Sex abuse cases: HSE apology is hollow without explanation

Health body accepts ‘failings’ after leaving mute woman with family that sexually and physically abused her, but little will change until reports into the matter are published, writes political reporter Fiachra Ó Cionnaith

A year on from the scandal first becoming public and seven years after the HSE was first informed of its mistake, the State has finally apologised for leaving a mute woman with severe intellectual disabilities with a foster care family accused of horrendous sexual, physical, and financial abuse for than 20 years.

However, as ever, finding out the exact reasons why the HSE is apologising is like pulling teeth — a problem exacerbated by the fact the patient appears to be fighting the dentist every step of the way.

Documents obtained by the Irish Examiner after being filed with the Dáil’s cross-party Public Accounts Committee over Christmas show the HSE has for the first time accepted its “failings” are responsible for what happened to the woman at the foster care home in the south-east between 1989 and 2009.

However, despite the step forward, the system’s inability to release the details of what it is apologising for; what disciplinary actions were made against those responsible; and what happened to the “clique of managers” accused last year of attempting a cover-up means the HSE has taken one step back.

As previously reported by this newspaper, in 1992, the then South Eastern Health Board was made aware of concerns about a foster care family of an adult male, adult female, and a younger relative, about which allegations of sexual abuse had been made.

The family, since the mid-1980s, had taken in more than 40 children with severe intellectual disabilities on summer respite holidays from their parents, organised by the State, the Brothers of Charity and “independently” of organisations. In 1995, after examining the situation, social workers removed all children and teens from their care.

However, one mute woman was accidentally left with them until mid-2009. It is alleged by those close to the case that she suffered extreme sexual, physical, and financial abuse from all three of the foster family members — including sexual assaults with a blunt instrument, leading to significant internal injuries — and had been “trained” to respond in a sexual manner to directions.

After social care workers raised concerns about the matter and how the HSE failed to take the woman out of the home in 1995, health service management set up the first of a series of investigations. Just 24 curtailed pages of recommendations unlinked to findings have been published.

The first report by ex-Irish Medical Organisation industrial relation director, Conal Devine, into what happened began in 2010, concluded in 2012, spans more than 200 pages and cost the taxpayer €124,797. In 2014, two ex-HSE officials — Ger Crowley and Tom O’Dwyer — from Resilience Ireland were asked to conduct desktop and contact reviews of people placed in the home, costing more than €120,000. Last year, on foot of concerns the reports had yet to be published and disputed PAC claims a “clique of HSE managers” had covered up the findings, the Department of Health asked senior counsel Conor Duignam to examine the matter further.

Sex abuse cases: HSE apology is hollow without explanation

All the reports, and the work of five legal firms that have provided advice, relate to why the woman was not removed for 13 years, who in the HSE is responsible, and what — if any — disciplinary action took place.

However, other than the 24 pages of the 2012 Conal Devine report handed to the PAC over Christmas after a 16-month freedom of information request battle by a social worker seeking the release, none of the detailed files have been published.

The HSE’s position is that, while it wants to, it cannot reveal the records in full until Garda inquiries conclude. The issue is hampered by the fact gardaí believe the alleged victim’s condition makes it difficult for her to give evidence.

However, it is notable the woman who suffered the alleged abuse is also taking a civil court case against the State via her guardian, first lodged in summer 2014.

The conclusion of the mere 24 pages sent to the PAC over Christmas states that the HSE is releasing its recommendations “to apologise to the service user for the significant failings”, but that “it is important to re-assure those concerned and the wider public that the HSE did not wait for the report’s publication to improve the service and management deficiencies identified”.

Despite the HSE’s ‘apology’, the Irish Examiner understands that when an official met the woman, the official failed to apologise and instead simply informed her the recommendations were being released.

Given the continuing lack of answers on key questions, it is equally absurd to suggest the wider public can be “re-assured”.

In theory, this is a conclusion, but, in practice, it is nothing of the sort. Little will change until each report is published; the names of the managers involved are released; and what disciplinary action — if any — they have faced is explained.

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