Clodagh Finn: Balance of power shifts when even the quietest voice speaks out

Our track record on putting survivors first is appalling — this needs to change
Clodagh Finn: Balance of power shifts when even the quietest voice speaks out

Blackrock College past pupils Corry McMahon (left) and Louis Hoffman at a joint news briefing with the Spiritans in Ireland, at the RDS last week. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA

What struck me most about Corry McMahon when he spoke out about the abuse inflicted on him by two priests, Senan Corry and Aloysius Flood, at Blackrock College in Dublin was not only his immense courage and dignity, but something more profound.

In that moment, the balance of power shifted — away from a closed, hierarchical institution that facilitated such horror and back to the 12-year-old boy who suffered so much because of it.

Mr McMahon said so himself. He said taking part in a restorative justice process had helped him to get the 12-year-old boy, “back on side. The world is very different for me now”.

The delivery of those words at a joint news briefing with the Spiritans at the RDS last week was particularly moving, not least because they were heard — and heeded — by members of the order responsible for the abuse.

As is so often the case, when one speaks out, the floodgates open. Stories poured in after Louis Hoffman took the first step in 2020 setting up a Facebook page, ‘Blackrock Spiritans, time to say sorry’.

One fifth of the 1979 Leaving Cert class reported abuse, a staggering statistic. Now, more than 230 people have come forward to say they were abused by at least 79 members of the order. Four of the accused are still alive.

If there is one sliver of hope in all of this, it is that survivors are changing the way power is exercised in our society by speaking out. Even the quietest voice can speak volumes – and lead to lasting change — when it is heard.

It seems like good timing, then, that She Said is released in cinemas on Friday. It tells the story of how two New York Times journalists, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, exposed powerful film producer and predatory repeat sex offender, Harvey Weinstein, by patiently gathering the testimony of women he abused.

The film opens in Ireland in 1992 with a young woman’s joyful discovery of a film crew at work as she walks her dog. They give her a job and she is shown engaging in happy, exhilarating work — for a short time. A few moments later, a hand-held camera follows her closely as she runs down a street, utterly distraught; her beautiful face etched with terror.

The film 'She Said' is based on the abuse of Harvey Weinstein.
The film 'She Said' is based on the abuse of Harvey Weinstein.

Later in the film (spoiler alert), Laura Madden, the young Irish woman now grown into the mother of daughters, describes that moment and her awful encounter with Weinstein:

It was like he took my voice that day just as I was finding it.

The line stayed with me long after seeing the preview because it showed how the powerful exert themselves in the world. They build a world of silence and people feel compelled to comply with it.

Speaking out, as the women affected by Weinstein have done and the former pupils of Spiritan schools are doing now, dispels that power. It exposes the abusers, bullies, and predators for what they are and, if the right steps are taken, leads to justice and lasting change.

But there’s the rub. What are ‘right steps’?

The Weinstein exposé prompted a global #MeToo movement which put an unflinching focus on gender and power dynamics. In some cases, it led to bottom-up change, toppling sexual harassers and bullies from positions of power by exposing them.

Progress, though, was far from uniform. There are those who say the movement went too far and others, your columnist included, who think it hasn’t yet gone far enough. One of the ways we might push ahead is to ensure all workplaces — and schools — have effective complaint processes, followed by a clearly defined path to justice.

Sadly, in Ireland, when it comes to sexual abuse, indeed any kind of wrongdoing, the path to finding justice is anything but restorative.

John Coulter, of the Blackrock College and Willow Park survivors’ group, expressed a widespread view when he said the courts system is adversarial and retraumatising.

“The people who have done it are incredibly courageous. But, my god, they’ve suffered,” he said.

He and other survivors are trying to put in place a mechanism that allows people to open up, be heard, have their abuse acknowledged and offer some steps towards healing.

Those are elements that must form part of any State inquiry.

It is encouraging to hear the Taoiseach Micheál Martin speak of a “bespoke inquiry” with carefully drafted terms of reference that put survivors first.

Appalling track record

However, our track record on putting survivors first is appalling. We have witnessed lengthy and costly tribunals which held nobody to account. Most recently, the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes not only failed to put the blame where it belonged, but retraumatised those who gave evidence.

Having said that, if there is one good thing about the Commission and its final report, it is this: it provides us with a perfect example of how not to do things.

The voice of the survivor was totally lost in that sorry process. The failure to include testimony, and later to destroy it before uncovering backups, has been well-documented.

One of the worst outrages for me was that survivors were sent forms that listed “rape” and “incest” as “current relationship status” options along with “single”, “married” and “separated”.

An unbelievable level of insensitivity if I had not seen the form.

The fallout from that Commission is still playing out, so it’s easy to understand why there is soul-searching on the nature of inquiry that should and must take place into events at the Spiritan schools.

What happens next is all important because the Government has too often reverted to legalistic mechanisms that seem to be designed to protect the State from its people, rather than serve them.

Even Vicky Phelan, a woman who had considerable success in calling out the failures of the Health Service Executive and others, was unable to bring about reform of the tribunal for CervicalCheck sufferers. To this day, it has been used by just one tenth of those affected by that scandal because it does not address their concerns.

Vicky Phelan: Fought for change.
Vicky Phelan: Fought for change.

Health Minister Stephen Donnelly has said implementing the called-for changes would only be possible with a referendum, illustrating the gnarly, legalistic inner workings of these supposed frameworks of justice. Far from being user-friendly, they are almost hostile to those seeking justice.

Whatever the mandarins of government say, it is possible to do better and develop a structure that puts survivors at the centre. Earlier this year, a series of essays in Redress, Ireland’s Institutions and Transitional Justice (UCD Press) discussed how democracy might evolve if the survivors’ experiences and expertise were allowed to lead the response. The Government might draw inspiration from it.

The courageous men who have shared their stories spoke volumes about a too-near past where power was invested in those who least deserved it. Now, it’s time to redress the balance.

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