Email Us My Blog

Mary Raftery, Breda O'Brien and Harry Ferguson

The book "Suffer The Little Children" by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan was published in November 1999 as a follow up to "States of Fear" their thrre-part documentary series about Irelands Industrial Schools which was broadcast by RTE earlier that year. Teacher and journalist Breda O'Brien wrote a critical review of the book in the Sunday Business Post and was then subjected to strong personal attacks by columnists in the Irish Times. In January 2000, a sociologist from Cork University Dr Harry Ferguson, warned against "the apparent intolerance of alternative viewpoints and closure of debate", following publication of the book. Dr Ferguson wrote that the links between the industrial schools and child protection were being ignored. Cruelty and neglect were not even being mentioned, he said, and noted that the admission to the schools of "at least 80 per cent of children" was due to "lack of proper guardianship".

A Search for the Truth Does Not Question Reality of Child Abuse - Article by Breda O'Brien
The Irish Times - Monday, January 10, 2000

A friend of mine rang me after reading Medb Ruane's column of December 20th, 1999. "Congratulations," he said sardonically. "I see that the `paper of record' has not only allowed Fintan O'Toole to proclaim that you are in denial of the reality of child abuse, but that Medb Ruane has decided to imply that you and your family profited personally from child labour. Oh, yeah, I forgot that you are also responsible for the Statute of Limitations Bill. What the hell did you do to these people?"

What indeed? I have written often in the Sunday Business Post about the lack of an adequate forum where people misrepresented and damaged by the media could seek redress. Ironically, I now find myself in exactly that position.

The facts of the case are simple, but nowhere in the archives of the "paper of record" will you find these facts, except in this piece penned by the person who was misrepresented, and to some small extent in the Letters to the Editor.

Late on Friday, November 19th, the producer of the Today with Pat Kenny show asked me to read and review Suffer the Little Children by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan for the following Monday. I was adamant that I could not do so, but eventually she persuaded me.

On December 10th, 1999, Fintan O'Toole declares that "Breda O'Brien, a sincere and committed journalist, has made extravagant claims about her own alleged ability to uncover flawed research in Suffer the Little Children. (One shudders to think what an insincere and uncommitted journalist might be capable of.)" He says that I would prefer to think that child abuse did not happen, that I claimed survivors of child abuse were misremembering or imagining their experiences, that I then apologised for so implying.

He says the context in which I made my "attack" on Suffer the Little Children was the belief that this was all "some kind of awful nightmare that will go away when we all wake up." He claims my "attack" comes down to just two issues, and then goes on to list three.

His litany of inaccuracies, omissions, damaging allegations and mischievous half-truths illustrates perfectly the impossible position a person who has been misrepresented finds herself in.

It is exactly like answering "When did you stop beating your husband?" to have to say that you are not an apologist for child abuse; that you never claimed that people were misremembering their experiences; that you apologised for any hurt you might have inadvertently caused anyone already greatly damaged by an appalling system, and not for alleging that they dreamt up their experiences, as O'Toole claimed.

The most charitable interpretation is that Fintan O'Toole did not listen to the Pat Kenny programme (the date of which he got wrong in his column).

Otherwise he would have heard me say: "One of the things I don't take issue with, Pat, is the reality of the abuse. I absolutely accept that. I accept totally the fact that people were battered, beaten, sexually abused and in some instances, starved. I accept that completely."

It is completely disingenuous to suggest that my problems with the book (which incidentally I praised as well as criticised) revolve around two or three minor issues. My contention is that the frame within which child abuse is investigated is too narrow and therefore distorts the whole picture.

The biggest flaw is that the authors state baldly that there were not just a few "bad apples" in the religious orders. In other words, the religious orders were either all bad apples or mostly bad apples.

Since this belief frames all the research in the book, the authors feel it unnecessary to seek independent verification of any of the personal stories damaging to religious orders, even where such contrary evidence is available in the public domain. The fair option would have been to present the contrary evidence also, if only to challenge it. Readers could then make up their own minds.

The authors also fail to establish a context for what happened in industrial schools by referring to the high levels of physical punishment in all schools at the time, here and abroad.

I have repeatedly said it is shameful for religious orders, and the church as a whole, to address the scandalous abuse of children with a barrister on one arm and a public relations person on the other. But neither is it right to ignore or leave out evidence of much good work done by religious orders.

I choose to dispute issues which illustrate how the underlying beliefs of the authors distort the picture. For example, I highlighted the existence of a coroner's report on the death of a boy in Artane which the authors either failed to find or ignored.

In response to this, Mary Raftery alleged on radio that there were a number of deaths on staircases in Artane, while providing no documentary evidence whatsoever to back her claims. The eyewitness she relies upon is now on record with three totally different versions of the one incident. (See Letters page, December 22nd.) This raises legitimate questions which O'Toole conveniently ignores.

O'Toole claims that in the 1970s Sister Stan, along with Bishop Casey, in a private room berated the two civil servants from the Department of Justice and Education who sat on the Kennedy Committee. O'Toole claims sources who say this incident happened.

