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The End of a Decade of Inquiry

Irish Times, May 16, 2009

The Child Abuse Commission will next week deliver its final report, but the greatest difficulty it has faced is the sheer scale of the abuse it was established to investigate, writes MARY RAFTERY 

A DECADE AFTER it was established, the Child Abuse Commission is at last to produce its final report next week. After so many years, and an estimated cost of more than €70 million, it has been one of the most secret and arguably the most controversial of the many tribunals of inquiry. The Commission’s initial presiding judge resigned in protest at the behaviour of one of the government departments under investigation. It has produced a few sensations in its time, but given that most of its hearings have been strictly in private, much is riding on its final report.

Thousands of victims of abuse look to it for ultimate vindication of the truth of the trauma they suffered as children. Equally, the religious orders that ran the schools and children’s institutions under inquiry hope that it will provide a balance by validating their own testimony of the good work they did for children who, they argue, would otherwise have been destitute.

The commission’s 2003 Interim Report provides a vivid reminder of what is at issue here. It summarised the testimony of more than 700 witnesses who had at that point given evidence to its confidential committee. Hundreds described “being beaten on every part of their body: the front and back of hands, wrists, legs, back, buttocks, head, face and feet. Some beatings were administered in public and witnesses reported that they were sometimes made to remove all their clothing for these public beatings.”

The commission listed weapons used, leather straps, together with “a variety of sticks and other instruments including ash plants, blackthorn sticks, brush handles, pointers, farm implements, drain rods, rubber tyres, fan belts, horse tackle, sliotars and hurling sticks”.

Sexual abuse is described as being commonly associated with physical violence and “ranged from detailed interrogation about sexual activity, inspection of genitalia, kissing, fondling of genitalia, masturbation of witness by abuser and vice versa, oral intercourse, rape and gang rape. Witnesses described their sexual abuse as sometimes a single event while for others the abuse lasted for their entire stay in the institution.”

The commission has also heard extensive testimony of severe emotional and psychological abuse, together with neglect and starvation. Its final conclusions next week will incorporate the evidence of roughly 2,500 people who suffered abuse in this country’s children’s institutions during most of the 20th century. It is expected that it will produce specific findings in respect of a number of named schools, hospitals and institutions in towns all over Ireland.

Amongst the religious orders under investigation are the Sisters of Mercy, responsible for the largest number of childrens institutions including Goldenbridge, and the Christian Brothers, the largest provider of institutions for older boys from 10 to 16 years including schools at Artane and Letterfrack.

Also investigated were the Oblates of Mary Immaculate who ran St Conleths reformatory school in Daingean, Co Offaly, the Rosminians, the Sisters of Charity, the Good Shepherd Sisters, the Presentation Sisters, the Presentation Brothers, the Poor Clare Sisters, the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge (who ran the industrial school and Magdalen Laundry at High Park in Dublin), the Daughters of Charity, and the Sisters of St Louis.

It is a process which has been fraught with controversy from the beginning. The system under inquiry was vast. It was run mainly by Catholic religious orders, with its funding coming entirely from the State, which also had an inspection and regulatory function. The commission is dealing with more than 100 institutions, from industrial schools to institutions for children with disabilities, as well as allegations of abuse in a number of ordinary day schools.

In addition to the scale of the task, a number of the key players proved distinctly unhelpful. The approach of the religious orders was described by the commission in 2003 as “adversarial and legalistic”. The Department of Education, whose duty it was to inspect and regulate the bulk of the institutions, was refusing at that time to cooperate fully with the commission’s demands for documents.

The relationship between the commission and the department worsened to the point where eventually the chairwoman, Justice Mary Laffoy, resigned in protest in late 2003. The process of inquiry had also become bogged down in a series of legal challenges by the religious orders, some of which threatened to fatally undermine its work.

TWO MAJOR PROBLEMS had emerged. The numbers applying to have their cases fully investigated, almost 2000, were simply too large. Most had made allegations of abuse against several individuals. The commission faced the appalling vista of presiding over literally thousands of mini-trials, each one taking potentially days or even weeks to conclude.

Justice Mary Laffoy was convinced that by increasing the commission’s resources, and through the creation of a number of divisions that could conduct hearings in parallel, it was still possible to have full hearings for all complainants and thus fulfil the government’s initial promise to victims.

Her resignation in the face of what she perceived as a lack of government cooperation effectively signalled a change in direction for the commission. The fear was that her replacement would turn out to be a rubber stamp for a government that had clearly become uncomfortable with the entire inquiry process.

