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Reviving a Witch Hunt For Our Times

The Irish Times - Saturday, October 18, 2003
by Patsy McGarry

False allegations of child sex abuse and a frenzied public reaction are forcing innocent people into anonymity, argues Patsy McGarry 

Fifty years ago this year Arthur Miller wrote his play The Crucible  with its theme of what can happen to a community when it surrenders to hysteria. It was based on the witchcraft trials which took place in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692 when innocent people were executed on the basis of allegations that they were witches or wizards in league with the Devil.

Miller wrote the play against an atmosphere generated in the early 1950s by hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee in Washington before which many - some on the flimsiest of evidence - were accused, and sometimes convicted, of being Communists.

It was tantamount at the time - as the Cold War got into its stride - to being accused of treason. An allegation alone was enough to finish off many promising careers, not least in Hollywood.

In 1958 Miller was fined $500 by the Committee and received a suspended jail sentence of one month. It was overturned later "with only the briefest technical comment" he recalled in his 1987 autobiography, Timebends: A Life. 

It is becoming difficult in Ireland these days not to wonder whether we are succumbing to a similar hysteria where the issue of child sex abuse is concerned. Even to suggest such a thing is to invite upon your head the opprobrium of the people, such is the unquestioned and unquestionable nature of the subject.

But innocent people are being destroyed in Ireland today as this society exorcises itself of the guilt that has followed our recognition of our indifference to the fate and suffering of children placed in residential institutions in decades past.

The good name of some is being taken away. They are, in their innocence, reduced to anonymity, stained forever by allegations of a crime whose name many of them simply cannot speak.

For such reason the Christian Brothers challenged procedures of the Laffoy Commisson in the Courts. They were right to do so, even if yesterday they failed. They may try again.

The innocent accused are further victims of the child sex abuse scandal which has overshadowed our society for almost a decade. But unlike the direct victims of that abuse, these innocent people have no recourse to redress of any sort. They remain forever "the accused", though no charges have been brought against them. They are in a limbo.

Recently two such men, former Christian Brothers, spoke to The Irish Times  on the basis of anonymity. "Peter" and "Patrick"'s stories were reported in this newspaper last Saturday. One response this week was an anonymous card with printed lettering. It read: "more than two Patsy. I am another."

What tragedy lies there?

But let us begin with "Joe", a former school caretaker in the midlands. He was awarded €40,768 recently by the Employment Appeals Tribunal which found he had been unfairly dismissed from his job.

On April 30th last year Joe was found by the board of management of the primary school where he worked to have "committed serious misconduct during the course of his employment, sufficient to justify his immediate dismissal".

It followed complaints, as recounted in the Employment Appeals Tribunal judgment and presented to the school's board of management on April 24th last year, that: "when requested by two children about the location of a shoe, you were unsure as to its whereabouts"; "you entered the Halla Mór and went through it on two occasions while a resuscitation class was in progress. This was totally out of line", and that; "on leaving the Halla Mór you apparently stood outside the door keeping it slightly open, and whispered to one of the pupils 'hello sweetie, hello'."

Joe had been made permanent in the post in June 2001. The previous April a parent had complained directly to Joe that he was "after" her daughter. He denied this and reported the incident to the school principal who advised him be careful. In April of last year two teachers at the school expressed concerns about his behaviour. Statements were taken from children, but Joe was not made aware of these or the children concerned. Nor were the children interviewed by the school's board of management.

The chairman of the board concluded that Joe did not adequately explain himself and "felt there was no reason to disbelieve the children". The board agreed Joe should be dismissed.

Presenting his case to the Employment Appeals Tribunal Joe said, about the April 2001 "incident", that when he met the little girl concerned on the school corridor, "she would turn around and walk away". This had occurred "three or four times".

As regards the Halla Mór complaints, he explained he had been asked by the principal to take a computer from one classroom to another which meant he walked up the side of the Halla Mór. And where the "shoe in the press" was concerned he was in the Halla Mór when he saw it and put it in a press. And he had never used the words "hello sweetie, hello" in his life.

In its conclusions the Tribunal found the shoe incident "insignificant". They found Joe was in the Halla Mór because he was complying with a direction of the school principal, and found they had no reason to disbelieve him when he said he had never used the words "hello sweetie, hello" in his life. In fact the tribunal found him "a credible witness".

It also queried "the style in which (the children's) statements were composed, including the use of apparent adult language". It noted that two other adults familiar with the alleged incidents gave no evidence to the Tribunal and wondered why no effort was made to check with the "lunch lady", who allegedly witnessed the most serious incident.

The tribunal found that the allegations against Joe hadn't been supported. It found with "regard to the major implications of a dismissal based on allegations of the kind in this case, and the great difficulty he will have in finding new employment." It continued that "for these reasons his loss will be quite large, and it must be met by a large award." A "just and equitable award having regard to all the circumstances" they felt was €40,768. Joe had the job for just a year.

In that area of the Midlands he will be forever smeared, regardless of that judgment of the Employment Appeals Tribunal. The reason is simple.

As the innocent but executed John Proctor asked in The Crucible: "is the accuser always holy now? Were they born this morning as clean as God's fingers? I'll tell you what's walking Salem - vengeance is walking Salem. We are what we always were in Salem, but now the little children are jangling the keys of the kingdom, and common vengeance writes the law!"

Joe is not the only innocent to bear the outrageous stigma of false allegation in this context. Peter and Patrick are just two more. Former Christian Brothers, they had, respectively, 15 and 22 men make allegations against them from the same residential institution, many of them by the same men making allegations against both.

Though both had worked in other residential institutions the allegations against them all came from the same one, which in itself is odd as paedophilia is not area or time specific. They were crudely interrogatedby gardaí. Patrick was told: "(Father) Brendan Smyth is only trotting after you." His arrest and name were leaked to the media and he was taken from his home in spectacular fashion before family and neighbours, though he had agreed beforehand to go to the Garda station himself to answer questions.

Neither was charged with anything.

Peter was reinstated in his job after two years. Patrick awaits reinstatement pending a decision from the DPP who, two years ago, sought further details on two of the allegations against him while dismissing the other 20. Patrick has been on paid leave from his job since 1999.

Peter was at a jubilee celebration recently for a Christian Brother. There were 18 Brothers there. Of those, 11 had been arrested and interrogated by the gardai. Charges were brought against none.

Neither Joe, nor Peter, nor Patrick will go public to proclaim their innocence. They know there will always be those of the "no-smoke-without-fire" mentality who, once they hear the allegations, will arrive at a "guilty" conclusion.

There is something deeply disturbing, inhuman, and unjust about all of this. While not denying that abuse took place in the residential institutions, as elsewhere, we should not conclude that all religious in such institutions were guilty of same. QED. The evidence is overwhelmingly otherwise.

"These are new times sir. There is a misty plot afoot so subtle we should be criminal to cling to old respects and ancient friendships. I have seen too many frightful proofs in court - the Devil is alive in Salem, and we dare not quail to follow wherever the accusing finger points!" says the Rev Hale at an early stage in The Crucible.

We must watch more assiduously where that "accusing finger" points here in Ireland. It seems clear already that by not doing so we have already added to the stock of victims of this appalling scandal. We must tread softly where the accused are concerned too. We must remember, believe, and truly practise the belief that they too are innocent until proven guilty.

And we should support the Christian Brothers in their legal efforts to ensure that due process is adhered to where the good name of their elderly, infirm, and deceased brethern is concerned. For why should any good person's name or memory be willy-nilly traduced by falsity to satisfy the bloodlust of a vengeance that is walking Salem?