Support the genuine victims, but defend the falsely accused

ANYBODY watching Questions and Answers on Monday night would be left in no doubt that the attitude of the public to abuse claims relating to orphanages and industrial schools is changing.

First of all, there was general consensus on a point which many media commentators dealing with child sexual abuse issues in recent years have been slow to assert: that most religious were decent and did not abuse people.

The second point on which there was little disagreement among the panellists was that while there may be many genuine claims relating to sexual and physical abuse in the institutions there are undoubtedly false and exaggerated claims as well.

The programme also featured exchanges between ex-residents of Goldenbridge whose accounts of their treatment there appeared to contradict each other. It fell to John Bowman to express the complex truth of things: people, in their individual testimonies, may be telling the truth and nothing but the truth. But they are not telling the whole truth.

All this seems so obvious now. And yet it is only becoming the accepted view thanks to the emergence of Florence Horsman-Hogan and the Let Our Voices Emerge organisation. LOVE is a group of former residents of institutions and orphanages who report positive experiences of their time in the institutions and who want to support priests, nuns and brothers who have been falsely accused.

Horsman-Hogan's emergence as a defender of religious orders comes too late to undo the damage that has been done to many members of religious orders unfairly accused of abuse.

But hers is still the most significant intervention in the debate about child abuse since Colm O'Gorman broke into public consciousness early in 2002. Both advocates are intelligent, articulate and fiercely motivated.

Both have credibility because of their personal stories.

O'Gorman, as everybody knows, was abused by Fr Sean Fortune.

Horsman-Hogan spent four-and-a-half years in the Mercy Sisters' orphanage in Ballinasloe and has happy memories, but she did suffer abuse after leaving the care of the nuns.

The need for an organisation like LOVE is well illustrated by Irene Kelly- Fay, who was a resident of the Mercy Sisters' orphanage in Moate in the 1960s. Irene describes the shock of her husband and son after they watched The Magdalene Sisters together. Her son referred to the nuns as "animals". Her husband, whom she had introduced to the nuns after her wedding and who thought they were "great", had to be reassured after seeing the film that his wife's experience in the orphanage was not as brutal as the film portrayed.

Since going on record about her own positive experiences in an orphanage, Horsman-Hogan has been supported by more than 90 former residents from 13 different institutions. She does not dispute that abuse took place, but she argues that "the carers were many and the abusers were few".

"No matter how much love these children got from the nuns, they would still feel unloved because of the absence of their parents and because people were happy to point this out to the children. Many former residents are still struggling for acceptance."

Horsman-Hogan is touching on a very sensitive point here the idea that the pain suffered by some ex-residents of the institutions is partly down to their rejection by family and community, and that the religious orders are being made scapegoats.

This kind of analysis will not endear her to certain victims' groups. Nor will her insistence that false claims of child abuse are being made.

But LOVE is not for turning on this one. It points out that a number of cases have already been referred by the Residential Institutions Redress Board to the gardaí for investigation into false claims. Kathleen McShane, a LOVE member who attended St Joseph's Orphanage in Dundalk in the 1950s, says that when she challenged former residents over making false claims, she was told to "keep quiet and let the girls get their money". She was also verbally abused by former inmates of the orphanage when she spoke out in defence of the Mercy nuns.

LOVE stresses that it is only raising the issue of false claims because this illustrates the point that some members of religious orders are being persecuted unfairly.

"At the moment there are hundreds of religious condemned to spend the rest of their lives fighting through the courts and the redress board for their integrity.

"They are condemned by a climate that regards them as, to quote one spokesman for abuse victims, 'guilty until proven innocent'. Is this the society we want?"

Surprisingly, the reaction from Colm O'Gorman and other victim support advocates to LOVE's concerns has not been warm. At a recent debate in UCD, Christine Buckley dubbed Horsman-Hogan a "pet" of the religious orders.

Colm O'Gorman told The Irish Catholic that if people have made false allegations and that has been proven then they should be fully prosecuted.

But his position appeared to harden when he told The Irish Times that Horsman-Hogan should go to the gardaí

if she knew of false allegations and to withdraw her claim if she was not going to do so. He went on to say that "false allegations are incredibly rare".

How does he know they are rare? And why the apparent hostility to what LOVE is saying? Surely false claims are to be expected when there is a compensation pot available. There's no shame in acknowledging that.

O'Gorman should also acknowledge that there can be a spectrum of knowledge about false claims. Members of LOVE may be concerned that former residents are exaggerating about their experiences, but they mightn't want to shop these same residents to the guards.

What is surprising is that it has taken so long for us to realise the potential for false claims. But by the same token it would be a pity if the cause of genuine claimants was brought into disrepute by growing public cynicism about the compensation culture.

Admittedly, too much emphasis is being placed on compensation as the way to solve problems. In such a climate it is more likely that some undeserving people will throw in a claim for abuse. And it is also more likely that people who have the honesty not to make a false claim themselves will come under pressure from friends and other former residents to corroborate claims.

But advocates for genuine victims of abuse have nothing to fear from all this being made public. If they were less defensive on this point, it would remind us that there is a genuine constituency of abuse victims who have no sympathy for fraudsters.

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