Michael Woods: negotiated abysmal deal for the taxpayer
Photograph: Frank Miller
OPINION: The deal making religious orders liable for a mere fraction of the cost of the abuse of children in their care underlines the vulnerability of a State owning so little of its vital social infrastructure, writes MARY RAFTERY
DID YOU know that you and I, as taxpayers, have actually paid to keep secret the identities of the abusers referred to in the Ryan commission report? That’s in addition, of course, to footing over 90 per cent of the estimated €1.3 billion cost to compensate victims of abuse through the Residential Institutions Redress Board.
It is one of the many bitter ironies to emerge during the past decade of inquiry into the abuse of children in over 100 institutions in this country.
When protecting their own (usually financial) interests, the religious orders displayed a zeal and even ferocity notably absent from their attempts down the years to control the criminal battery, assault and rape perpetrated by their member Brothers, priests and nuns against small children.
The trick of making us pay to maintain the confidentiality of known child abusers was a particularly good wheeze. It unfolded as follows: the Christian Brothers took the child abuse commission to court, seeking that it be prohibited from naming any Brothers it found responsible for abuse. Many were dead or infirm, it was argued, and could no longer defend themselves.
Further, the point was made that this might also mean a prohibition on naming the institutions concerned, as it could lead to discovery of the identities of the relevant perpetrators.
While the Brothers did not win their High Court case, they did force more stringent investigative procedures on to the commission. They then proceeded to lodge an appeal to the Supreme Court, and only dropped their case having extracted from the commission a commitment that it would itself take the decision not to name anyone responsible for abuse. As Justice Seán Ryan stated in 2004, it would have been fatal to the commission had it also been precluded from naming specific institutions.
And who paid for all this legal posturing which resulted in such secrecy and protection for abusers? Not the Christian Brothers. They won their costs in court, and the entire bill was born by the child abuse commission – which of course means you and I, the taxpayers.
When it comes to the cost of the redress scheme for abuse victims, it is now painfully obvious that we have been the victims of an enormous con. At the time of the notorious Church-State deal, capping the contribution of the religious orders at €128 million (and only a fraction of that in hard cash), the religious orders claimed there had been no cover-up of abuse and no protection of abusers. We now discover from the Ryan report that this was a lie, and that several religious orders not only knew all about the abusers in their midst but concealed that knowledge from the rest of us.
Nonetheless, we heard repeated statements from government ministers (most notably Bertie Ahern and Charlie McCreevy) about the good work of the religious congregations, about how we should be grateful to them and how it would be wrong to bankrupt them. This in spite of the fact that the religious orders were never asked by the State for their accounts, and had been busily squirreling away huge sums through the sale of swathes of their valuable land banks at the height of the property boom.
This appalling deal, worth hundreds of millions to the orders who shielded (and continue to protect) child abusers, was finalised in such a way as to hide it as much as possible from public scrutiny.
The main architect of the deal was minister for education Michael Woods and, wouldn’t you know it, he and his cute cabinet colleague rubber stamped it on June 5th, 2002 – the very last day of the outgoing Fianna Fáil/PD coalition government. Ministers paid it scant heed – their attention, like the rest of the country’s – was firmly fixed on the Ireland v Germany World Cup match. They adjourned early that day to get to the nearest television set.
It subsequently emerged that both Department of Finance officials and the attorney general’s office were unhappy with how the deal had come to pass. Both had been excluded from much of the negotiation, which, unusually, was handled by Woods and his secretary general John Dennehy alone.
It was generally felt by State officials that a 50/50 split of the redress cost between the State and the religious orders was the fairest option. An equal sharing of the responsibility for the abuse of so many thousands of children was considered entirely appropriate.
The religious orders, however, were not biting. Take it or leave it, they said – not a penny more than €128 million. In return, they were getting a full indemnity from the State for all future court cases taken against them by those who had suffered at their hands.
Only yesterday, Minister for Children Barry Andrews stated twice on RTÉ Radio One’s News At One that the government had no power to compel religious orders to contribute anything at all to the redress fund. The deal was the best the State could do at the time.
This is at best a highly disingenuous view of the past. Compulsion never arose. It was a matter of a simple trade – the State had something to sell, namely a valuable indemnity, and the religious orders were keen to buy. That the latter managed to secure full State protection through the indemnity at such a knockdown price is to the eternal shame of every single member of that cabinet in 2002.
There was speculation at the time that there were other issues informing what was so clearly such an abysmal deal for the taxpayer. In particular, there had been anxiety around the issue of ownership of a number of key hospitals in the country – notably St Vincent’s, belonging to the Sisters of Charity, and the Mater, belonging to the Sisters of Mercy.
Health administrators had received a nasty shock some years previously when the Medical Missionaries of Mary had hinted that they might sell the Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda to a private consortium. As a key hospital for the northeast, this would have had a disastrous impact on the public health service for the region. It was with relief that the nuns eventually sold to the local health board, ensuring that the hospital was transferred into public hands.
The fear that the Sisters of Mercy and Charity – both implicated in the running of seriously abusive institutions for children – might decide to raise funds through the sale to private interests of their major Dublin hospitals was thought likely to have informed some of the thinking behind the notorious deal.
What this underlines is the vulnerability of a State which owns and controls so little of its vital social infrastructure. For as long as several of our key hospitals, and the majority of our schools, remain in the possession of religious orders, we will continue to be vulnerable to the naked self-interest of nuns, priests and Brothers who have now been so thoroughly discredited by the Ryan report.