Kevin Rafter, Political Editor
http://www.tribune.ie 30th December 2007
SENIOR Catholic church leaders led by Brendan Comiskey threatened to close the country’s industrial schools in 1977 in a dispute over state funding, according to newly-released government files. The papers, released under the 30 year rule, include correspondence from then junior education minister John Bruton to Taoiseach Liam Cosgrave noting that his department favoured a funding model which gave “the homes greater freedom to manage their own affairs and decide their own priorities”.
The letter also indicates government reservations about the financial implications of improving educational standards among childcare workers. Writing about a new childcare qualification, Bruton noted that: “The question is whether the course, in its aims and content, is pitched at too high a level and whether a course of that level is required by our needs.”
Correspondence in the files . . . which has been read by UCD historian Carole Holohan . . . shows resistance on financial grounds at government level to appeals for reform from the religious organisations. A lack of political action was met with a strike threat by the Conference of Major Religious Superiors (CMRS).
In a letter to education minister, Peter Barry, on 10 February 1977, CMRS Secretary General Brendan Comiskey wrote: “In the event of the government’s failure to take effective action, I have been formally requested to issue immediately on behalf of six major religious superiors a six months’ notice of closure of eight residential centres. As of the same date, I am also authorised to announce on behalf of 12 major superiors their intention of accepting no new admissions into 17 centres under their care.”
The threat seems to have prompted official action. A memorandum for government was sent to cabinet in April 1977, noting there were 1,100 children in care in industrial schools, with 515 committed by the courts due to family breakdown while 570 were there on a voluntary basis through the health boards. Another 340 children were committed to other homes approved by the Minister for Health. The industrial school system cost £1.6m in 1977, but the memo states that meeting the CMRS funding demands would bring the capitation grant from £22 to £40.90 per child per week. However, the finance minister, Richie Ryan, was quoted as saying that “£30 per child per week should be the absolute limit of the government grant in the current circumstances”. The memo continues that “the government should not, in any circumstances, concede unreasonable demands from any quarter whether it be the CMRS or a more humbly-titled organisation”.
In Ryan’s view, “it should be quite feasible to place most, if not all, of the children concerned in good homes within the community, to the advantage of the children, if an allowance of a lesser amount than ?30 was payable for each child”.
Comiskey, who went on to become the Bishop of Ferns, resigned in 2002 amidst claims he had failed to deal adequately with allegations that Fr Sean Fortune and others were sexually abusing children. The Ferns Report, released in 2005, catalogued abuse over a 40-year period involving 100 children.