My sources who say it did not happen are; Sister Stan: Risteard MacConcradha, the representative of the Department of Justice; Antoin O'Gormain, the representative of the Department of Education; and Richard O'Donovan, of the Department of Education, secretary to the Kennedy Committee. Who are O'Toole's "sources"? Bishop Casey, perhaps? [See NOTE at end re Risteard MacConcradha]

As to whether Sister Stan knew of child sex abuse, Edward Murphy, the childcare worker who initially told her about physical abuse, confirmed in the letters page of this paper (December 22nd) that she could not have known because he himself did not know; and that she did all she possibly could in the circumstances. Why was this not an item in the news columns of this paper?

Why indeed?

To make Suffer the Little Children sacred canon, and therefore above all question, is to do an injustice to the quest for the whole truth. It is massive moral blackmail to imply that anyone who questions it is questioning the reality of child abuse.

Nothing is gained by suppression of free speech and honest dissent. The "paper of record" could have set the record straight about my role in this debate by some decent investigative journalism on the issues I raised. Instead it allowed two columnists the luxury of misleading ad hominem attacks.

Breda O'Brien is a columnist with the Sunday Business Post

Ms O'Brien is, of course, at liberty to take issue with our journalists or to challenge any aspect of our reportage or commentary upon matters of public interest. The Irish Times is happy to provide space for her to do so in this instance - hardly a "suppression of free speech and honest dissent".

Ms O'Brien raised serious, valid and sustainable questions about aspects of the book in question and the subsequent media coverage. She has not sought to deny the scale of child abuse, nor has she argued that survivors were imagining their experiences. The quotation of her remarks (above) on the Pat Kenny programme in question is accurate

`Suffer The Little Children' - Letter from Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan
The Irish Times - Thursday, January 13, 2000

Sir, - We are puzzled by your remarks concerning our book Suffer the Little Children - The Inside Story of Ireland's Industrial Schools (footnote to article by Breda O'Brien, Opinion, January 10th). Breda O'Brien objects to some aspects of our book. She has now expressed these objections not just in The Irish Times, but also on radio and in her own opinion column in the Sunday Business Post. We have responded in that newspaper in great detail to the points she raised and have, we believe, comprehensively refuted her points. We are happy to do so again.

In The Irish Times, Ms O'Brien inaccurately paraphrases the section of our book dealing with what has become known as "the bad apple theory". On page 16 of Suffer the Little Children we specifically state that "by no means all nuns or Brothers were cruel to the child detainees. However, it is equally clear that those who did not either beat or abuse children did not stand in the way of the often sadistic excesses of their fellow religious."

This is the nub of a most serious question to be posed to the religious orders concerned. Ms O'Brien's contention that to pose such a question is to display too narrow a focus is simply unsustainable.

As regards her other criticisms, Ms O'Brien clearly disagrees with our interpretation of the facts. That she chooses to do so is entirely her prerogative, but in no way invalidates the enormously detailed research undertaken by us in the writing of Suffer the Little Children.

In her article, she makes two specific criticisms of our book. Firstly, with regard to the report of the coroner into a boy's death in Artane Industrial School during the 1950s, it should be noted that this (and other) information was supplied to Ms O'Brien by the Christian Brothers.

This order has so far declined to open its archival material on industrial schools to public scrutiny. We were most anxious to include any relevant material from its archive in Suffer the Little Children, but the Christian Brothers refused to allow us access to it.

However, concerning the tragic death in question, we did in fact include in Suffer the Little Children the statement which the Christian Brothers had publicly made confirming that a boy had died following a fall over banisters at Artane and that this had been as a result of an accident. We further included the order's own explanation as to what had occurred.

Despite this, the fact remains that several former inmates of Artane, eye-witnesses to the tragedy, continue to believe that questions need to be answered with regard to this death. The coroner's report sheds no new light on this issue; it states that a boy died as a result of internal injuries following a fall over banisters at the school.

It is relevant to note that this particular incident now forms part of the extensive Garda investigation into the hundreds of allegations of severe physical and sexual abuse of boys by Christian Brothers at Artane up to the late 1960s.

Ms O'Brien's second point of criticism relates to whether or not Sr Stanislaus Kennedy was aware in the late 1970s that boys in St Joseph's Industrial School, Kilkenny were being sexually abused. As we have already repeatedly pointed out, our source in this area was never the individual social worker to whom Ms O'Brien refers.

Our primary source is none other than Sr Stanislaus's own statement to gardai, made when they interviewed her in 1995 in the course of their investigations into the abuse of boys at the Kilkenny institution. In this, she stated that she was told that the boys were being physically abused by a care worker at the institution, and she continued: "I picked up on it that he [the care worker] might have been sexually abusing them as well."

Later in her statement she said the following: "With regard to what happened in St Joseph's, you simply did not ask." This statement was signed by Sr Stanislaus in the presence of her solicitor. It is important to note that we also included in our book Sr Stanislaus's subsequent denial that she was aware of such sexual abuse at the time.

