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By By COLM SMITH  Sunday July 23 2000

Brendan O’Connor met the commanding, dogged and angry John Kelly, spokesman for Irish SOCA, who says States of Fear changed his life.

THE retirement of British social services expert Bob Lewis from the six-member Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, and the granting of individual legal representation to all victims of abuse appearing before the commission, will be seen as major victories for the group calling itself Irish Survivors of Child Abuse (Irish SOCA). More specifically, they will be seen as victories for the organisation’s public face, the commanding, dogged and charismatic John Kelly.

In recent months, Kelly has been at war with the Government, the commission and, perhaps most interestingly, with most of the other groups purporting to represent victims of child abuse. Kelly characterises many of the latter as opportunists who have resigned themselves to an unsatisfactory inquiry because they are in receipt of Government money through contracts to run counselling services, among other things. They in turn accuse him of trying to bully the commission.

Kelly himself has never taken the king’s shilling. He says that Government funding for his organisation was contingent on the Government seconding someone to his organisation. He mutters darkly about civil servants having access to his files and dismisses the idea of Government aid. Instead, this former London Underground worker has funded his own organisation with financial input from some of his supporters. Irish SOCA hoovers up Kelly’s disability pension from London Underground, a small inheritance from his mother and the proceeds of the sale of his house in Britain. Mainly, however, Irish SOCA runs on rage.

States of Fear changed John Kelly’s life. A former pupil of Daingean, he says he was horribly abused there until the age of 15, when he went to England. Though he had sought psychological help for his problems before then, it seems to have been States of Fear which finally explained John Kelly to himself.

After the documentary was aired, Kelly went to meetings of some of the abuse victim groups that sprang up at the time but he found he wasn’t satisfied with the tone of these groups. Impressed by speeches Kelly had made from the floor, people began to suggest to him that he set up his own group, and so he did. Irish SOCA was initially affiliated with SOCA UK, the British organisation, until a parting of the ways over co-operation with the current commission.

Irish SOCA first came to prominence late last year during the debate about the amending of the Statute of Limitations to facilitate those bringing claims of abuse many years after the abuse happened. From the start, Kelly was a natural politician. His powerful voice matching his imposing frame; his domineering manner made him a natural leader among a group who were all too often cowed, nervous and terrified of confrontation. He came in with all guns blazing, criticising not just the Government but the judiciary, the ISPCC and what he saw as the corrupt organisations that were rivals to his own.

Kelly claims that his group now has a membership of between four and five hundred members. He talks of the mandate these afflicted souls have given him and it is from this mandate that he draws his power. He believes, and he is probably right, that his organisation’s threat not to participate in this inquiry has gained the concessions granted thus far the resignation of Bob Lewis and individual legal representation for each victim of abuse appearing before the commission.

Last February, Irish SOCA held a meeting at Liberty Hall. The first part of the meeting was taken up with some very impressive demagoguery from Kelly. That was followed by addresses from Mary Raftery, who made States of Fear, and a handful of opposition politicians, including Alan Shatter, whose firm acts as solicitors to Irish SOCA. The enduring impression was of Kelly’s powerful exhortations to those present not to co-operate with the inquiry. The mandate was not so much given to Kelly as seized by him. But then it was easy to see how the disempowered could feel so empowered by visionary and appealing statements like “We need to have someone in our corner. We take centre stage here, not the judge, nor the State, as the State is indictable.”

Whether you like Kelly’s bull-in-a-china-shop-meets-sergeant-major style, you can’t but see the merit in many of his arguments. He opposes the fact that any evidence given at the inquiry cannot be used in subsequent criminal or civil trials. Like the “deal” he sees between other victim representatives and the Government, this so-called “immunity” is, he believes, also a “deal”. He believes immunity is being offered to abusers in return for co-operation with the inquiry. Judge Laffoy, who chairs the inquiry, has dismissed any suggestion of immunity. Furthermore, the commission has explained that the so-called “immunity clause” is essential under constitutional law in order to be able to compel people to appear at the commission. This is just a niggling detail to Kelly, yet another detail in what he sees as a vast conspiracy between “the unholy alliance of Church and State” to cover up the scandal of institutional abuse.

Slightly more difficult to empathise with is his argument that the Government should have no part in the setting up of any inquiry into this matter. Again, the language in which he conveys this is powerful, with poetic pauses perfectly placed. “The State is telling us again what’s good for us, like they did when we were children … but we’re not children any more.” Kelly wants a completely independent tribunal of inquiry with an international basis, a tribunal where the rules are set by survivors.

But just as John Kelly doesn’t trust the departments of Justice, Education or Health, the Catholic Church or the judiciary, neither does he trust many fellow survivors people in rival organisations. You get the impression that the only voice John Kelly trusts is that of John Kelly, which is in turn the voice of SOCA.

One international expert whom SOCA didn’t trust was Bob Lewis from the UK, who once worked in an institution which has been the subject of an investigation by the British police. Lewis resigned from the commission on Wednesday following SOCA’s demand that he do so. Bob Lewis’s record is impeccable and Kelly is careful to stress this.

In the wake of the resignation, Kelly claims that SOCA wanted Lewis’s retirement only because they felt he would empathise with other administrators of state institutions, having been one himself. As Lewis himself saw it, “People are being urged not to co-operate with the commission because, wrongly, the impression has been given that I am in some way implicated in inquiries related to child abuse in Britain.”

In fact, Kelly’s short career in the limelight has been littered with inconsistencies and about-turns. When I met him last week, his primary concern was the naming and shaming of abusers. He illustrated this point more than once by showing me a tabloid newspaper headline about a recently convicted paedophile. However, he also stressed the need for financial restitution as a tangible sign of the guilt and sorrow of the unholy alliance.

But just last December, Kelly was saying, “This is not about money, it is about uncovering the truth.” Kilkenny solicitor Michael Lanigan told an Irish SOCA meeting earlier this year that there was no need for a truth commission because we all know the truth. “You’re not going to get a compensation tribunal by polite request,” he told the audience. At the same meeting Kelly told the crowd that the commission was “just a confessional”. “We want compensation for what happened us,” he stressed.

Right now Kelly seems to want truth and much more. Through naming and shaming, he wants to see the families of the perpetrators of abuse stigmatised the same way his own family has been. He wants the State, the Church and the judiciary to pay for what they did, not just to come and confess their sins in the confessional of the commission. He would also like, he adds, to get back some of the money he has put into Irish SOCA.

When all that is done, he says, there will be no book or no political career. When that’s done he just wants to get on with his life.

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