Bruce Arnold

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

Church and State colluded in this abuse-ridden society

Tracey Fay's death has shifted public focus in the continuing and unbroken narrative of child abuse and neglect in Ireland. For the past decade, and before that, we have been able to blame the church. Now the blame has shifted, quite markedly, to the State. Her death, and that of many like her, is the result of the State's failure to set up and fund a proper care system.

It is an irony that the period during which this new abuse occurred has been a period of intense self-examination over how abuse happened from 1920 to the 1980s, carried out principally by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, and focused on the industrial schools. But with the change of focus we can no longer hide behind blaming the church.

We never could, of course. It was always the State that was responsible for the care of its children and let them down. But the State was effectively controlled by the church, and successive governments without exception obeyed unquestioningly the clerical direction that covered up chronic, persistent and damaging child abuse. It is a seamless story, as long as the Bible and as terrible in the accounts that come out of it -- of human dishonesty, evasion, and the avoidance of truth and basic goodness in helping children.

Tracey Fay died eight years ago. The facts, and the State's abject failure, would have remained under a confidentiality cover but for the courage and good judgment of Alan Shatter, whose calm and measured performance in the Dail this week was exemplary.

Not for the first time has he shamed the State. He has confronted the absurdities of the HSE, who were trying to stop him on a trumped-up claim about a constitutional right to privacy. And he obliterated the incompetence of Children's Minister Barry Andrews, whom he rightly describes as lacking both authority and the ability to implement what he says should be done. I do not believe Andrews when he says there was no intent to conceal. I do not believe he knows whether this was an intent or not. His performance indicates, clearly enough for me, that he has been led and directed by others.

The HSE is massively culpable. The services for which it is responsible are in chaos and the catalogue of other deaths, in addition to that of Tracey Fay, were concealed because of the disgraceful circumstance that led to them. Other arguments, about respect for the families' privacy, are little short of nonsense.

The HSE does not know where it is. This was made unquestionably clear following Judge Yvonne Murphy's findings in her Dublin diocesan child abuse commission report.

Specifically, this was where the HSE failed to deliver the information the commission sought on child abuse. Astonishingly, the HSE revealed that files covering 114,000 cases were based on the child's name, had no cross-referencing, had to be searched manually, and were spread over 50 different locations. Equally astonishingly, and rather lamely as well, the commission shrugged its shoulders and gave up on this line of inquiry. Instead, it should have reported the dereliction of the HSE to the Government, and sought further direction as to how to proceed.

Though not directly relevant to diocesan abuse, Tracey Fay's fate is part of the inchoate system being followed by this vital state service. Do we not have computers? Do we use them selectively, not including abused and unwanted children because they do not matter?

I have often wondered, is it deliberate? The State has tolerated child abuse for the 90 years of its existence. We can't pretend anymore that it wasn't known about. Wild and perverse acts of cruelty, sexual perversion and abuse, deprivation of every kind -- education, training, clothing, food, healthcare -- took place and were then concealed by the Department of Education, by ministers and senior officials, as a statutory act, though without the benefit of statute.

Then there were the personal records. Concealment of them, and obstruction over access, represented a deliberate act of confusion that caused victims of abuse years of frustration and difficulty. Lost documents within the department at times made it look as though a permanently employed arsonist went from place to place to burn or flood storage facilities, and destroy evidence of collusion between the church and State.

In the end, and with total and urbane dishonesty, the State put the blame on the church and pleaded that it did not know what happened during a horrific 90-year period of abuse eventually laid bare by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

The Murphy report did the same, on a limited scale and in

one area of the country only. This lie, about not knowing, was repeatedly contradicted by reports in the Dail and by periodic legal cases. But governments -- all of them -- looked the other way.

It has continued to happen. It never stopped and it goes on happening, with nothing proper put in place to stop it. We do not have the records of how bad it is, how widely-spread or pernicious. We do not know what has been done on the ground to stop it, and even whether we know how to deal with all these problems.

The church is less part of the secular equation than it was. It is no longer trusted to play any social role, despite the fact that, clearly, we cannot effectively play such a role without continuing to wreck lives. We cannot even monitor the enormities that go on.

The Tracey Fays of this world are an endemic class of victim, always to be part of us. No serious rescue attempt has been mounted and financed by the State, to its undying shame. It is a shame that stretches back through the State's history, staining what we lovingly call our "identity". Ours is the identity of an abuse-ridden society.