Unending, inconclusive public inquiries another form of abuse

Unending, inconclusive public inquiries another form of abuse

In four reports, they haven’t made a single finding of fact. We knew more about what happened in that foster home before this inquiry than we do now, writes Fergus Finlay.

THIS newspaper, at the end of 2015 and the start of 2016, first highlighted a case of abuse in the South-East of Ireland. The abuse had continued for 20 years, up to about 2009. It was John McGuinness and John Deasy who used their positions on the Public Accounts Committee to highlight the potential cover-up of that abuse.

I wrote a column here, on January 25, 2016, and suggested that the woman who had been abused (and she had been abused since the time she was a girl) should be given a name. Up to that point, in various official reports, she was called SU1.

I wanted her to be called Grace, as a reflection of her resilience and character. The system agreed, and this brave young woman stopped being labelled. 

SU1 is short for “service user 1”, and the depersonalised way in which Grace’s case had been examined was a typical example of how inquiries into public failures are conducted without too many people being disturbed.

It was important that people would be disturbed about Grace. She had been placed in private foster care by the HSE. 

It wasn’t an institution: it was a house, with a family, in a village in the area of the original South Eastern Health Board. The HSE had become so concerned about what was going on in the foster home that they decided no child could be placed there. 

READ MORE: Families ‘utterly let down’ by Grace scandal probe

But they left Grace there, for another twelve years.

We know that the family was approved, by the health authorities, as a short-term provider of holiday respite care. They were never, apparently, approved to be full-time foster carers. They were never supposed to have more than two children at a time.

But in 1985, 14 children were placed with them. In 1986, it was 19 children. In 1987, there were at least 20 children — one child stayed for 10 months.

All the children were placed with the foster family by the former SEHB. Other children came from special schools and services for children with intellectual disability. 

In 1989, they took Grace, and kept her for 20 years.

I wrote that, “Grace will never expect us to be ashamed. She expects nothing. She has no reason to believe she has any rights at all, any entitlement to our protection. But she has.

“She has more rights than most, because that’s what we’re supposed to be about. We think of ourselves as an independent state, proud of our achievements. But if we can’t protect Grace, we don’t deserve statehood at all.”

It emerged, however, that Grace was not alone. Other girls — we still don’t know how many — had been abused. Other families had suffered terrible damage by placing their faith in a fostering system that was allowing abuse to happen under its nose.

Unending, inconclusive public inquiries another form of abuse

So, eventually, an inquiry was established. That was in March 2017, but Grace had been placed in the care of the foster home in 1989, nearly thirty years earlier.

There was a botched attempt to confine the terms of reference to only one case, and then, ultimately, an agreement to conduct the inquiry in two phases: The first concentrating on Grace, the second examining what happened to the other children in that home.

But do you know the old saying about justice delayed being justice denied? Or, to put it another way, why did we bother setting up an inquiry at all?

Two years after being established, the inquiry has just published its fourth interim report. I feel a bit like underlining the word “fourth” and shouting it from the rooftops. Because in four reports, they still haven’t made a single finding of fact. 

We knew more about what happened in that foster home before this inquiry than we do now.

According to the inquiry team, they have done the divil and all: 132 hearings, 101 witnesses, thousands of pages of documentation. They’re making great progress, they tell us.

But it was a year ago when I read a very disturbing report in this newspaper, written by Daniel McConnell, under the headline, “Families ‘utterly let down’ by Grace scandal probe.”

That report, which I’ve never seen denied anywhere, talked about how confrontational and adversarial the inquiry team were with family members. 

One relative was quoted as saying, “We are shocked at how we have been attacked, accused almost of telling mistruths. This was not what we were expecting. It has been horrendous.” 

This is an inquiry, in its essence, into how a small group of public servants conducted themselves.

What decisions did they make, how did they make them, why did they make them, did they cover them up? You can be sure when it comes to decisions made by public servants that there will be a paper trail. 

In that context, why anyone would consider it necessary to conduct hundreds of adversarial hearings and interviews with family members is a complete mystery to me.

But, of course, we’re not allowed to question inquiries of this sort. Once they’re set up, they, and they alone, decide how to do their business.

But here’s the thing. An earlier report, by Judge Yvonne Murphy, took three years to complete. 

But that report was about the systematic abuse of children by priests of the Dublin diocese of the Catholic Church, and into the equally systematic cover-up of that abuse by very powerful Church authorities. 

Dozens of priests were involved, and hundreds of people had suffered at their hands. The report was unsparing and powerful. It told us everything we needed to know about a complex and corrupt architecture of abuse within the church. 

It encompassed three volumes and, according to reports at the time, cost between €3m and €4m to produce.

I HAVE never met Marjorie Farrelly, who has been charged with conducting the inquiry into Grace and into the other children abused in one foster home. 

But as far as any of us know, the abuse happened within one home. It seems clear that a small, and known, number of children were abused, not the hundreds identified by the Murphy Inquiry, in Dublin.

Unending, inconclusive public inquiries another form of abuse

It is inexplicable, for all these reasons, that the inquiry has been unable to produce a single finding of fact after two years of work, and, instead, has only left behind a sense of hurt and betrayal among the families of the children who were abused.

It’s surely time, isn’t it, for some light to be shed on how this inquiry is doing its business behind closed doors.

Interminable interim reports from an inquiry team charged with investigating a terrible injustice, with no end in sight, are themselves a way to perpetuate the injustice. 

This inquiry was set up to find the truth. Increasingly, we have to find the truth about how it has failed to get anywhere near the answers we need.

In four reports, they haven’t made a single finding of fact. 

We knew more about what happened in that foster home before this inquiry than we do now.

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