There is no justice in how survivors have been treated in daily lives

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

Survivors of abuse are often obstreperous. 

Angry, bitter even. They fight among themselves sometimes, and make life difficult for one another. 

You can attend a day-long conference where they are all gathered together, as I did last Saturday, and find how difficult they find it sometimes to find common cause with each other.

The conference was organised principally by the Christine Buckley Centre, named after that remarkable woman whose determination to tell her story changed everything for survivors of institutional abuse. 

The entire day threatened to go off the rails several times, so considerable was the anger in the room. 

It took a lot of strenuous and highly skilled chairing by Colm O’Gorman to keep the show on the road.

There were some media people there — people who get it, like Joe Little of RTÉ. If he had chosen to, he could have reported the fractious nature of the event, made a big story out of it even. 

But he knows why it’s like that. He has too much respect for the reason behind the anger, and the people involved, to ever exploit it.

But there are many others, scattered throughout what we call the establishment, who don’t understand why survivors are like that at all. 

Why aren’t they grateful instead? They survived, didn’t they? 

They got an apology from the State too and, a tribunal, and a report which said they were telling the truth after all. 

Many of them even got a few bob in compensation. Why don’t they just go away?

Is it closure they’re after? Some kind of healing, something else on top of the apology?

Of course everyone who has suffered at the hands of others is entitled to closure. But for survivors of abuse, final closure is only possible when you know justice has been done. 

That something deep and meaningful has happened to acknowledge and address the injustices.

You can’t even begin to list the injustices suffered by survivors of institutional abuse. 

Not suffered — that’s the wrong word. Injustices perpetrated by the Irish State and inflicted on survivors.

The injustice of a system where tiny children were taken from their families, by the courts of Ireland, and locked up in institutions for years, although they had committed no crime. 

The injustice of a system that ensured that thousands of those tiny prisoners, even after they had “served their time”, would never see their mothers, their fathers, or their siblings again.

The injustice of a system that paid religious orders to run these prisons, and allowed them to run at a profit by turning a blind eye while the little prisoners were starved and allowed to live in squalor. 

The injustice of a system that deprived all these incarcerated children of an education, and then couldn’t understand why many of them lived lives of welfare dependence.

The barbaric and shaming injustice of a system that allowed children to be beaten, starved, despised, ignored, told they were worthless. 

That allowed them to be raped, masturbated, forced to masturbate, sodomised.

And in my humble opinion, the worst injustice of all. The fact that all of that, every last bit of it, was done with impunity. 

That abusers were allowed to abuse — paid for it and let get away with it.

Some 170,000 children were locked up in these state-financed institutions, run by organisations with names that involved words like christian, charity, Jesus, his holy mother, his sacred heart, and all the rest. 

There has never been a single prosecution in respect of the physical abuse these people meted out to children. 

Not one. Ever. 

There have been a tiny number of prosecutions in respect of sexual abuse in institutions, but to my knowledge, no-one has ever done time. Except the children abused.

And when the Ryan Report told the truth, and the religious orders all, one by one, hired public relations companies to write apologies for them, the State gave them absolution, in the form of a grossly one-sided indemnity.

 

If some religious orders had been bankrupted by the damages and compensation they had to pay, that would have been justice. But none have even had to tighten their belts.

And there is no justice at all in the way in which survivors have been treated in their daily lives. 

Many carry the results of the traumas inflicted on them — unemployment and poverty, drug or alcohol abuse, depression and anxiety, loneliness and isolation. 

Many feel they have little or nothing to look forward to.

There is not just a lack of justice in this, but a lack of basic care. Pensions would be possible and affordable, and so would enhanced medical cards. 

But of course, there are all sorts of technical reasons why these things can’t be done. 

The truth is that the State simply doesn’t care about survivors, despite the crocodile tears, the fake sympathy, the meaningless words.

The hypocrisy inherent in all this is palpably evident in the way in which many other victims and survivors of abuse have been treated. 

The latest and shoddiest example of that deep abiding hypocrisy has surfaced again this weekend, in the discovery that a new form of redress, for people abused as children in day schools, hasn’t paid out a single penny to any of those survivors.

The Department of Education, those masters of the technicality, have found a new one.

If you want the State to make reparation for the fact that you were abused by a teacher, you have to be able to prove that someone had made a complaint of abuse against the same teacher before that teacher abused you.

In devising that technicality the Department of Education knew full well that it would make it impossible for the vast majority of survivors to qualify for reparation. 

And yet, any time they say anything about it, they intone solemnly that they are “deeply conscious of the trauma and distress suffered by the survivors of abuse”.

I don’t believe a word of it. 

When you look at how the stories have unfolded — the stories of survivors of all forms of abuse sanctioned, monitored and paid for by the State in industrial schools, orphanages, mother and baby homes, Magdalene laundries and others — the only thing that is clear is that the State doesn’t care. 

The State simply wishes that they would go away. But they won’t. Their anger is real, justified, and as David Norris said at last Saturday’s conference, righteous.

They will continue to demand justice. They will continue to fight the unequal fight. 

Because this is a tiny group of hurt and damaged people, with little or no resources, against the might of a hypocritical bureaucracy that says one thing and does another.

One image that stuck in my head, at the end of a powerful conference on Saturday, was the woman who spoke about graves. 

The graves of people she knew, who had lived alone and lonely lives as a result of what the Irish State had done to them and allowed to be done to them. 

The saddest thing of all, she said, was that there was no-one to put flowers on those graves. 

The injustice, it seems, never ends.

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