FAIRNESS and equity is a central pillar of this national Government. This is our approach when dealing with all of the difficult decisions and challenges that this country faces. This is also the approach that we have adopted with regard to costs of the response to residential institutional child abuse.
This was one of the darkest chapters in our young state’s history. Horrendous abuse took place in institutions which were meant to care for and protect our most vulnerable citizens, our children. The 18 congregations involved, and the state, failed in their duty of care, and many thousands of people have been left badly damaged and traumatised by their experiences.
The Ryan Report spelt out the scale of the abuse that took place. Following on from its report, Labour and Fine Gael called for the costs of redress to be shared equally between the state and the religious. This view was adopted by the then government in 2010. It was, and it remains, the fair thing to do.
The final cost of the response to residential institutional child abuse is estimated to be in the region of €1.36 billion. However, the offers from the 18 congregations to date have fallen far short of the approximately €680 million needed to meet half of these costs.
Under the 2002 Indemnity Agreement signed by then minister Michael Woods and then taoiseach Bertie Ahern, the religious agreed to provide €128m in cash, property and counselling services.
After the publication of the Ryan Report in 2009, they proposed a further contribution of €348.5m, of which 235m was in property. Of the property offers, only 12 have been identified as of potential immediate benefit to the state. The value of these properties, based on the orders’ own valuation, is €60m.
In April 2010, the then government called on the orders to augment their offers, as they still fell some €200m short of the 50:50 share of costs. Unfortunately, as I confirmed this week, only two congregations replied positively to this call. None of the other congregations have supplemented their original offer. Again, this is disappointing. It means their offers to date fall several hundred million, approximately €375m, short of the target 50:50 contribution.
Let me be clear about this: If the congregations do not meet their fair share, it is the taxpayer who will have shouldered the burden at a time when the perilous state of the country’s finances mean we have to make cuts to services elsewhere.
But, this does not mean that I and the Department of Education and Skills will engage in a witch-hunt of the congregations, or “send in the bailiffs” as it has been erroneously reported elsewhere. Rather, we want to engage with the congregations and see what solutions we can come up with.
One idea the Government has put forward is to seek the orders’ agreement to a legal mechanism that would allow the title to educational infrastructure to be transferred to the state for the benefit of the taxpayer and that the title of any of the education infrastructure owned by congregations would not be altered without the state’s agreement.
I realise there are complex legal issues surrounding such a transfer, particularly in relation to educational infrastructure which may already have been transferred into trusts by the religious.
But, with an open mind and a willingness to address the issues, I believe it can be done.
This approach affords the congregations involved the opportunity to shoulder their share of the costs of responding to the wrongs suffered by children in their care, while recognising the legitimate legacy of their contribution to Irish education.
The religious orders have made an enormous contribution to the lives of so many people in this republic especially through the educational system and this can never be taken from them. I myself am a beneficiary of such an education and I both cherish and respect that.
Therefore, it is not a question of extracting money from the congregations, but rather a question of them paying their fair share alongside the taxpayer towards the costs of the response to residential institutional abuse. I have put forward the transfer of educational infrastructure as one such mechanism, but I am open to hearing others from the religious congregations themselves and I look forward to meeting with them shortly in order to progress this.
We must close this shameful chapter, while never forgetting the pain and suffering endured by the former residents who were abused while in these institutions. We need closure for thousands of survivors of abuse, but also for the congregations which proved so negligent during this time. To do so, I believe the 18 congregations must show willing-ness to admit their wrongs and pay their fair share. That is only right.