This, however, was not what transpired. The appointment of Justice Seán Ryan as the new chairman was widely welcomed. He already had considerable expertise in the general area of child abuse, having been counsel to the Ferns Inquiry. He had also produced what is probably the most concise report on the background to institutional child abuse in Ireland, commissioned by the government in advance of setting up the Residential Institutions Redress Board (an entirely separate mechanism that deals with compensation for victims).

It was not long, though, before Justice Ryan ran into controversy. The same problems that had so dogged Mary Laffoy remained unchanged. Ryan’s solution was to select only a limited number of cases for full hearing, a compromise that was heavily criticised by victims’ support groups.

Nonetheless, this had the effect of unblocking the procedures and allowed the inquiry to proceed. Some 1,300 victims remained determined to stick with the investigative process, and Justice Ryan gave a commitment that each would at least be interviewed and provide a written statement that would be used to inform the ultimate findings.

The second major obstacle concerned the naming by the commission of individuals responsible for child abuse. This was part of the original remit, but was vehemently opposed by the religious orders, one of whom (the Christian Brothers) had initiated a court challenge on the issue.

Given the relatively small number of convictions for abuse within the institutions, victims argued that the commission provided the last real chance for them to secure some form of justice by at least exposing those responsible for causing them so much pain. The religious congregations for their part asserted that many of their members concerned were deceased or elderly and infirm, making it impossible for them to mount an effective defence.

In order to again unblock the process, Justice Ryan announced in 2004 that the commission would no longer be naming any individuals who had not already been convicted in court. The Christian Brothers immediately dropped their court challenge, and within days produced the most dramatic revelation of the commission public hearings – namely that they had unearthed evidence of 30 cases of proven sexual abuse of boys by Brothers since the 1930s.

Again, the decision to no longer name and shame has been severely criticised by victims, who feel with some justification that the commission has had its teeth pulled. Justice Sean Ryan, in his justification, argues that, given the rights of each alleged perpetrator to his or her good name, every allegation has the potential to become almost a full-blown trial, making the entire process unmanageable.

The commission was a response to the tidal wave of public anger in the wake of the States of Fear documentaries. It made promises to victims that it was unable to keep. The commission might no longer fulfil its original commitment to reflect fully the experiences of all who testified before it, or even to expose the perpetrators, but at least it has survived the myriad legal and political challenges that had threatened to drown it.

It will be judged by the standard set by Sean Ryan himself, when he said in 2004 that “the vision I have of this inquiry is that it can analyse and understand and explain what happened in the past; it can ascribe responsibility for that – admittedly at a level of some generality – but nevertheless specifying institutions and identifying failures on the part of official bodies where appropriate; it can comment on public and political and social attitudes and on events and policies that underlay those attitudes . . . it can ask how those events can be related to the present; and it can produce recommendations which will have an impact on the treatment of children in care in our modern times”.

Mary Raftery’s book Suffer The Little Children , co-written with Dr Eoin O’Sullivan, is published by New Island

From documentary to inquiry: how allegations of child abuse have come to light 


Dear Daughter, RTÉ documentary (produced by Louis Lentin) details abuse suffered by Christine Buckley and others at St Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge, Dublin.

April/May 1999 

States of Fear, an RTÉ documentary series (produced by Mary Raftery) on the abuse suffered by children throughout the entire childcare system during the 20th century (industrial and reformatory schools, residential institutions for children with physical and intellectual disabilities, and modern childcare facilities) is broadcast.

May 1999 

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern apologises on behalf of the State to victims of child abuse, and announces a Commission of Inquiry and a national counselling service.

May 1999 

Ms Justice Mary Laffoy is appointed to head the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse.

May 2000 

Legislation is passed to establish the commission on a statutory basis.

October 2000 

The government agrees to compensate victims of institutional child abuse. The Residential Institutions Redress Board is eventually established in December 2002.

July 2001 

Deadline for receipt of complaints of abuse to the commission. 3,149 people apply to testify before the Commission. Of these, 1,957 request a full hearing before the Investigation Committee. The remainder (1,192) opt for the non-adversarial Confidential Committee hearings.

December 2003 

Justice Mary Laffoy resigns as chairwoman of the commission. Sean Ryan SC is appointed a High Court judge and the new chairman. June 2004

Justice Sean Ryan announces that the commission no longer intends to name anyone responsible for abuse, other than those already convicted by the courts.

June 2004 

The Christian Brothers drops its legal actions against the commission.

July 2004 

The Christian Brothers testify at the commission public hearing that files only recently discovered in its Rome-based archive show evidence of 30 canonical trials of brothers on foot of proven incidents of child sexual abuse against boys in their care from the 1930s onwards.


Private hearings continue , together with a number of public hearings of testimony from religious orders.

May 2009 

The publication date for the commissions final report