was sustained by the failure of the State to enforce any of the guidelines around children’s education, health or welfare. 

As one survivor said to me:

I was handed over to the State until the age of 16, they had a duty of care, as far as I was concerned. They failed in that duty of care. They completely failed.

However, though the report makes the failures of Church and State clear, there are also silences within it. On the publication of the report, Mary Raftery strongly criticised the policy of not naming abusers. 

The comprehensive anonymisation of institutional staff (both lay and religious), the civil service, and other figures representing society at large, creates a barrier between the truths of the report and the reality. 

This anonymity is preserved even in the case of convicted child abusers.

A further failure of the report is the absence of a system-wide analysis of abuse, in particular the transfer of abusers between institutions. 

Though individual chapters give detailed consideration to the cases of individual abusers, the links between institutions remain obscure.

As part of the Industrial Memories project at UCD (funded by the Irish Research Council), our team used digital tools to trace the patterns of abuser-transfers across the system.

Professor Mark Keane developed a “Transfer Graph” to visually illustrate how allegations of abuse were dealt with by transferring the abuser to another institution.

With a similar approach, Susan Leavy identified the ways that the fate of children was talked about within the system, demonstrating through a “communication network” just how actively discussed these things were.

We talk about a ‘culture of silence’ around abuse, but both these digital approaches illustrate that we have a culture not of silence, but of collective denial.

President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with on left Terri Harrison and on right Carmel McDonnell-Byrne, co-founder of the Christine Buckley Centre, surrounded by abuse survivors at a reception in Áras An Uachtaráin at a function marking 10 years since the Ryan Report was published. Picture: Tony Maxwell
President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina with on left Terri Harrison and on right Carmel McDonnell-Byrne, co-founder of the Christine Buckley Centre, surrounded by abuse survivors at a reception in Áras An Uachtaráin at a function marking 10 years since the Ryan Report was published. Picture: Tony Maxwell

In Ms Leavy’s graph, for example, she has identified many occasions when fathers of children within the system wrote to residential managers, politicians, the Department of Education and other key figures.

The graph thus shows that parents did not forget their children, nor were they silent. But, tellingly, the graph also shows that parents were almost never replied to. 

This is a chilling insight into the bureaucratic operation of a culture of abuse.

The State’s decision to seal all testimony to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse for 75 years puts any other lessons we could derive beyond the range of those living now. 

What a travesty that the wisdom of those who experienced the system first-hand has been deemed too dangerous for public consumption.

Though the commission empowered survivors to tell their stories, the sealing of their testimony revokes that power. 

This is compounded by the absence of this history from the national curriculum. When are we going to start teaching this history? 

How can we make the maxim “never again” meaningful if the current generation of secondary school children are not learning the history of how children their age and younger were abused?

Both survivors and scholars need more.

Christine Buckley
Christine Buckley

Over the past few months, the National Folklore Collection at UCD, in a collaboration with the Christine Buckley Education and Support Centre, has recorded some of the stories of survivors of institutional abuse (including industrial schools, mother and child institutions, and Magdalen Laundries).

Though I have read the report many times, the most profound experience of my career has been the privilege of listening, alongside Críostóir Mac Cárthaigh, to the resilient, human and brave testimony of those who are still surviving their institutional past.

One of the realities of the institutional system that became apparent through this listening was the level of crossover between institutions — many people moved from a mother and child institution, to an industrial school, to a laundry.

The reports we currently have ignore this facet of institutional experience, and perhaps inadvertently perpetuate an atomised view of Irish institutional history. 

Without listening to survivors, the complexity — and the real systemic nature of abuse — remains invisible.

Perhaps the best way of marking the anniversaries, and acknowledging the collective debt to survivors, is not through a monument, or even through re-reading the Ryan Report. 

But to listen to survivors. By which I don’t mean just asking them to tell their stories.

But actually listening to what survivors need: medical cards; pension benefits; educational support. Autonomy in deciding how to use their financial compensation.

These and other issues were the subject of the Facing the Future Together conference (May 11), organised by survivors to discuss Ireland’s “lifelong responsibility to survivors”.

These kinds of public discussions, leading to structural reforms, are the most meaningful kind of redress. Because they represent not only listening to but hearing survivors.

Emilie Pine, associate professor, UCD School of English, Drama and Film ‘Survivors’ Stories’ is part of the Industrial Memories project at UCD, funded by the Irish Research Council (industrialmemories.ucd.ie). It was launched at UCD on May 16 by Children’s Minister Katherine Zappone.

The worry is that the lessons of the past will remain unlearned

Decades of scandals may have led to public apathy, says James Gallen.

This month presents an opportunity to reflect on how Ireland has addressed its abusive past.

