DEAR DAUGHTER: LOUIS LENTIN vs REG GAHAN
Added to www.alliancesupport.org on December 27, 2007
[ Reg Gahan was honorary treasurer of a fund raising committee set up by the Sisters of Mercy in the 1940s to raise money for Goldenbridge industrial school. He thought that the Sisters showed great concern for the children and that they were in no way afraid of the nuns. He also points out that it was a costly business to prepare for a nursing career in the 1950s and 60s but that Christine Buckley became a nurse. Had the Sisters of Mercy nothing to do with that?
In contrast Louis Lentin feels that to doubt the truthfulness of the "victims" betrays them again. Having made a so-called documentary that made no effort to tell the other side of the story, he finds it offensive that former pupils of Sister Xavieria should be allowed to give their very different accounts of the nun. It is clear enough that, had he the power, he would have prevented them from speaking.
22 December 2007]
(A) `DEAR DAUGHTER' Letter from Reg Gahan
I don't think it amazing that should express reservations about unquestioned acceptance of the accuracy of rather bizarre allegations contained in his film, where one particular nun is depicted as being constantly cruel, when subsequently I am reading in the newspapers statements from people in the care of the same nun as children, testifying to her kindness. This poses the question whom should I believe?
We learn from the film that Christine passed her Leaving Cert exam while still at Goldenbridge Industrial School ("orphanage is Mr Lentin's misnomer) and then became a nurse. Mr Lentin, as selective as in the making of the film, did not quote the part of my letter pointing out that the nuns got no credit for their part in this.
It can be deduced from the meagre details that Christine was educated efficiently by the nuns until probably 17 or 18 years old, and must have been allowed time for study. She was physically in good health a requirement for nursing. She became a nurse through the efforts of the nuns to have her accepted for this, at the time, much sought after career.
As a married man with children in the 1950/1960s, I know secondary school fees were payable each term and many children could not attend because of this cost, plus the cost of books and uniforms. A fee was payable to enter nursing, and a costly list of items had to be purchased before starting. All these expenses would have been borne by the nuns. Would these actions not cast doubt on allegations of cruelty? None of this was dealt with in the film.
The Kybe, Skerries, Co Dublin.
However, a controversy hash opened up in the media, and consequently in the public's perception, as to the veracity of statements made and events portrayed in the film. Given the horrific nature of so much of its content, particularly as they related to events in Goldenbridge orphanage during the period of the film's concern (from the late 1950s'-to the early 1960s) this may be, to an extent, understandable.
But I feel the matter has now got totally out of focus, with so much doubt being generated. One letter writer even questioned whether the improbable events (if they happened) could have been the erroneous perceptions of a child's mind or distorted due to other problems..." As producer and director of Dear Daughter I have no, option but to enter the fray.
Firstly, let me state that the overall fine work of the Mercy Sisters since their foundation has never been in doubt. Secondly, that I and all the women who worked with me on the film are delighted that some people did not suffer as children under the care of the sisters, and perhaps in particular under Sister Xavieria in Saint Kyran's orphanage in Rathdrum.
Sadly, however, a number of stories of cruelty in that institution are on public record Many of the children under care in Goldenbridge did suffer, horribly of that I have absolutely no doubt. Are the critics of the programme seriously suggesting that Christine Buckley and others who participated in the film suffer from memory distortion'? I can assure you that Ms Buckley's mind and memory, and that of her colleagues, are far from distorted.
Much has also been written about the harsh social conditions of the time the acceptance of discipline, the lack of funds and so on. But discipline is one thing cruelty to babies and children in care is another. A hug never cost a penny, yet not one former inmate of Goldenbridge, so far as I know, remembers ever receiving one.
Our film has also been criticised because of basic misapprehensions.
It was never intended to be an examination of the social aspects of child care during that period. What it is the story of Christine Buckley's search for her parents that is explicitly stated in the first line of the film.
"I wanted to find my parents and kill them for every ounce of pain that I suffered because of what they did. I wanted to find my Dad and say, see what I'm suffering, because of you and the likes of you.
That pain and suffering was inflicted in Goldenbridge Orphanage, not only on Christine, but on hundreds of other unfortunate children they were betrayed by their parents, betrayed by the State, betrayed by those in whose care they were placed.
