Legal experts join survivors in protest of controversial child abuse record legislation

Survivors of abuse, along with legal experts and academics have lined up in opposition to controversial legislation to seal millions of child abuse records for 75 years.

Legal experts join survivors in protest of controversial child abuse record legislation

By Jess Casey and Conall Ó Fátharta

Survivors of abuse, along with legal experts and academics have lined up in opposition to controversial legislation to seal millions of child abuse records for 75 years.

The planned legislation to withhold millions of records will cause practical and psychological problems for survivors, conflicts with EU law, and undermines all efforts at reparation, an education committee heard on Tuesday.

The bill seeks to seal the records of the work of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (Cica)[the Ryan Report], the Residential Institutions Redress Board, and the Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee.

Hearing testimony from a number of survivors, the committee was told the bill in its current form allows a "travesty of justice" to continue.

Mary Harney, who began her search for her own records in 1965, said: “I appeal to you as one of the thousands of people that will be directly and seriously affected by this bill.”

"There are absolutely no valid moral or constitutional reasons why the testimony of thousands of people and the records of the Ryan Commission of Investigation, are to be destroyed or sealed.”

If this Bill passes it would make survivors of the industrial schools invisible once more. It would create another generation of the disappeared of Ireland.

The proposed bill is like "using a sledgehammer to crack a nut", according to the former head of special projects at the National Archives of Ireland (NAI). Caitríona Crowe told TDs and senators should the bill pass it will set an "extraordinary precedent" for the State "to wrongly close important archives when it so chooses."

A consultation carried out by the Department of Education with 100 survivors who experienced the redress bodies showed the majority are concerned at the proposed sealing of the records, Ms Crowe said.

Ms Crowe, who is a consistent and vocal critic of the proposed legislation, made six recommendations to the committee. These included using the provisions of existing legislation to preserve, withhold and make accessible the records, providing those who gave evidence to the bodies concerned copies of their own submissions, and seeking a quote for digitisation and redaction.

The records of religious congregations who ran the institutions should also be brought under the aegis of the state, Ms Crowe also recommended. Ms Crowe also strongly recommended meaningful consultation with survivors on retaining these records.

"One hundred survivors have been consulted so far out of all the people who gave evidence, just 100," Ms Crowe said.

The State’s failure to ensure truth-telling through the production of records, both its own and the records held by non-State bodies, is an "overriding human rights violation" that continues to affect every single person who experienced abuse, according to Dr Maeve O'Rourke, a lecturer in Human Rights Law at the Irish Centre for Human Rights in NUI Galway.

Without records, personal rehabilitation is gravely hampered.

"Without records, revisionism by those who would prefer the past to disappear is a risk, and memorialisation and national education are not what they should be. Without records, accountability is denied. Access to records and national truth-telling is where accountability lies. It is where dignity lies. It is a vital measure of justice."

The destruction of records was not previously guaranteed, or promised, Dr O'Rourke told the committee. Dr Sarah-Anne Buckley, of NUI Galway and the Women’s History Association of Ireland, told the committee sealing these records for 75 years would limit our understanding of the history of education, the influence of religious orders, social class and women's history.

Fred Logue, the principal solicitor in FP Logue Solicitors and a specialist in data protection law, said he believes the current bill is "clearly in conflict with EU law."

Mr Logue also told the committee that he fears that survivors with already limited access to their own records and personal data will be further restricted should the bill proceed.

Following the committee, deputies agreed to defer their consideration of the bill, which was due to take place next week, seeking a response from Joe McHugh, the Minister for Education on the concerns raised.

Chair of the committee Deputy Fiona O’Loughlin said: “We will be forwarding the Minister a summary of what we heard and we will be seeking a response from him addressing a number of the key issues raised.”

Any amendments to the bill have also been deferred until next week.

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