Dearbhail McDonald, The Sunday Times, 2 November 2003
A FORMER resident of an orphanage run by the Mercy sisters in Dundalk has claimed that some former inmates plotted to make false allegations of abuse in order to get compensation. Kathleen McShane, 59, a retired nurse from Dundalk who attended St Joseph’s orphanage in the town between 1948 and 1960, is a member of Let Our Voices Emerge (Love), a support group set up to offer support to priests, brothers and nuns who are being falsely accused of abuse.
Love, comprising people with positive memories of their time in institutional care, says it has proof that former residents of church-run institutions have lied or exaggerated in order to get compensation from the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB). McShane is the first member of Love to publicise such claims.
She claims to have been verbally abused by former inmates of the orphanage after speaking out in defence of the Mercy nuns. She wants the government to establish a fraud hotline — similar to that run by the Irish Insurance Federation — to expose former residents who make fraudulent or exaggerated claims.
“I know that false claims are being made,” said McShane, who some years ago encountered a group of women who were discussing filing false abuse allegations. One former resident told her to “keep quiet and let the girls get their money”.
McShane said: “I would stare each one of them down and challenge them on their claims that they were abused. They simply weren’t. People in Dundalk are horrified by the way in which the nuns have been treated.”
McShane publicly defended the nuns on local and national radio following the broadcast of States of Fear, an RTE documentary which detailed the abuse suffered by children in industrial schools and orphanages.
She claims that past pupils of state-run schools “ran in their droves” to make claims to the RIRB, which is paying out compensation to those who were abused, following a media campaign inviting submissions.
Claimants get an average €80,000 each and do not have to go through the courts. The number of claims already exceeds the original government estimate and are still coming in at the rate of 50 a week.
The RIRB is understood to have referred a small number of of bogus claims to the gardai for investigation. One in six claims is being turned down by the board.
Survivors’ groups have reacted angrily to Love’s appeal for others to expose fraudulent claims. Soca has referred Love’s founder, Florence Horsman-Hogan, to the data protection commissioner. Colm O’Gorman, founder of One in Four, dismissed Love’s allegations as “dangerous and inappropriate”.
The board set up to compensate victims of abuse in Irish orphanages and industrial schools is getting 50 new applications a week. Already it has received 2,165 claims, more than the government’s original estimated total of 2,000, with two more years to go before the deadline. So we can expect 4,000 or more claims and, based on current trends, each will receive €80,000 in damages.
Is this huge payout justified? Is it likely that thousands of children were physically and sexually abused to such a serious extent in Irish institutions? Quite frankly, no. There is no denying that many children were abused, some very badly, and of course they deserve compensation. But it is also becoming apparent that some people are making exaggerated claims, and even entirely spurious ones, to get cash from the compensation board.
Organisations representing abuse victims are reacting in a very defensive way to this accusation. They shouldn’t. Exaggerated and fraudulent claims hurt genuine victims, who are less likely to be believed and who could get smaller payouts. It is in the interests of these organisations to expose bogus claims.
Ireland is beset with a compensation culture every bit as virulent as America’s. The notorious army deafness saga is proof of that. The Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB) should bear this in mind as the claims flood in. It appears to have referred some obviously fraudulent claims to the gardai already. Let’s hope that prosecutions follow. Nothing would give the fraudsters more pause for thought than seeing one of their number punished in court.
The Ireland of 1920-1980 was a very violent place. Children were beaten at home and in schools, as well as in orphanages. There was a consensus among adults, recognised by the state and the churches, that severe corporal punishment was the way to rule society. Those days are gone, but they provide a context for the compensation board’s work. Industrial school inmates who got six-of-the-best from a Christian Brother are not entitled, frankly, to €80,000 compensation. Everyone else had to hold out their hands too, and they’re not getting payouts.
Some abuse victims, and their representatives, are determined to take offence if anyone questions that abuse was prevalent in every orphanage and industrial school in the 60 years leading up to 1980. It was right, then, of the Christian Brothers to take a public stand on this issue last week. Victims’ groups challenged even their right to speak, but what they had to say was worth hearing.
While acknowledging that some abuse did take place, the Christian Brothers challenged the “now established perception that there was widespread, systematic sexual abuse in their residential institutions”. They pointed out that almost every brother who ever worked in a residential institution is now being accused of abuse. But almost all of these brothers worked in day schools too, and there is no hint of a complaint about their work there. The difference, of course, is that abuse in day schools has to be proved in the courts, where winning compensation is a lot more difficult than getting it from the RIRB.
There was abuse. It is right and proper that victims of that abuse are compensated. But there is also a bit of a scam going on, and it is time Irish people took a stand against it. After all, most of the compensation going to fraudulent claimants will come from taxpayers’ own pockets. The religious orders have put €128m in the kitty, but the rest of the cost must be borne by the state. If 4,000 claimants get €80,000 each, the bill will be €320m, with legal fees on top.
Part of the problem is that the government has written an extremely liberal definition of “abuse” into the legislation so that, for example, it includes an omission “which results in serious impairment of the development of the child”. A lot of adult behaviour towards children could be interpreted in this way.
So as the bill for compensation mounts, the government might like to rethink what exactly is “abuse” and how many former residents of state institutions really deserve five-figure payouts.