Sunday Independent November 20th 2005
WHEN Bertie Ahern says that he gave the child sex abuse issue the highest priority during his two terms as Taoiseach, he is being disingenuous.
What he has said is this: "I have put child protection in the context of sex abuse within religious institutions and by clergy at the forefront of the work of my term as Taoiseach. My record in relation to the investigation and exposing of child sex abuse is second to none. As Taoiseach, I oversaw the establishment of the Commission of Inquiry into Child Abuse and the Ferns Inquiry. And it is through this process of inquiry and disclosure that we as a society are enabled to ensure that the abuse and dereliction of duty in the past does not recur." The truth is that the growing threat of court action in respect of sexual abuse in church-run institutions over decades was the reason for the programme of action initiated under Ahern's first term as Taoiseach. Documentation shows that the Department of Education, in the mid-Nineties, conscious of this, and also advised in part by legal opinion about the level of cases that might come to court, brought to the Government proposals for obviating this threat.
Bertie Ahern did indeed take action, but principally for three reasons. The first was to protect the State by creating an alternative process, through the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. The second was to protect the Roman Catholic church from the same threat of widespread legal action by people who had been dreadfully abused, not just sexually, but in terms of extensive deprivation of health, education and the minimal comforts of care and kindness. The third reason was fear of the revelations, which were emerging through television and articles, and which were likelyto snowball. The legislation then introduced by the Government was couched in terms that were protective of the church and of the State.
Bertie Ahern opposed the idea of redress, which was only brought to Government as a necessary additional measure. Without it, the legal challenges were likely to be mounted anyway.
This was then followed by the outrageous secret deal with the church, which put the financial burden of redress on the State, and therefore the taxpayer, and absolved the church with payment of less than 10 per cent of the likely eventual charge on the State for the iniquities that had been perpetrated in more than 100 brutal and ill-run institutions around Ireland.
He presided over a Government - and a Department of Education under three ministers, Michael Woods, Micheal Martin and Noel Dempsey - that liaised with outreach organisations in Britain, and through organisations working for abused people, was in touch with the lives, psychiatric care and the search for redress of deeply damaged men and women.
The whole process was bravely challenged by Judge Mary Laffoy. She blew the whistle on what was happening. She took on the Government for its hypocrisy in not funding or supporting the very inquiry that Bertie Ahern claims is his great gift tosolving the institutional abuse issue.
She blew the whistle in another and much more fundamental way by publishing the only full account of gross ill-treatment by the church of young people in the Fishing School in Baltimore.
It described near-starvation of the inmates who lived in squalor and in rags, without proper medical or educational care.
It is argued that money was short. This is not true. An adequate per capita payment, in all the institutions, was made. The money was not properly accounted for. Much of it was sent back by religious orders to Rome, adding to their coffers and depriving the imprisoned children in Ireland of the wherewithal for a proper start in their already much damaged lives.
Witnesses also refer to the rich lives of the religious who starved them.
Mary Laffoy was a watershed figure. After her the State changed the law. This followed recommendations from the barrister Sean Ryan, who had worked on the abuse legislation. He had done so during the crucial period in which the commission was starved of back-up by the Department of Education while the Redress Board, in secret, was paying out compensation money.
The money awarded, where this can be assessed, fellfar short of what the courts could have been expected to award. Colm O'Gorman's €300,000 award is the civil marker to be compared with much lesser sums for institutional abuse.
Sean Ryan, the man who had drafted legislation and had been intimately involved with the Department of Education in constructing how the process should be pursued, was then made a High Court judge and put in charge of the Commission on Child Sexual Abuse after Judge Laffoy's resignation.
It would have been better if a different judge, one who had not been involved in constructing the terms of reference to be followed, both before and after Laffoy, had been appointed.
Since then the whole process has been held up by lengthy inquiries into different institutions. The stated purpose of these inquiry sessions has been to assess whether what is allegedto have happened actuallydid happen.
These inquiries, where the institution is being questioned, have been in public. The inquiries where abused people have been interviewed have been in private. The public statements and answers, usually given by religious who were not in the institutions and did not know what happened, have mainly been whitewash operations.
We are led to believe from them that the floggings in Daingean did not take place. The abuse and starvation in Artane did not happen.
One member after another of the various religious orders that abused terribly their trust in caring for largely innocent children have pleaded either ignorance or presented anodyne answers to crucial questions.
When Bertie Ahern himself appeared before Judge Ryan, on Friday, July 9, 2004, he told the commission that his apology to the abused, in May 1999, had come about as a result of representations made by the groups acting for the abused and by individual members of them. Such groups did not exist then and there is no evidence of such meetings. He said that Government thinking "came from the victims".
It did not. It came from the Department of Education, and there is substantial documentation proving this.
More telling still, at the time of the Taoiseach's appearance before the commission, two former ministers, Martin and Woods, directly contradicted the Taoiseach on this issue of where the apology came from, telling Judge Ryan that it was a departmental proposal.
The judge has not yet recalled the Taoiseach to check out the differences and contradictions contained in this evidence.
As said above, this line of approach by the Department of Education, and accepted by the Government, was motivated by the threat of legal actions against the State.
A statement issued this week by Irish SOCA, the only organisation acting for the abused that has spurned help from the State, came out strongly critical of the absurdity of Bertie Ahern's position, where he wants the good done by the church to beconsidered in amelioration of the abuse.
Bertie Ahern has said: "The notion that the institutional church has not been held to account is misconceived." And he goes on: "Our legalsystem provides a remedy in damages."
But what about crime? And what can a permanently damaged, middle-aged victim of physical and sexual abuse over years do with the provisions of the law on damages? What possible hope do they have of contending against the State, when the State has allied itself with the church in constructing, through legal deals, a mechanism of self-protection and immunisation from real redress?
It is not damages or civil actions that are relevant: it is prosecution for crimes of violence against innocent and powerless victims, that need to be pursued against senior members of the church who have consistently, over long periods of time, protected the abusers and the regimes under which the abuse became chronic and insidious.
Colm O'Gorman has played a blinder in recent weeks and has been a proper focus for media attention, though his experience is with diocesan abuse, dare one say it, of a lesser order, in the main, from the institutional abuse that happened in Letterfrack, Daingean, Clonakilty, Artane, and so many other places of dreadful incarceration.
However, ironically Ferns and O'Gorman's impressive outspokenness have helped Bertie Ahern and the church to talk in terms of all this being put behind us. For the other abused it is happening now, and will go on into the future. And while on the one hand the church is talking of sorrow and pain and apology and regret, behind the scenes, with expert legal advice, itis fighting every inch ofthe way to deny what happened within the industrial school system.
The practical proposals so far coming from Government concern investigation. They deal in hopes about improvement. There is no real underpinning of legal intent.And the process is going onas before.
Bertie Ahern's declaration about the church's place in Irish society is totally ill-timed and totally ill-judged. We have yet to address the full problem of abuse. And it does not lie in the past.
It is a present and a future agony for tens of thousands of victims.