It is time that we achieved some clarity in the debate about the shared culpability of Church and State over the abuse of children under the care of religious-run institutions, writes Colm O’Gorman.
On May 11th 1999, the Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, issued a very public and very profound apology to those who had been subjected to abuse while in institutional care and to abuse committed by clergy from the Catholic Church, for which Mr Ahern accepted that the State was clearly culpable. It seemed that hundreds of our fellow-citizens, condemned as children by the State to horrific abuse, might at last get the justice they so deserved. However, as we approach the fourth anniversary of that historic apology, it would appear that, for most of those abused in industrial schools, justice still seems a very long way off indeed.
So much has been promised: the Laffoy Commission, prosecutions, redress. Yet it would appear that little of substance has actually happened. The Laffoy Commission seems to be bogged down in a quagmire of legal challenge and counter-challenge. It has had its timescale extended once already and many now doubt whether the commission can deliver any real justice for victims of abuse. Prosecutions have proved difficult, with many cases not even getting past the Director of Public Prosecutions, and many others thrown out by the courts because of the age or ill-health of the alleged offender or the time which has elapsed since the offences occurred.
Now the main focus of public debate seems to be on the cost of this whole scandal to the public purse rather than on providing real and just responses to abuse that we, as a society, have a collective and clear responsibility for. It is time that we achieved some clarity in the debate about the shared culpability of Church and State over the sexual abuse of children under the care of religious-run institutions. No one should underestimate the State’s own liability for institutional sex abuse or its responsibility for redress to the victims. In regard to abuse suffered by children who were put in the care of religious institutions, the responsibility for this rests between the religious orders who managed these institutions and the State itself – acting in loco parentis – which had a duty to ensure that the rights of those children were fully vindicated and protected.
In the first instance, it is necessary to restate that responsibility for abuses carried out by members of the diocesan clergy in parishes across Ireland rests solely with the Catholic Church and that the criminal and civil liabilities rest with the perpetrators and the Church authorities. The settlement approved by the High Court in Dublin in favour of Mervyn Rundle last week is just such a case. There have been and will be other such judgments over time where the burden of compensation will be borne solely by the Catholic Church. What is relevant to the current debate on institutional abuse redress is the scale of that award, which is in line with the scale for the most serious cases to be heard by the Institutional Redress Board.
There have been suggestions that this award goes beyond this scale: it does not. The Redress Board can make awards up to €360,000 and, in exceptional cases, where the impact on the victim has been catastrophic, it can make awards above that limit. In discussions with solicitors making applications for victims of institutional abuse to the Redress Board, it would appear that there are a significant number of such “exceptional cases”. There has already been a settlement on a similar scale to the Mervyn Rundle case relating to abuse in institutional care. That such settlements are possible is a cause for hope; that they have taken so long to achieve is a disgrace.
The State, through the Minister for Education, came to an agreement with CORI as to how liability for institutional abuse would be shared between Church and State. In doing so, it established the Institutional Redress Board to evaluate claims and decide on appropriate levels of compensation for victims. In relation to redress, there is considerable and justifiable disquiet about the agreement reached. Fuelling this are suggestions that a contribution of about €128 million by the religious orders to the final cost of compensation, which some sources put at €1 billion, may turn out to be a small fraction of that sum. There can be little doubt but that the Catholic Church, through the CORI deal, has managed to negotiate a minimal apportionment of financial responsibility vis-à-vis the State.
This alone is already a cause for public scandal, and the inevitable debate has focused on the money aspect to the exclusion of other issues. It is regrettable that we are losing sight of the very considerable human suffering in these cases.
The fact is that, as the legal and investigative processes continue at a tortuously slow pace, many more victims will have died or given up without ever achieving any real sense of justice or acknowledgement. However, there are other aspects of the CORI deal which give rise to an even greater scandal. It is of the gravest concern to One In Four that the CORI/State agreement appears to allow the Church to escape much financial liability and all moral responsibility while still being allowed to hold the power to challenge or dispute cases. This is being foisted on victim claimants while the Church and its organisations, operating under all-embracing immunity, are free to unleash all their legal forces on the compensation process, to gain access to all statements of claim and to challenge any claims made. It is disgraceful that while the legislation provides for punitive action against any victim who might make an invalid claim, there is no such sanction that would apply to an alleged or actual offender or institution which withholds information or which provides less than the whole truth in rebuttal of any claim.
It is completely understandable that survivors of abuse in industrial schools feel that Church and State have colluded once again to deny them justice and, in the process, have abused yet again. Frankly, I find it difficult to disagree with that view. That this is being done with the agreement of the State is the greatest scandal of all. Having presided over the abuse of individual citizens while children, and having atoned publicly for the gross neglect of the duty they owed them, it is clear that little has been learnt and that the State has once again put the interest of the Church ahead of the needs of victims.
In meeting the costs of making redress to the victims of institutional abuse, the Catholic Church must pay its fair share, whether through the courts or through other forums.
But so, too, must the State, and that ultimately will impact the public purse and taxpayers’ pockets. The wrong done by the State to victims of institutional abuse was a wrong done in all our names. And setting it to right will cost us all as a society.
It’s a challenge we must face.