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Mixed Feelings At Child Abuse Hearing

Hope, anger and despair pervaded the atmosphere as Judge Laffoy read the opening statement at the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse last week

Sunday Tribune, 2 July 2000 by Susan McKay

THE man beside me listened intently as High Court Judge Mary Laffoy read her statement. She said that as well as investigating, the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse hoped "its hearing process might also be a source of healing". The man wrote on his notebook, "Too late to help (for most)".

It is a view shared by many whose sufferings in institutions are to be investigated.

Others, however, are hopeful."We have been unbelieved for so long, " said one woman.

"Finally, they are going to listen." What has to be recognised is the depth of the pain, the force of the anger.

"I was 18 years in institutions. I was made a criminal at six months old. I was incarcerated in hell holes. All through my childhood I had no say. Now this commission is refusing me my voice all over again, " said Gerry Kelly of the Alliance for Healing of Industrial School Abuse.

This, the first sitting of the commission, was a public hearing, in the incongruous surroundings of a hotel ballroom, complete with chandeliers and mirrors. It was an emotional occasion. People had made long journeys.

Some were shocked to find themselves sitting side by side with people known to them as sadistic child abusers. Several people in the crowd of 400 or more appeared to have panic attacks because of this. One man was escorted out, shaking and crying, his face ashen, after he came face to face with a particular priest.

This was, as Laffoy put it, a reading of the commission's "rule book". She said while this was a formal occasion, "I want to assure you that when we hear from you over the next two years, it will be much less formal". She referred to the role of States of Fear , the RTE television documentary series, which led to the Taoiseach's acknowledgement that abuse had ruined many childhoods.

She quoted his apology, "for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue". The commission, and legislation, had followed.

It will, Laffoy stressed, be independent. It will have powers and privileges similar to those conferred on tribunals and Dáil committees. There will be two committees, one confidential, the other investigative. The former will allow survivors of abuse to tell their story in private, and its findings will be general.

At the latter, witnesses will give evidence under oath, and can be compelled to attend. It can demand discovery of documents. A witness, other than a victim of abuse, will not be entitled to refuse to answer a question on the grounds that the answer might incriminate him or her. If the committee is satisfied that abuse of children happened there, it can name an institution, and it can also name individual abusers and managers.

Laffoy emphasised that media reports which suggested that taking part in the commission would debar people from taking civil or criminal actions in the future, were wrong. However, incriminating statements made at the commission could not be relied upon in the courts.

"The case has to be made otherwise than by statements to the commission, " she said.

When Laffoy said the state would provide counselling, there were several shouts of, "it's not there" and "where is it, judge?" Laffoy said it would be available in September, when the commission starts its hearings. Then the judge stated that, in the opinion of the commission, "the interest of all survivors of abuse might best be met by having a single team of barristers instructed by a coordinating solicitor". Again, there were shouts of, "no way, judge". One woman was concerned, "who are these barristers working for? For us? For the commission? For the nuns?" Some found the legalistic language hard to understand.

Sheila Doyle is a survivor of Goldenbridge, run by the Sisters of Mercy. "I hope they aren't trying to pawn us off again, " she said.

Another of the women, Valerie, was moved from institution to institution. "I've had no life. I'm only out since 1987.

They are going to get away with it, " she said. "I feel like going out and throwing myself under a car." Her friends moved around her in a comforting circle.

There are many groups, and many divisions. Christine Buckley, about whom Louis Lentin made the TV documentary Dear Daughter in 1996, is one of the founders of the Aisling Centre, set up with public funding earlier this year to provide counselling and education for survivors. She welcomed the commission and said it would help to bring about healing. She is in favour of the shared team of lawyers. "It doesn't stop anyone briefing their own solicitor to go to the commission panel, " she said.

"Survivors of abuse have a legacy of hurt. A lot of our clients have spent time in prison. Some are homeless.

People have committed suicide.

There is a shocking rate of broken marriages and depression.

We find it hard to trust people." Buckley said Laffoy should "lift the statute of limitations for victims of physical abuse and then compensation should be organised." She said it would be a "national tragedy" if people did not give the commission a chance.

For others, the issue of trust is an argument against the shared team of lawyers. "It's a farce, " said Gerry Kelly. He said he would boycott the proceedings. "I have my own lawyers who I know and trust.

Why should I have to let them go and put myself in the hands of strangers? I've had enough of that in my life." James McGuill is a Dundalk lawyer representing a number of survivors. He said it was important to survivors that they could "hire and fire" their lawyers. "Those responsible for abuse will have the representation they choose, " he said. He emphasised the need to scrutinise the role of the Department of Education, which had responsibility for many of the institutions.

A spokesman for the group representing the victims of the abusive Christian Brother Donal Dunne, who is currently in prison for child abuse, said the department was central to the scandal of institutional abuse. "The commission isn't strong enough. It won't get to the truth, " he said. He had been trying to have Dunne investigated since 1982. Dunne was finally caught in 1995, after four decades of abuse. The spokesman said a series of separate investigations into particular institutions and individuals was needed.

Around 70,000 people passed through institutional "care" in this country since the 1940s.

Unknown numbers have hard stories to tell. Some victims don't recognise themselves as such. Buckley said she had been contacted by several women who felt guilty because they were "pets" of nuns who were sadistic to others. "One woman said she woke in terror every morning wondering if this would be the day she would be rejected." One man said he hadn't decided if he'd use the commission or not. "I was abused, but I've no big story to tell, " he said.

"I could have had a better life.

At the age of three I was declared destitute. That word haunts me. I'm 55 now and I'm still suffering. All I know is, I was let down by the state."

July 2, 2000