But these people are now being betrayed once again by a seeming inability or unwillingness to believe and accept that these things happened.
All the women involved in Dear Daughter have been extremely brave in opening up their memories for me. They were prepared to interrupt the long healing process in the hope that events they had been relating and crying over in private for years would at last be believed.
They now find some reporters, researchers and letter writers making allegations of distorted memory without any supporting evidence.
I could have told a more horrific story than Dear Daughter. So many of the phone calls received since transmission by myself and Christine Buckley related even more terrible events, not only from former - Goldenbridge children but from other orphanages throughout the country.
Are they, and the many others whose accounts of those days have been eagerly featured in the press, also under suspicion, and if so to what end? The fact that some did not suffer is not to cast doubt on the stories of those who did.
I have also been accused of not presenting the side of the story of the Sisters of Mercy. At our first meeting, however, I requested permission from Sister Helena O'Donoghue, Regional Provincial of the Order, to be allowed to interview Sister Xavieria and the other members of the Order on film, to ascertain their side of the story, but this was refused. In fact, it was at Sister O'Donoghue's insistence, that we made no reference whatsoever by name to Sister Xavieria in the film.
There is the usual Irish danger that events exposed by Dear Daughter may become a nine day wonder. The silencing strategy, perpetrated in the past to prevent abused children from being listened to, now appears to be repeating itself.
Neither I, nor any former inmates of Goldenbridge of my acquaintance, wish any grief to the present Sisters of Mercy. They are unfortunately having to take responsibility for the deeds of a small number of individual nuns in the past.
But the Mercy Order has never, to my knowledge, refuted any of the claims made either in the film, or subsequently. In fact, Sister O'Donoghue on behalf of her Order has apologised publicly for the events portrayed in the film.
The order also set up a help line and it has offered counselling.
After Christine first told her story on the The Gay Byrne Show over, three years ago, Sister O'Donoghue spoke of setting up counselling but to my knowledge, little, if anything, was done. Why not? Was the Order hoping that Christine would fade into limbo? Had it acted positively, Dear Daughter might never have been made.
At my first meeting with Sister O'Donoghue I told her the events that my research over two years had revealed. She told me the Sisters were instigating an internal inquiry. Subsequently in her presence I told a senior Mid western Health Board official, introduced as heading this inquiry, all I then knew.
What, if anything, has happened to this inquiry? What sort of inquiry is it that did not come near any of the women who contributed to the film?
Some of the public reaction to the film is also in marked contrast to the aftermath of the Channel 4 documentary The Dying Rooms shown recently on RTE.
In that case, the Government was quick enough to carpet the Chinese Ambassador. Nobody doubted the ghastly events it showed. But is the suffering inflicted on Irish children any less important?
Instead of casting suspicion yet again on those who have already suffered, I urge that a Government appointed public inquiry be established immediately to take evidence and report on the whole situation of past events in orphanages during a defined period.
Given that the State was no less guilty, an independent fund should also be established with substantial contributions both from the State and the Sisters of Mercy to reimburse people for any counselling they have received and to pay for whatever treatment may be necessary in the future. Only if this is done and the present damaging denials cease, will the healing process be allowed to begin.
Having seen the film and read a number of articles on the subject I couldn't agree more, particularly after other orphans, now adults, who under Sr Xavieria, spoke out praising her kindness.
In fairness to the nuns I think the journalists should have examined the allegations more critically, and considered whether the improbable events (if they happened) could have been magnified by the erroneous perceptions of a child's mind, or distorted due to other problems. Instead they opted for instant condemnation.
Neither the film, the journalists, nor Christine herself gave any credit to the nuns for educating her to Leaving Cert standard, or for arranging a career for her in the nursing profession, which she could not have done on her own in those days due to her parental background and lack of money. Meanwhile, her father, free of his encumbrance, was living presumably in comfort abroad.
Some journalists in their articles also alleged cruelty in the orphanages in the 1930s and 1940s, probably before most of them were born.
I was honorary treasurer of a fund raising committee which the then Sister in charge of the Goldenbridge Industrial School, (orphanage) assembled in the early 1940s. The funds were required to carry out improvements for the benefit of the orphans. I have to say this nun showed great concern for those children, and the orphans I saw and spoke to there appeared happy and in no way fearful of the nuns - quite the opposite in fact.
