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.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

ISPCC colluded in the sanctified abuse of children

PUBLIC HEARING: Paul Gilligan of the ISPCC was questioned last week by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse

THERE is a horrible irony in the old Dublin terminology used for officers from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, now the Irish Society, formerly the National Society. They were known as the "cruelty men", while officials and volunteers with the Society of St Vincent de Paul were known as "the poverty men".

We have been accustomed to look with pride at the work done by the NSPCC and its successor. Even when made painfully aware of our national shortcomings in relation to the way children were mistreated in the past, we saw the Society as disinterested, committed, decent, caring with total probity for the welfare of the nation's disadvantaged children. But last week we have been made aware of the reality. And we are forced to ask if children were ever safe in this hellhole called Ireland?

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was questioning the current chief executive of the ISPCC at the public hearing of the commission's investigation committee. Paul Gilligan told the committee of the shame attached to unmarried women who gave birth. But there were no statistics as to how many of those women "gave away" their children in order to distance themselves from the stigma: the category ofillegitimacy was not used in institutions.

Why should it be? All of the children committed to those bleak prisons were treated as isolated numbers. They were not members of the community at large, much less the community of a family or that phrase so beloved of the religious in former years, "the communion of saints". Children, even those born in wedlock, could be removed from a loving family home because of the complaint of a spiteful neighbour when the parents' crime was merely poverty. Even sorrow became a crime, as children were committed because a father had died and the mother was destitute, or a mother had died and a father was emotionally destitute and unable to care for his children.

And then there were the children who never had a father, save in the biological sense. One woman told of her children being taken away when a nosy neighbour reported to the authorities that she was unmarried. She told it in a letter produced to the Commission by her son, one of those children removed from her side when he was only two years old. The children were "taken into care" by the NSPCC, which then committed them to an industrial school. The two-year-old remained there until he was 16.

And the NSPCC, far from stepping in on behalf of the children, eagerly co-operated in this process. There was even then plenty of anecdotal evidence that the industrial schools offered inducements to the "poverty men" to keep the supply of children coming. They got a capitation grant for the care and education (!) of each of the children committed to them.

And of course, the children were handy sources of cheap labour. This was at a time when such education as the children received would tell them of the horrors of the British Empire, which consigned small children to the workhouse, from where they were sold as slaves to chimney sweeps and undertakers. In contrast, these little Irish slaves stolen from their parents were told they were fortunate and, of course, destined for eternal salvation.

But the authorities knew nothing of this. How could they? The State was a noble one, operating entirely for the benefit of the children's present and future welfare. But the man who told the Commission of the years in his life between the ages of two and 16 said that his mother wrote to the authorities. He was still able to read her heartfelt and heartbroken letter. Her children were ill-treated and suffering in the school the State had given them to, she wrote. She wanted them back; she loved them. When they came home for holidays, they were ill from hunger, filthy and frightened. But the State sent them back to "school". Their home was a place of moral degradation: their mother was unmarried.

And the NSPCC was a willing participant in all of this. There was (and apparently is) reason to believe that at least some of its "officers" took the "inducements" to recommend the handing over of children to the industrial schools. Inducements: money. And while the ethos of the society proclaimed that they followed up on their cases, the reality was that the children were locked behind the walls of the industrial schools and forgotten.

And the State allowed this non-statutory agency, a voluntary organisation, to wield such power. And the State knew: it had at least one agonised letter which in a just world would have triggered a statutory national inquiry. Anyway, what use would an inquiry have been? In the Ireland of the time, an unsanctified home put a child in moral danger. And there are people who still believe that.

And that man and his late mother's letter were representative, Paul Gilligan said, of 70 per cent of referrals to the Society. Seventy per cent of referrals came from members of the public, and the NSPCC could act arbitrarily. They frequently did. And between one and three per cent of these children were committed to industrial schools. Committed without hope of redress, no matter what their ages, until they were 16 years old, and then turned out on the world, uneducated and adrift, without any emotional support. And in admirably neutral language, Mr Gilligan said there "was no evidence the society engaged in either thinking about or providing aftercare for such children".

But then, why should it? The Society's operatives were well-trained: they too had been brought up under the sway of the all-powerful religious: they saw no reason to question the system that gave the Religious Orders rights beyond those even of the children's parents. They had been reared to think that illegitimacy was the stain of Satan, and that an unmarried mother or a poor mother was an unfit mother. Just as a child being reared within a sanctified Catholic marriage was being reared correctly: children needed chastising, so beatings by those who wore wedding rings and went to Sunday or even daily Mass were merely justified punishments, not to be interfered with under the Constitutional status of "the family".

And the State colluded. Its operatives too, our TDs and Ministers, had been reared dutifully. They served a State whose first action had been to dedicate its service to the Vatican, where men who violated children's bodies were protected and promoted.

There is a horror in what we have been hearing at the Commission, a horror of inevitability and a chain incapable of being broken. With every piece of evidence, that hopeless chain is seen to have tightened its grip on the Ireland of the very recent past, forcing it to turn away from the "godless" outside world, a world where the State's Gothic imprisonment of helpless children might be criticised.

And nobody, nobody, nobody turned on the Frankenstein that was Catholic Ireland. Still nobody has turned: there are few voices saying that this baleful influence must be removed forever. They still talk about the individual good in priests, nuns and brothers; it is as though the monstrosity of the corporate cancer is too terrible to contemplate. State and Church, acting as one, corrupting even a voluntary service dedicated to the protection of children.

Can we go lower?
Emer O'Kelly Sunday Independent June 25 2006