Victims Welcome Sisters of Mercy Apology
Irish Independent, May 06 2004 by David Quinn, Religious Correspondent
The Mercy Sisters yesterday made what they called an "unconditional" apology to abuse victims and have directly appealed to victims to forgive them for any "physical and emotional trauma" they suffered while in their care.
The historic apology, which was issued suddenly and unexpectedly, was prompted by complaints from victim groups that an earlier apology, issued in 1996, was conditional and appeared to cast doubt on whether abuses had actually occurred in orphanages and industrial schools.
Crucially Christine Buckley, the woman who first brought to public attention abuses that occurred in Mercy Sister-run institutions with the 1996 drama-documentary 'Dear Daughter', called the apology "a very brave and positive step towards healing".
Ms Buckley, who heads the Aislinn Centre that supports victims of abuse, said her response to the Sister of Mercy statement was "one of disbelief".
"It is a step towards healing. This vindicates us. Up to now we have not been believed. This is unconditional for the first time ever." She said that she received "many calls" from Aislinn members yesterday and they were "overjoyed".
One woman had described it "as the best day of her life", according to Ms Buckley.
John Kelly, of Survivors of Child Abuse, said the statement was "an encouraging sign, a positive sign".
However, both Mr Kelly and Ms Buckley said it was crucial that the Mercy Sisters, Ireland's largest religious order with 3,000 members, followed up their apology with action.
Ms Buckley said there was a need to meet with the congregation to discuss the Laffoy/Ryan Commission.
Mr Kelly went further saying that the Mercy Sisters needed to "join victims in calling on the State to revoke the criminal status of children sent into the institutions, hand over our records to us and end the uniform adversarial approach that is taken against every complaint before the Laffoy/Ryan Commission".
Reading out the statement on behalf of her congregation yesterday, the head of the Mercy Sisters, Sr Breege O'Neill, pleaded with victims to forgive them for any abuses they had suffered.
Responding to questions afterwards, she said she accepted that all her fellow sisters could do was to ask for forgiveness and it was up to the victims to give it.
Sr O'Neill said she believed that the previous apology issued by the order in 1996 was sincere, but she accepted that many victims did not interpret it as such.
She stated that the latest apology was intended to clear up any misunderstanding on this point among victim groups.
She also tried to explain the 'adversarial' approach being taken by religious orders at the Laffoy/Ryan Commission, which is investigating allegations of abuse, insisting that the order was "cooperating fully" with the body.
She added: "If testing evidence is adversarial, then we have to accept that."
In addition, Sr O'Neill defended the amount of money the Mercy Sisters are paying to the Residential Institutions Redress Board set up to compensate abuse victims describing it as "very generous".
She would not say how much the Mercy Sisters are contributing to the scheme.
On the question of false allegations, Sr O'Neill said she was "glad the issue is now in the public domain, and glad that the Laffoy/Ryan Commission will be able to make a judgment on this. But we don't want to comment any further today".
Yesterday's statement came as a result of a long process of consultation between the Mercy Sisters' leadership team and members of the congregation, most of whom are now in their late 60s.
The congregation has invited those who were resident in their institutions to contact them at free phone 1800 321 123 between May 9 and June 9 on each Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday between 5pm and 8pm.
They can also be written to at 13/14 Moyle Park, Clondalkin, Dublin 22, or e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- David Quinn Religious Correspondent
'Brave and Positive Step Towards Healing'
Irish Independent, May 06 2004 by David Quinn
One reason was surely the difficult subject matter they were there to discuss. A second reason, presumably, was that these ladies would never have imagined themselves having to appear before a phalanx of cameras and reporters when they first entered their Order all those years ago. Such are the vagaries of life.
Perhaps the chief reason however was that they had no idea how victims would react to their statement. Would they welcome it, or reject it, or something in between?
Happily for them, they have broadly welcomed it. The words of Christine Buckley of the Aislinn Centre, a group supporting abuse victims, will especially have been music to their ears.
She said the apology was a "very brave and positive step towards healing", and that victims who had contacted her through the day were "overjoyed."
One woman described it as "the best day of my life." The reason Christine Buckley's reaction is so important is that she was the person who first brought to light the abuses that took place in Mercy Sister-run institutions.
Eight years ago RTE broadcast Dear Daughter, a drama/documentary focussing on Christine and a number of her fellow residents and their account of what befell them while resident in Goldenbridge orphanage.
One nun alleged to have inflicted abuse was Sr Xavieria who ran the institution in Buckley's day. Sr Xavieria, who denied the allegations of serious abuse, had her defenders, but she was only one of a number of nuns who were alleged to have emotionally or physically abused those in their care.
For her part, Christine Buckley became the symbol of all those abused by nuns down the years and so her reaction to yesterday's statement was absolutely crucial. Had she rejected it, it would have devastated the Mercy Sisters. That she has accepted it may now provide a way forward for both the Congregation and the victims.
The latest apology by the Sisters was really a bolt from the blue. Most other statements of this sort by Church organisations had usually come as a result of intense public and media pressure. This one emerged following a long period of consultation within the Order.
The leadership team of the Mercy Sisters, led by Sr Breege O'Neill, were well aware that their previous apology, issued in 1996, had not been favourably received by victim groups. Although it did not deny that abuses had taken place, and both apologised and sought forgiveness from the victims, just as this one did, it also offered a partial defence of the record of the Mercy Sisters making the apology seem equivocal and conditional to some.
That is why yesterday's apology was issued. It was aimed at clearing up any such misunderstanding and that is how it has been received in the main.
What now? First of all, victims will be anxious to discover what will happen when they take up the invitation of the Congregation to contact them. Will a given victim be put in direct, face-to-face contact with her abuser, for example?
To be fair here we must say alleged or otherwise because some nuns strongly deny that they ever abused anyone. Be that as it may, should such face-to-face meetings take place, will victims derive some satisfaction from them?
Will Christine Buckley meet Sr Xavieria, now called Sr Maura? If so, what will the outcome to this be? Also, what will happen with regard to the Investigative Committee of the Ryan/Laffoy Commission? Both Christine Buckley and John Kelly of Survivors of Child Abuse (SOCA) have stressed the importance of this matter.
A continual complaint of victim groups is that the 18 Congregations that ran the country's residential institutions have taken an adversarial approach to them at the Commission, fighting every allegation every inch of the way.
This is a tough one. If a member of a given Order insists that he or she is innocent then the Order has little choice but to fight for that person's good name.
That is necessarily adversarial. On the other hand, does every allegation need to be tested to the utmost? Are there no priests, brothers or nuns willing to put their hands up and admit to the abuses they carried out?
If not, then the Orders will have no power to force them to do so. As citizens they have their civil rights and these are not nullified as a result of being a member of a Religious Order.
However, this is for the future. Yesterday was a good day for the Sisters of Mercy and those who suffered while in their care. As Christine Buckley put it, it was "a positive step towards healing."
- David Quinn