To the present day religious who are dedicating their lives to aiding alcoholics, drug addicts, pregnant unmarried girls, and housing homeless children I would say beware! In 50 years time it may be your turn to be unfairly vilified on TV, and pilloried in the press.
Last month's drama documentary, Dear Daughter, caused more controversy than anything RTE has broadcast in years. The story of Christine Buckley's childhood in the Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin and of Sister Xavieria, the Sisters of Mercy nun in charge, was a chronicle of violence and abuse.
There was something about this film and its timing that ensured special treatment by the media. It received wide, uncritical preview coverage. Few questions were asked and little journalistic scepticism shown.
The Sunday Tribune allocated over two pages to the film, with photographs of Ms Buckley (50) now and as a child. It told the now familiar story of a "regime of terror" and "savage brutality".
The Star ran a story under the heading "Sisters of no mercy". It said the "true-life story" was already being called the "dying rooms - Irish style".
The Irish Times headed its preview piece, "Forgotten babies". The Irish Independent ran "The scandal of orphan 89", a reference to Ms Buckley's number in the orphanage.
The following Thursday the film was transmitted by RTE. It was a drama documentary. It had actors, reconstructions and all the techniques of a dramatic telling of a horrific story.
It was not a documentary as a number of newspapers had described it. It was more in the style of 50,000 Secret Journeys, the documentary RTE refused to screen in March, 1994, because there was no challenge to the view offered in that programme about abortion. It was not journalism and never claimed it was.
For the media it was a story of goodies and baddies, with no room for subtleties. The apology from the Mercy Sisters was considered to be sufficient comment from the nuns. The media were content to repeat the allegations in the film and concern themselves with finding more such horror stories.
The nuns had to ask to go on air. Sister Helena Donoghue, the spokeswoman for the Mercy Sisters requested that she be allowed to take part in a Kenny Live programme.
A number of women tried to interest the media in their different accounts of life in Goldenbridge. One reporter is alleged to have said to women who phoned that they had to be "pets" and he was not interested in their story. Within days, the story included other orphanages run by the same order of nuns, especially St Kyran's in Rathdrum, Co Wicklow.
The Star set the agenda. "Sister Philomena was a beast who laughed while she was beating us ran a page one headline about life in, Rathdrum. One week after the screening of Dear Daughter, the newspaper led with this account of Sister Philomena, who was described as alcoholic and a "willing partner in crime of Sister Mary Xavier". She was a "fanatical second in command". Sister Philomena is deceased. The Star was clear who was to blame, pointing out that "parents were powerless to stop abuse".
It took 1O days before a different story emerged about life in Goldenbridge and St Kyran's. Three weeks after the programme was broadcast, Pal Kenny interviewed a woman who spoke of Sister Xavieria's kindness.
The story of Goldenbridge is not new. Gay Byrne interviewed Ms Buckley in 1993, when she told the same story on his radio show. There was no media follow-up or reaction, though Louis Lentin heard it and thought it might make a film.
However, in 1996 the media have become used to telling the story of the secret and dark history of the Catholic Church, accustomed to relaying news of clerical abuse.
The story was also dramatic, whose telling by a good film-maker heightened those emotional moments, in the manner of the good drama documentary. It was told in the spirit of that pioneer documentary film-maker, Robert Flaherty, who said the "documentary is a poetic treatment of reality".
Ms Buckley's story was told in a dramatic way. Journalists usually approach such stories differently, testing allegations. In this case, that was not done. The drama, the reconstructions, the use of actors and the memories of Ms Buckley were never challenged, no alternative explored.
Louis Lentin used his film-making skills to tell a simple story of one woman's experience. The media should have investigated the complexities, and examined the content, but by and large they did not do that. They did not even follow up Ms Buckley's view that parents who dumped their babies in places like Goldenbridge were to blame.
It was not as if contrary views were hard to find. From the beginning other voices tried to be heard, but were never given an airing. Today there are those who disagree with Ms Buckley, and without any disrespect to her or her memories, have a different story. They were available three weeks ago, but few in the media were interested in listening.