THERE were hardly more than one or two events since the Famine more cathartic for Ireland than the long-resisted acceptance, a little more than a decade ago, that a great and unchecked evil was active at the centre of our childcare institutions.
The depravity and violence, the emotional and psychological abuse uncovered, went well beyond anything that even a society almost numbed by decades of terrorism considered acceptable.
That these violations were inflicted on some of the weakest in society – isolated children without a home and whose only crime was poverty – by members of religious orders in honoured and trusted positions made the betrayals all the greater, the wounds all the deeper.
When, after more than a decade of investigations and hearings, the Child Abuse Commission (CAC) yesterday delivered a final and harrowing report running to over 2,500 pages and based on the testimony of 1,090 people, initial reactions from some victims indicated how deep and raw those wounds remain.
It might have been hard yesterday to recall how the victims’ accusations and calls for help were rejected by so many powerful voices all those years ago. It should be one of the crumbs of comfort that might be taken from this national tragedy that never again will a person in need of such support be dismissed so coldly.
It is unimaginable now that an uncooperative Government department could, as the Department of Education did, force a judge presiding over an Oireachtas-endorsed tribunal to resign, just as Justice Mary Laffoy did nearly six years ago. We should be able to consign official stonewalling to history but, as the heavily censored Monageer report showed us just last week, we still have some way to go.
Yesterday’s response from some victims focused on the lack of accountability, just as the lack of accountability in the Monageer Report caused so much concern. This is an issue that does damage on myriad levels across society. It undermines our democracy and must be confronted, if this society is to function properly and protect all its citizens.
The victims were not the only people apprehensive about yesterday’s publication. Catholic religious orders would have faced the day with a degree of concern. However, it is believed they had seen the report before publication so they would have been prepared. Nevertheless, the Church cannot avoid the conclusions that it presided over the most appalling abuses, physical, sexual, emotional and psychological. It very often protected those responsible. More shamefully, it put the needs of the institution before the welfare of the child.
In recent times the Church has declared itself different from the one that tolerated and hid these scandals. The introduction of nationwide child protection procedures is one aspect of this. However, the depth of collusion and depravity revealed in Mr Justice Seán Ryan’s report, and the Church’s very poor track record, suggest that it might be wise to wait before deciding if this new position is a strategy or a reformation.
The Department of Education was heavily criticised too. The CAC found its “deferential and submissive attitude” towards religious congregations “compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty of inspections”. The institutions were “accorded a low status within the department”. It found that the system of inspection “was flawed and incapable of being effective”.
State failure on top of religious betrayal then.
Even though the abuses recorded still have an impact on the lives of the victims, the CAC report is based on tragic events in the past. In response it offers 21 recommendations that would go a very long way towards ensuring that those abused would be remembered and effective safeguards be put in place to protect the vulnerable children of tomorrow. These recommendations cannot be ignored.
Our country’s reputation is already at a low ebb because of our banking scandals. Already the CAC report is having an impact on how we are viewed internationally. As early as yesterday afternoon, the hugely influential Huffington Post carried the headline: “Irish Reform Schools: Thousands Beaten, Raped.”
This is a straightforward challenge. If we want to win back the respect of the international community and, in this context, our own self respect, we must ensure that these 21 recommendations are made real. We must never again see Irish people who, as children, were terribly abused while in the care of the state, declare on an occasion like yesterday that they feel “empty and cheated” despite a decade-long inquiry.
The CAC recorded systematic and social failure on a grand scale. It recorded a victory for moral cowardice and blindness that, if allowed to recur, will do great damage to this country and its children.
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