Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

First sensible move to help abuse victims

THE Labour Party has made the first positive and considered move in the interests of the abused from the industrial schools. This is a month after the publication of the Ryan report but in the light of what the party is offering, there is no harm done in the waiting.

The party tabled a bill in the Dail on Thursday that seeks to amend the law on the vexed issue of criminality arising from the committal of young children to industrial schools through the district courts. The exoneration is as comprehensive as it could be.

The bill also seeks to amend the Redress Act in respect of victims of abuse who failed to make claims in time, or were excluded because the institutions to which they were committed were not listed in the schedule of institutions covered by the Act. This is another key issue for a number of men and women who have been blocked by it during the past 10 years.

A third matter addressed by the bill is also one of serious and deep concern to many of those who went through the difficult and arduous redress appeal system under the Redress Act. This is the imposition of secrecy on all who accepted money from the Redress Board with very severe penalties for default. These ranged from a €3,500 fine or six months in prison up to a €25,000 fine or two years in prison, or both. No defaulters among the religious orders for concealment, dishonesty over documents, or for perjury, had such criminal fines outlined in the legislation.

The fourth important issue covered in the bill is the protection of documents, both those collected and filed over 10 years by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and the personal documents submitted to the Redress Board. These are a State heritage and the bill recognises this. The bill also recognises the need to free all the documents connected with the indemnity deal from restrictions which precluded them from the Freedom of Information legislation. There is a desirable addition to this: the inclusion of all the documents pertaining to the Cabinet decision in 1999 to embark on this inquiry and redress road.

Wisely, Joan Burton and the two men promoting the bill, Pat Rabbitte and Ruairi Quinn, both of whom have a long-standing involvement in the issue of the abused, concede that the bill might sensibly be taken over by the Government. This would resolve its financial provisions. It came as some surprise how little attention this Labour Party initiative attracted. After a month of the media wallowing in the more sensational aspects of the Ryan report, this virtual ignoring of a positive and sensible move to alleviate real distress among the abused is regrettable.

It would be logical to expect that this move by the Labour Party came out of the recommendations of the Ryan report. No such logic prevails, however. Despite the enthusiastic agreement of all the politicians in the Dail to endorse and support those recommendations, which was done unanimously, they are seriously defective and do not address any of the issues now covered by Labour's proposed Institutional Child Abuse Bill 2009.

Indeed, the Ryan report recommendations are predominantly concerned with future protection. This is in spite of the fact of 10 years of hearing evidence of shameful cruelty to industrial school inmates. The commission had two obligations when it came to making its summary of recommendations: the first was to alleviate distress among those who had suffered abuse; the second to prevent or reduce abuse from now on. Sixteen of the 20 recommendations belong in this latter category and are therefore aspirations -- they have little or nothing to do with the content of the 1,250 pages of the report. The four that directly address "the effects of abuse on those who suffered" are little short of trivial.

One is for the memorial with Bertie Ahern's suspect apology inscribed on it.

Another is for making "counselling and educational services available". These have been available for the greater part of the past 10 years and are currently in a growing state of flux and uncertainty, with the HSE unable to deliver adequate personnel.

A third calls for family tracing services to be maintained.

The fourth and longest is pious, but makes little material sense. It suggests that "the lessons of the past should be learned". These include "failures of system and policy" as far as the State was concerned and "breaches of their own rules" as far as the religious congregations were concerned.

This hints at, but does not address, the fact that it was not their own rules that the congregations breached. It was the law of the land as well as the State's clear-cut rules for running the industrial schools. This invited a recommendation about implementing the law more effectively. But the commission avoids that.

Successively, it also avoids all the objectives outlined in Labour's bill. Judge Sean Ryan referred on a number of occasions directly to the committal procedures and these are dealt with in limited form under the heading "Gateways", meaning the ways used to commit children. Yet no recommendation is made about that issue.

Judge Mary Laffoy struggled, when she was chairperson of the commission, over getting access to documents cleared and in getting a better response from the Department of Education. The innumerable applicants among the abused who appeared before the Investigation Committee or the Confidential Committee made clear their troubles over this, over criminality, over the legal side of their complaint.

Nothing of this is reflected in the four recommendations designed to alleviate their suffering which means, what we have always known, that their suffering will not be alleviated.

What kind of report is that? How does it actually alleviate the state of mind of the victims? Where are they left, other than to read, on the memorial which the politicians have endorsed about the State's "collective failure to intervene to detect their pain, to come to their rescue"?