Ireland's Child Care Institutions during the 20th. Century. Fo'T: The most vivid and passionate stories - banished babies, cruel orphanages, old abuses of power - have concerned things that went unnoticed, or at least unarticulated, at the time. News has often had to be redefined, not as the latest sensation but as that which everybody knew all along yet could not say.

Tuesday, December 04, 2001

The wounds of abuse will never heal if we betray the balanced view

The wounds of abuse will never heal if we betray the balanced view

04 December 2001 By Ronan Mullen

"WHAT can you get for 23p a day?" Anyone listening to RTE radio these days will recognise the station's campaign to justify its TV licence fee. To the sound of an apple being munched, we are told all about RT?'s good deeds - from concert orchestras to news on the web. The message is clear: if we're getting all this for 23p a day we're doing fairly well.

But are we? Watching last week's Prime Time special about the Christian Brothers and sexual abuse in Australia, Canada and Ireland, I had reason to wonder at the way our fee is being spent. It's not that I had any difficulty with the subject matter chosen by Mary Raftery (producer of the States of Fear documentaries) and presenter Mike Milotte. Institutions run by the Christian Brothers were places where young people suffered enormously. Hard labour, physical and sexual abuse were commonplace. The Laffoy Commission is investigating as many as 2,000 reports of physical and sexual abuse, many concerning Christian Brothers' institutions.

We are entitled to ask how Christian men could have perpetrated such abuse on innocent children and why nobody put a stop to it. We should examine the issue in its full context - whether abuse only happened in homes run by Irish religious orders or in secular institutions, whether it was connected with religion or, as is more likely, with an institutional mentality that failed to respect the rights of children. These questions should be teased out, and RTE should be talking to victims, the religious orders themselves, psychologists, sociologists and historians to help explain how such evil occurred.

But that's not what we got. Even the title, Betrayed: The Christian Brothers and Child Sex Abuse across Three Continents, suggested more interest in ratings than in a balanced treatment of complex issues. And that was how it turned out.

The head of the Christian Brothers had declined to talk to the programme. This is a communications problem which the Christian Brothers will need to address. But the tone of the Prime Time special - and the producer's near complete failure to provide balancing interviews - perhaps shows that he was right on this occasion.

Prime Time focused on the abuse perpetrated by Christian Brothers in Australia, and followed up with an assault on the legal strategy employed by the Christian Brothers in Canada to protect its schools in the face of compensation demands. They relied heavily on interviews with victims and their lawyers.

Lawyers shouldn't be fighting propaganda wars on television. They should confine themselves to legal work.

The Christian Brothers should be settling as generously as possible to avoid putting victims through the trauma of full court hearings. And they deserve criticism if they are hiding their assets to avoid paying compensation. But we were denied the necessary balance to make up our own minds on this.

RTE equated partial truth with the full truth. They failed to give any figures for compensation in Canada or to present any objective analysis on what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable recourse to the legal system.

They also ignored another important question. Are adequate systems in place to protect against bogus claims? Columnist Breda O'Brien noted that in one school in Nova Scotia the number of former staff accused of abuse rose dramatically as soon as a compensation scheme was announced. In the end $38 million was paid to former residents of that school. In such circumstances, it would be hard to blame a religious order for trying to protect its assets.

Mary Raftery and Mike Milotte gave us no such careful analysis. They even allowed one lawyer to question, unchallenged, "whether the existence of the Christian Brothers was ever a good thing". I wonder what the family of Brother Noel Bradshaw would make of that. Brother Bradshaw was captured by rebels in Sierra Leone. He has spent over 10 years working in Makeni Catholic Mission where he has lived in a leper colony and worked with victims of war.

It is hard not to feel sympathy for the vast number of Christian Brothers who have given their lives in the service of others. It must be galling for them when RTE gives such uncritical coverage to suggestions that most Christian Brothers were in some way depraved, while providing no figures to put the number of abusers in its proper context.

It's also hard to be optimistic about RTE's future coverage of sex abuse. We've seen this imbalance before. States of Fear was justly criticised for failing to give historical context or balanced overview, but these criticisms were never accepted by Raftery and her team. The evidence from Prime Time was that they intend to give us more of the same.

Some days an apple seems like better value.