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.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Cheating abuse victims

Cheating abuse victims

Ron McCartan broke down and cried in Court Number 4 at the Four Courts in Dublin last Tuesday as his family gathered around to comfort him. It had been a seven-year battle, but was a moment he had yearned for almost his entire life. It was also a moment which should have the most profound implications for the largest compensation scheme ever established in this country, writes Mary Raftery .

Ron is 61 years old. At the age of 10, he was sent to Artane Industrial School, where he was raped repeatedly by one Christian Brother and severely beaten by others. In this regard, as he says himself, he was not unusual. "Many, many other boys suffered the same," he told me yesterday. "We've had to live our whole lives feeling humiliated and worthless because of what they did to us as children."

What does make Ron unique, however, is that he decided to fight both the State and the Christian Brothers through the courts, instead of opting for the compensation scheme available through the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB). With the final settlement of his case on Tuesday, Ron received damages of €350,000. This far exceeds anything paid out to date by the RIRB. But what caused Ron to cry was the personal apology to himself from both the Christian Brothers and the State, which was read into the court record. It was the culmination of his absolute determination that they publicly acknowledge the damage they had done to him as a child. This is not an option for anyone going through the RIRB. For them there is no personal apology, no acceptance of individual responsibility from those who destroyed their childhoods and their lives. All they get is a sum of money, which has now been shown to be substantially less than might be available through the judicial process.

Of the almost 15,000 people to apply to the RIRB, roughly 7,000 have now had their cases heard. The average payout is €70,000, less than a quarter of Ron's settlement. Of the larger awards, a minuscule number (well below 1 per cent) have received over €200,000, with only a single individual getting the maximum of €300,000. The overwhelming majority (80 per cent) have received under €100,000. In addition, the average amount awarded has steadily declined since the RIRB began its hearings four years ago.

It was always a premise of the scheme, repeated by numerous Government Ministers, that the payments would be at a level commensurate with High Court awards. The problem is that no court has as yet ruled on damages specific to abuse suffered in a residential institution. There is, however, some indication that the RIRB amounts have been well below what the courts might award. In 2003, in what became known as "the visitor case", a man sued both the State and the Irish Sisters of Charity for the sexual abuse he suffered as a child while visiting a friend in the industrial school in Kilkenny.

This was a single incident of abuse, perpetrated by a male childcare worker at the institution, and was described by the judge as being at "the lower end of the scale of sexual abuse". However, in recognition of the trauma suffered, he awarded the victim damages of €75,000. There have, in addition, been a number of high-profile cases of individuals sexually abused as children by priests and teachers where the damages awarded by the courts have substantially exceeded the maximum paid out by the RIRB.

It is also increasingly apparent that many of those who have had their cases heard by the board have emerged feeling hurt, humiliated and damaged by the process. They are further subjected to the gag clause in the legislation which makes it a criminal offence for them to reveal how much they received or what happened at the hearings. "No one can tell me to keep quiet anymore," says Ron. "All our lives, we had this secret, that we'd been abused and tortured. I went to court because I wanted them to apologise directly to me personally, to have to say my name. With the redress board, all you get is a bit of money, usually a pittance, and then you have to keep quiet about it. That's just wrong."

It is difficult to believe that it was the intention of those who established the redress board that victims should feel bullied and humiliated by virtue of going through the process. Nor do I believe that this is the intention of those who currently run the board. It was, after all, established in the first place to spare people the trauma of going through the courts.

However, it is clear that the problems are significant.

The RIRB must move to stop the hurt which has become so much part of the experience of the thousands of vulnerable people with whom it deals. It must also reappraise urgently the amounts it awards in the light of mounting evidence that it is now short-changing victims of abuse.

© 2007 The Irish Times