The anniversary of the State apology in May 1999 from then taoiseach Bertie Ahern to victims/survivors of industrial and reformatory schools and the publication of the Ryan Report in May 2009 focus attention on significant moments in Irish history.

However, these significant achievements risk being undermined by how victims/survivors have been treated in the last 20 years.

It took significant effort and courage from victims/survivors and journalists to compel church and state to begin the process of addressing the abusive elements of their past.

At the time of its creation, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA) was innovative, ambitious but also risky. 

By seeking to engage with those who suffered profound physical or sexual abuse and neglect as children, the commission risked re-traumatising individuals and families who may have wanted more than the opportunity to provide a narrative, but instead wanted information, accountability, or healing.

As a country deals with its abusive past, the process matters as much as the outcome. The processes of the Ryan Commission offer some good practices, but also missed opportunities. 

The commission remains unique among Irish abuse inquiries as being the only one to hold public hearings.

The Commission of Investigation Act 2004, which governs the Murphy and Cloyne inquires and the ongoing mother and baby homes inquiry, has the power to hold public hearings, but these inquiries have declined to do so.

Bertie Ahern in 1999, the year he made a State apology to survivors or institutional abuse. Picture: AP Photo/Maxim Marmur
Bertie Ahern in 1999, the year he made a State apology to survivors or institutional abuse. Picture: AP Photo/Maxim Marmur

The failure to hold public hearings is often framed in terms of confidentiality, concern for vulnerable persons, and the potential defamatory nature of allegations made against alleged perpetrators and institutions.

None of these concerns are unique to historical abuse inquiries or to Ireland: Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom have all managed public hearings into historical abuse despite similar concerns.

This remains a missed opportunity to empower survivors and enable the public catharsis through scrutiny of those responsible for abusive institutions and public affirmation and acknowledgment of the rights of those who suffered.

The process of victim/survivors giving testimony in CICA was primarily framed in therapeutic terms. 

This therapeutic focus may have been suitable for some survivors, but offered them little space to take ownership of the process or to pursue alternative goals of accountability, information recovery, or retribution against perpetrators. 

The failure to publicly identify alleged abusers, due to legal challenge by the religious orders, also frustrated some survivors.

Amid these limitations in process, the findings of the commission remain significant and profound. 

Its report publicly acknowledged what many victim/survivors had long known. Institutions did not meet the legal or professional standards of the day.

Physical and sexual abuse was “endemic”, known by authorities and ignored. Society did not care for these least among us. 

The Ryan Report received a mixed reaction among survivors, welcomed by some for its acknowledgement of their suffering.

It disappointed others who hoped these investigations would emphasise State and social knowledge of and responsibility for abuse and would lead to revisiting the Churches’ contributions to redress for survivors or greater pursuit of criminal responsibility of perpetrators.

In addressing this past, the phrase “never again” is often used as a commitment to prevent the harms of the past repeating now or in the future. 

To ensure we do not continue to harm those on the margins of society, we must learn not only from what went wrong in industrial schools, but also what has gone wrong in how we sought to address the past in the last 20 years. 

We must ensure that processes of investigation, redress and apology do more good than harm.

The reality is that as a society we have not reckoned with the effects of the State apology, Ryan Commission or Residential Institutions Redress Board — never mind clerical sexual abuse, the Magdalene Laundries, the burial of children at Tuam, or illegal adoptions.

There has been no systematic evaluation or audit of whether the State inquiries or redress work for victim-survivors. 

These mechanisms may have helped clarify the abusive elements of our past, and acknowledged victim-survivor experiences — but survivors I have spoken to affirm that these mechanisms at the same time caused great distress and re-traumatisation.

On the one hand, Ireland is particularly poised to re-examine its abusive history in a new way, with the historic repeal of the 8th amendment and comparatively low attendance at the Papal visit this summer signalling a turning away from deference and respect to the Catholic church.

On the other hand, decades of scandals about the abusive parts of Church and State may have lead to public fatigue or apathy. 

A lack of deference to religious authority does not mean the country has changed in the ways it treats and recognises those on the margins of society.

The public has not been led in processes or mechanisms that enable us to rage or lament about what we did to one another, nor to permanently honour, recognise and remember those who have suffered. 

There is no museum, no memorial to which we can bring younger generations.

We need to do better. Simplistic narratives, that paint the past as a different country, avoid scrutinising our responsibility to one another today. 

There is considerable data and information gathered by existing inquiries, but the sense among researchers and survivors persists that the full story has not been told and the full extent of institutional, individual and social responsibility for the past remains under-explored.

The unwillingness or inability of the State to permanently obtain private Church archives or increase the financial contribution of the Catholic church and religious orders to the cost of investigations and redress remain troubling.

George Balandier writes that “the supreme ruse of power is to allow itself to be contested ritually in order to consolidate itself more effectively”.

I worry that is true in Ireland. 

