Bruce Arnold

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

Still missing full story behind the children 'shovelled into schools'

THE five-volume Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is a vast document. It attempts to cover six of the ten 10 years since Bertie Ahern made his public apology to those who had suffered abuse in the industrial schools and, together with Judge Mary Laffoy's Third Interim Report, published in December 2003, it completes the record of the commission's work.

It is inevitably flawed with omissions and misconception evident on a first reading and with cursory attention to matters of historic importance. Much of this will come to light as the extensive document is more fully analysed. At this stage it is worth identifying the inexcusable examples.

One of these concerns the Kennedy Report. Published in 1970 and chaired by Miss Justice Kennedy, president of the District Court, the report failed to tackle any of the key problems in the industrial school system and excluded from consideration the most serious problem faced by the children -- corporal punishment.

Though members of the Kennedy Commission knew a good deal about this and are on record discussing the punishment circumstances in Daingean Reformatory, their recollections are not recorded in the report. The closure of Daingean is recommended, but mainly because of antiquated plumbing and other physical defects. The fact that the children were flogged mercilessly is not recorded.

Furthermore, the Kennedy Report published the rules and regulations for industrial schools but excised -- and it can only have been deliberate -- the key rule covering corporal punishment. So a state regulation was included as an appendix without the most important paragraph in it. Nor was corporal punishment discussed in the report.

None of this is corrected, rectified or challenged. The commission seems not to have noticed. Their comments refer mainly to future prognostications rather than the non-findings of criminality, abuse and deprivation that existed in the industrial schools the Kennedy commission members visited.

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse sees the Kennedy Commission quite differently, admiring it and using words like 'pivotal' when in fact it achieved nothing significant beyond proposing an enhancement of the deception about the nature of the institutions by renaming them.

'Industrial schools' were to be called 'national boarding schools' and the 'detention order' was to be called an 'admission order'. This was not done and 30 years later the Kennedy Commission followed the same course. It did recommend closures, but they were slow to be implemented.

The commission is categorically wrong in saying that the rules and regulations were "unambiguous in the restrictions placed on corporal punishment". From first to last they were ambiguous, allowing extremes of punishment within the rules quite apart from the fact that the rules were widely ignored. At one level this was a departmental failure to inspect and change punishment regulations, as happened in the UK system, ironically under Winston Churchill when he was at the British Home Office.

So much for history, one might say. But living history is what the commission was engaged in throughout its 10 years and the record of it here will no more satisfy the abused than it will the general public.

ALL the known conclusions to be found or drawn from testimony given to the commission are listed and the same dismal points that have been made over the past decade, and earlier, in the pioneering documentaries on life in the industrial school system. Yes, there was abuse. Yes, the Department of Education behaved badly, was deferential and submissive toward the religious congregations and failed to regulate or protect the children's lives.

The Irish industrial school system flourished because the religious orders wanted it to flourish and the State ignored the alternative approaches which had been steadily developed in the UK, but were notably ignored by Thomas Derrig, the Fianna Fail education minister who presided over many of the most terrible events in the system. This divergence of an old-fashioned and pernicious religious control in the Irish system from a more secular and more caring approach in the UK is not properly examined in the report.

The commission confronts the issue of sexual abuse and gives a comprehensive account of the extent and depravity of what remains, for most of those who suffered, the worst aspect of their lives.

One of the more significant undertakings the chairman, Judge Sean Ryan, gave about his investigation involved the committal of the children by the courts. He said that it was important "not to ignore the methods by which children came to be placed in institutions". This issue of committal was never meant to be part of the process. It came far too close to the derelictions of the State -- its betrayal of the innocent children -- than was comfortable. It had been precluded by Michael Woods when he steered through the original legislation setting up the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

Judge Mary Laffoy covered it, but only in a detailed listing of the various legislative provisions by which children were committed. Since this was already in the public domain, what Sean Ryan said was seen at the time to be an extension of what she had done.

It has not proved to be so in the final report. Setting aside everything done to the children during their incarceration, nothing was as terrible or alarming as the events which led so many of them to lose their liberty by being placed in the hands of the gardai and taken away to what were child prisons, there to serve terms of up to 14 years.

The children were not represented in the courts. Their circumstances were not properly investigated. They were, as the founder of the Legion of Mary, Frank Duff, asserted in a letter to Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, "shovelled into the industrial schools".

This matter remains obscure and inadequately dealt with. Judge Ryan himself said that the importance of the issue was hard to exaggerate and that it would be unsatisfactory to ignore it. He was to seek an amendment in the Act. It was not made.