Bruce Arnold

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

Our laws still allow for the protection of child abusers

THE Irish State has connived in the concealment of abuse and has consistently failed to regulate state institutions and the church. Historically, it has done so on a massive scale in respect of industrial school abuse and has allowed a climate of uncontrolled abuse to prevail within diocesan systems.

The latest example, following the failures revealed last week in the case of Tracey Fay, shows that the current fosterage and care system in the State is largely unregulated and has involved abuse by foster parents who have not been vetted.

Apart from promises of a tightening-up and assurances that legislative loopholes will be addressed, nothing has actually been done.

There are serious deficiencies in our laws in respect of bringing to book those who conceal and protect abusers. These deficiencies are pleaded as the reason for difficulties in the past, yet they are still not being remedied despite the clear evidence of an ongoing problem in that precise area.

The State has not regulated the organisations supposedly representing those who were abused in the industrial schools.

Although substantial sums have been distributed to them without proper supervision, accounting for that money has not been required, nor have the internal justifications for receiving it been required from representative organisations.

One such organisation circulated its 'members' (by contact list), telling them the Residential Institutions Redress Unit had requested a list of those it represented and had asked for accounts from 1999 to the present. Giving the list of people required permission, since otherwise it was a breach of confidentiality. Such confidentiality has been used to block details about membership, throwing into doubt the relationship between membership and funding.

The Redress Unit's request suggests that such accounts have not been sought before. If so, it reveals a huge gap in the monitoring of large sums of money that were dispersed, year on year, to organisations whose memberships were not checked. What else was not checked?

It is not difficult to relate these and other developments to the growing expectation that money on offer to the State by the religious orders will somehow be distributed to the victims of abuse.

The grossly unequal deal of settlement that exonerated the religious orders, placing legal culpability and financial responsibility on the State at the beginning of investigations by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, has been a major point of criticism. For years, the orders stood their ground on the basis of the deal. But with the Ryan report's revelations of the scale and depth of abuse depravity, together with public outcry, this changed.

Abuse organisations overlook the fact that Irish taxpayers filled the multimillion-euro gap. It is Irish taxpayers who should be recompensed for the Government's unequal deal with the orders.

The abuse organisations see it differently. Irish SOCA (Survivors of Child Abuse) met in mid-February to debate what should be done with these additional contributions, as though it had already been decided that the money was for those who had been abused.

Taxpayers might have a different view of this altogether.

SOCA UK took a rather more blunt approach. This favoured a ballot of all survivors on the dispersal of the money, so long as their applications to the Redress Board were successful.

The board would send out the ballots and after that 'a simple majority should carry the day'!

In this way, according to the organisation, survivors would be treated with respect and dignity for once in their lives', having a say in what happens to them.

This will not happen. There will be no automatic dispersal of the money from the orders or the bishops' conference. In fact, it is unlikely that there will be any dispersal at all.

In my own judgment, it would be wrong of survivors to entertain expectations. Some do not wish for it. There is no universal greed for further recompense. People have refused financial help, others have put their awards behind them, having no wish to open what is inherently a painful and undignified set of experiences.

ALSO, the legal difficulties are great. Reopening the Redress Board's work could face legal challenge. The State stands on the legal adjudication of the board, carefully worked out according to different measures for different forms of abuse.

The adjudications were seen by many as prejudiced in favour of conserving the resources of the State. They were not in line with court settlements, but below them. Nevertheless, they conformed to a rigorous pattern with acceptance requiring confidentiality, despite lack of full satisfaction.

The findings, in general, were: a) that there was abuse and b) that it deserved recompense. In other words, what was the damage, measured in cash? It was a finite measure. If that territory has to be re-entered, it requires new legislation or the amending of the Redress Act and could lead to demands for a rewriting of the scales of recompense. There is nothing in the present law that allows for this new departure.

Moving outside the present legislation is dubious, since it throws into doubt what has so far been done under the law, as well as any expectation whatever of further money being made available to the victims of abuse in the industrial schools. That route, it would seem to me, is over for them. They know it.

Renewed recompense would demonstrate that the payouts were inadequate and therefore would undermine the basis of the State system as created by the Oireachtas.

The State's recent request for money was based on the original imbalance of contributions made by the State and by the religious orders, greatly to the State's and therefore the taxpayers' disadvantage.

The surrender of that money by the orders follows the massive revelation of their criminal abuse. The only good thing to come out of this is the implicit recognition by the State that it got the whole thing wrong.