My most profound worry is that despite decades of advocacy, millions of euro in expense, and great courage and suffering of survivors, that the lessons of the past — the historically abusive past and the recent past in addressing such abuse — will remain unlearned and that structures of power which shame and marginalise will remain intact in 21st-century Ireland.

James Gallen is assistant professor at the School of Law and Government, Dublin City University.

‘Sorry’ doesn’t do it anymore

Twenty years since Bertie Ahern apologised to victims of abuse it’s debatable if redress measures have helped survivors, writes AnneMarie Crean.

This month marks 20 years since then taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s apology, on behalf of the State, to survivors of institutional child abuse.

However, questions remain as to whether any of the various redress measures implemented by the State have adequately helped survivors.

A review of parliamentary questions, Dáil debates, United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) hearings, and Oireachtas committee sittings has highlighted that the State will go to great lengths to avoid answering this difficult question.

In support of its redress schemes, the State often refers to the large sums of money it has spent. 

However, this ignores the concerns raised about the shortcomings of some of these schemes; shortcomings that have had psychological, emotional, and physical impacts on large numbers of survivors.

Caranua, launched in 2014, is the most recent organisation tasked with delivering redress to survivors. 

It has been criticised for its bureaucratic, inconsistent, and unfair treatment of survivors and its seeming disregard for its own policies and procedures.

In a number of submissions, Fionna Fox, a solicitor who has acted pro bono for 50 applicants to the Caranua fund (which was closed to new applicants in August 2018), referred to the dehumanising and disempowering experiences her clients had with Caranua.

Similarly, psychotherapist Hilary Somerville reported that Caranua caused further trauma to an already vulnerable group of individuals. 

Whilst Ms Fox says some survivors did receive the support they required, a large proportion did not.

Of particular concern to Ms Fox was the arbitrary treatment of applicants to the fund, meaning that one could be awarded a grant for a particular service and another, in equal need, would be denied.

Ms Fox’s success rate (over 80%) with applications made to the appeals officer, challenging decisions made by Caranua, provides a snapshot of the organisation’s failure to apply the law governing its operations.

However, Caranua is not the only redress measure by the State found to be wanting; in a report to UNCAT in 2017, Reclaiming Self, a former survivor advocacy charity, highlighted serious shortcomings in relation to a number of measures employed by the State in addressing institutional child abuse.

It criticised the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse’s lack of mandatory reporting, which can be viewed as protecting alleged abusers rather than children.

The report also criticised the commission’s 2004 decision not to ‘name and shame’ perpetrators of abuse, which resulted in some survivors feeling that an injustice had occurred.

Reclaiming Self’s report also highlighted the trauma experienced by survivors with regards to the Residential Institutions Redress Board, which was described by some as a “shocking shambles” that left them feeling “hurt”, “angry”, “degraded” and “humiliated”.

The report also criticised the lack of accountability, investigations, prosecutions (of which there was only one on foot of the commission), and transparency by the State in its handling of abuse reparations.

Since 2011, UNCAT has continually sought answers from the Irish State about its response to the redress and reparation needs of survivors. 

Similarly, in the face of the apathy of the State and its reluctance to grasp the nettle, survivors bravely continue to vocalise the impact many of these measures have had on them and their families.

By ignoring the concerns and needs of survivors, the State continues the cycle of silence and contempt which surrounded the abuse of children in Ireland in the first instance.

President Michael D Higgins received representatives from Christine Buckley Centre on the 10th anniversary of the Ryan Report. Taking time out at the Áras are survivors from left Christy McDonagh, Marian Kelly and Michael Harrington. Picture: Tony Maxwell
President Michael D Higgins received representatives from Christine Buckley Centre on the 10th anniversary of the Ryan Report. Taking time out at the Áras are survivors from left Christy McDonagh, Marian Kelly and Michael Harrington. Picture: Tony Maxwell

Given its record, what can survivors expect from the State in the future? The Department of Education has established an Interdepartmental Committee to address the needs of survivors.

However, survivors needs have not been identified, nor does it appear that the Interdepartmental Committee is informed enough to provide fit-for-purpose services to survivors. 

Moving forward, the Department has agreed to hold consultation talks with survivors.

It can only be hoped that these will be meaningful and inclusive and that the committee will put the needs and views of survivors at the heart of its policy-making into the future; an approach that has been seriously lacking in the majority of the redress schemes introduced over the past 20 years.

The State now has the opportunity to move beyond the culture of isolating survivors and of turning a deaf ear to their voices, whilst simultaneously closing its eyes to its own shortcomings. 

Redress and reparations cannot take place in secrecy and denial.

Some 20 years after Mr Ahern’s historic announcement, now is surely the time for the State to properly take up the challenge.

AnneMarie Crean is a PhD student at UCC’s School of Applied Psychology and a survivor advocate.

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