Bruce Arnold

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

Taxpayers don't deserve any money from religious orders

The process initiated by the Government, in the wake of the Ryan report, is back-to-front and deeply flawed in its thinking and planning. It is as though Brian Cowen and his ministers are setting out on this new voyage in a sieve; the water is already coming in and the whole vessel will inevitably sink without bringing anything worthwhile to the victims of abuse, unless emergency action is taken.

The process is back-to-front in that the Taoiseach should have seen the religious orders for comprehensive discussions before seeing the representatives of the abused. He should have clarified with the religious their position, including his own demand for a given sum of money, before attempting to elicit the demands of the various survivor groups, who, once again, are in the ha'penny place as they have been for the past decade.

In a more profound way, the whole process is back-to-front. It was clear at the time of the former Taoiseach's apology and even more clear in 2002 when the "secret deal" between the Government and the religious orders was signed, that an audit of the finances of the religious orders was essential. This need was repeatedly raised as a key requirement during the whole history of commission hearings and the work of the Redress Board. Nothing was done.

The same also applies to two other related issues. There should have been an audit of documents held by the religious orders and the freezing of them within Ireland, together with a similar imposition on the treatment of known abusers and the gathering together of evidence of criminality.

Together with the first of these, there was clearly a need also for government pressure on the Department of Education to give priority to discovery of documents. It was clear as long ago as 2003, from Judge Mary Lafoy's 'Third Interim Commission Report', that this was not being done. And it is clear also -- and it is one of my numerous criticisms of the Ryan report -- that not enough censure is contained within the final five volumes of how feeble the State has been in all these areas.

It is little short of astonishing that Brian Cowen -- who, I understand, was the only person who spoke to the abused on Wednesday of this week -- knew and knows so little about this issue. He had Mary Harney with him. She was on the cabinet sub-committee that prepared the State's case that led to Bertie Ahern's apology. Together with other members of the Government, all were aware of the scale and nature of the abuse.

Cowen is wrong when he says "the State had clearly contributed to the conditions in which the pain and suffering experienced by thousands of children in ways documented in the report of the commission came about and went undetected". The State was absolutely responsible for all the conditions. It bowed before the religious, abrogated its responsibilities and let what happened become systemic. However disgusted by the behaviour towards these children of countless nuns, brothers and priests over 60 and more years, it was the State that put the children into the industrial schools and allowed them to be treated as child slaves.

The careful shifting of the onus of responsibility onto the religious, by telling them they have a "moral responsibility" and to use this as the basis for a government "view" that "further substantial contributions are required by way of reparation" is a very weak basis for the State in dealing with the religious orders who ran the industrial schools.

It would appear from the statement of the religious congregations that they see the Government's position in that light. They do not use the word "reparation". If they did, it would mean "making amends" and "compensation". Since that has already been either paid to the abused or scorned by the abused, it is difficult to see how the process can be opened up again, other than by equalising with the State on the original deal that was made so alarmingly unbalanced by Michael Woods.

All that would do is to put money into the State's pocket and alleviate the taxpayers' burden. The taxpayers' sense of outrage, first expressed when this newspaper published the details of the financial imbalance between State and religious orders, was understandable. It was on their own behalf, not that of the abused. Cowen is faced with a dilemma. Does the State take the money? Does it pass it on? And to whom does it go?

The religious orders are playing hard to get. They are not giving any real information. They are, instead, emphasising those dreadful euphemisms, "pain" and "hurt", and putting their faith in a trust. The word trust, whether as noun or verb, has been so completely dishonoured and devalued, in respect of the victims of clerical abuse, that it is difficult to see how Brian Cowen or any of his ministers, on the one hand, or the religious orders on the other, could possibly create such a trust.

Let me conclude by talking money. The representatives of the abused, when they met the Taoiseach, had in mind a 50/50 deal. Since the final cost to the State will exceed a billion, this puts the onus on the religious orders of coming up with €500m. I suspect they are thinking of a figure in the €50m-to-€70m range and they will weep crocodile tears over that.

The money, whatever amount, should not be used to recompense taxpayers. Taxpayers deserve all they get from the appalling governments they have continued for 10 years to elect in sublime indifference to the mess those governments go on making of our affairs. The cash should go to the abused. How this will be done will require the judgment of Solomon, the patience of Job and the love of Jesus Christ. Where we will discover those qualities, I know not.

I hope that Cardinal Sean Brady and Archbishop Diarmuid Martin who has been a stout defender of the abused since he returned to Ireland, will give us a lead. They will have to fathom a way forward after their meeting with the Pope. Ireland has been disgraced internationally by the revelations with which we all lived for so long, looking the other way in deference to the Church and with no lead anywhere from the State. Perhaps, at last, those dark days are over.