Staying off the record on access to archives

Both religious orders and the State are failing to make any serious attempt to centralise, digitise and open up access to records of institutions, writes Conall Ó Fátharta. 

Staying off the record on access to archives

Catriona Crowe, the former head of special projects at the National Archives, is frustrated.

More than that, she is angry.

She is frustrated that survivors of abuse in Ireland’s myriad of institutions like industrial schools, Magdalene Laundries and Mother and Baby Homes have to keep fighting and begging for access to records that should be theirs by right.

Ms Crowe is angry that, despite years and years of multiple state inquiries into what is essentially the same issue — the treatment of vulnerable women and children in religious run institutions — there remains no will at government level to engage the religious orders and Catholic Church in a process to bring all these records together in a centralised, independent repository which can be accessed by survivors, academics and genealogists.

Not only is this process necessary, according to Ms Crowe, it is not particularly difficult to do.

All it requires is the will to do it. However, she fears the need for such a process is not being taken seriously.

The former archivist is speaking in advance of her delivering the dean’s lecture at Maynooth University tomorrow. Entitled Guilt, Shame, Acknowledgment and Redress: Some Reflections on Ireland’s Institutional Treatment of Women and Children, it will form part of Research Week 2017.

“There should be very high-level talks between the Catholic Church and the State and the outcome of that should be that the Catholic Church would agree to put its records into an independent repository, including their parish records,” she says.

This can be done without any privacy or data protection issues. The religious orders and the Catholic Church would have a role in the process but “not a controlling input”.

“You digitise the records relating to the institutions so that people can see their own bit without there being a problem about them seeing other people’s bits, which is often used as an excuse now.

“The material can be anonymised so that scholars can look at it without breaching data protection.”

“You can create an anonymised version of a database of all the people who were industrial schools, Magdalene asylums, Mother and Baby homes and so on as far as they survive.

“That would be an extraordinary resource for scholarship not just here but internationally. It could become a template for good practice in relation to religiously-run organisations for other countries that had the same issues,” she said.

According to Ms Crowe, without such access we will never fully understand the detail and complexity of the entire infrastructure of religious institutions where generations of women and children resided.

“We have so much to learn about Catholic social networks, about what kind of people joined the religious orders, what the hierarchies were like in the religious orders when they went in, how much money they raised, where it went, the whole infrastructure they built around the country, the archipelago of the institutions that we are now dealing with.

“All of these things are hugely important in terms of how we know what went on,” she said.

Ms Crowe said that in many cases the Church, dioceses and religious orders regarded their archives as their own “private fiefdom” and rarely granted unfettered access.

“Now, some do and some don’t. Few are absolutely open and straightforward about it and saying ‘Come in and look at our records, we are quite happy to show you’.

“Some have very restrictive rules which are in part forced upon them by the very, very strict data protection laws we have in Ireland,” she says.

However, the State doesn’t fare much better in terms of ease of access to archives.

Most of the archives of Mother and Baby Homes are now held by Tusla — the Child and Family Agency — and are not held in a central location.

“They’re all in different places for a start. If you look at the list that Tusla has up on their website in relation to adoption and tracing, they’re all in the provincial centres where Tusla is,” said Ms Crowe.

“They should be centralised. They should be in one big archive where they are being digitised now this minute so that people can find the information they need before it’s too late and that seems not to be happening.”

The archivist also addresses the difficulty faced by academics and journalists in accessing the administrative records of such institutions and cites the “utterly frustrating and completely wrong” use of privacy and data protection laws to restrict access.

“It’s a very handy thing to use if you want to keep records closed, this is the way to do it.

“Good archivists and people who believe in access will find ways around it if they can but that shouldn’t be the situation. It should not be there as a way to prevent material being made available.”

“The way around this is to catalogue the records, digitise the stuff that relates to individuals if they want, anonymise the database and open up all the rest of it to journalists and scholars and anyone who wants to see it.

“There’s no reason not to do that now.”

Ms Crowe also expressed concern that the National Archives still has no jurisdiction over material held by the HSE, Tusla and other semi-State bodies and called for the National Archives Act to be updated.

“That’s a real issue. I have been agitating for years to have the act updated so that it covers the health services and other semi-state organisations that aren’t covered but, particularly, the health services.”

She has come up with a proposal for the religious orders — one that they might not take advantage of but which she feels would do the State a service.

“I have a proposal to make to the religious orders and the diocesan authorities, that in lieu of part of their unpaid redress payment to the State, which still remains derelict in terms of what they should have paid, could they consider doing something that everyone would appreciate greatly which is to bring their records together with the help of the State, [using] proper and qualified people so that they can be accessed by survivors, scholars and genealogists.”

It remains to be seen if this proposal will ever be acted upon.

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