Your contributor Ms O'Brien is perfectly entitled to defend the record of the religious orders with regard to their activities in this country. However, attempting to shoot the messenger is no substitute for a proper debate on the very serious issues and questions which we seek to analyse in Suffer the Little Children.

We believe that in general The Irish Times has been both fair and thorough in its coverage of the appalling legacy of the country's industrial schools. Providing space, as you did last Monday, to allow Ms O'Brien to articulate her perspective is testament to this. However, we remain puzzled by your own rather generalised and, we believe, somewhat unfair remarks questioning unspecified aspects of our book. - Yours, etc.,

Mary Raftery, Eoin O'Sullivan, (Authors of Suffer the Little Children), Dundrum, Dublin 14.

It was not the intention of The Irish Times to take from the credibility of the book or to diminish its conclusions in any way. - Ed, IT.

Parental Cruelty, Neglect is `Ignored in Book about Industrial Schools'
The Irish Times - Saturday, January 15, 2000 by PATSY MCGARRY

A UCC sociologist, Dr Harry Ferguson, has warned against "the apparent intolerance of alternative viewpoints and closure of debate", following the publication of Suffer the Little Children.

Writing in the current edition of Doctrine & Life magazine, he said the links between the industrial schools and child protection were being ignored. Cruelty and neglect were not even being mentioned, he said, and noted that the admission to the schools of "at least 80 per cent of children" was due to "lack of proper guardianship".

He rejected claims that the industrial schools amounted to a criminalisation of poverty. Between 1889 and 1955 the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children dealt with 478,865 Irish children. Only 2 per cent of those were taken from their parents, he said. But it was "indisputable that the State was guilty of criminal negligence in allowing the children of the poor to starve in inhuman living conditions and then punishing them and their parents by removing some of them from parental custody".

It was "crucial" to understand, however, that children were also taken into care because of child cruelty, he said. So it was "highly contradictory" that Suffer the Little Children "should neglect the historical reality of child abuse outside the industrial schools as a factor" in children being admitted.

There was a need for "a more historically and sociologically grounded analysis of child abuse as a social problem than Suffer the Little Children offers", he believed.

Meanwhile, the religious orders had barely begun to answer questions raised by the scandal, "preferring to take a defensive legalistic stance rather than one based on restorative justice, reconciliation and healing", he said.

Suffer the Little Children, by Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan, is based on research by the authors which also contributed to last year's States of Fear series broadcast by RTE. That series shocked the public with its accounts of the abuse of children in industrial schools, hospitals and other institutions and led to the setting up of the Commission on Child Abuse.

The book contains much additional information and analyses the role of the religious orders and of the State in the abuse of children.

`Suffer The Little Children' - Letter from Harry Ferguson
The Irish Times - Wednesday, January 19, 2000

Sir, - The response of Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan (January 13th) to even the slightest criticism of Suffer the Little Children has become not only excessively defensive, but dangerous. It is little wonder they should believe that The Irish Times has been "both fair and thorough" in its coverage of their book when some of your columnists have supported a position which has led us into the dangerous cul-de-sac where it seems the only things that can now legitimately be said about States of Fear and Suffer the Little Children must be uncritical.

The implication of Fintan O'Toole's and Medb Ruane's responses to the book and to the issues raised by Breda O'Brien is that the raising of any questions is viewed as denying that abuse went on, even as supporting a system of child slavery, and trying to defend the Catholic Church - or, in Fintan O'Toole's words (Opinion, December 10th), "going out to bat for the religious orders". In the Sunday Tribune (December 5th), Susan McKay referred darkly to "attempts to discredit an overwhelming body of evidence", a perspective also taken by Colm Toibin when launching the book. Mary Raftery continued this line of argument on Today FM's The Last Word (January 13th) by dismissing Breda O'Brien's criticisms as "a smokescreen put out by people who want to defend the religious orders and who don't want to hear the truth".

The implication is clear: there is but one truth here and the rest of us should just shut up and be suitably humble in the presence of Raftery and O'Sullivan.

This dangerous kind of posturing is all the more disturbing and ironic given that these so called liberal commentators are critiquing a closed system of power and knowledge which led to appalling abuses of children by creating, in effect, a closed system of power and knowledge of their own, where anyone who dares speak with an alternative voice is silenced and even demonised as occupying the kind of low moral ground which supports child abuse.

This alarming closure of debate and intolerance of other views and evidence are in danger of damaging the cause of justice more than advancing it. The fate of religious orders and individual childcare practitioners pales in comparison to the justice and healing issues which surround the systematic abuses of children; but if new information comes into the public domain, then this needs to be treated seriously so that due process and justice are made possible for all concerned.

However good, the series and the book are not the full story and in places have even got it wrong. For instance, on the basis of my own extensive research into the history of child abuse, I have argued (see January edition of Doctrine and Life) that the central contention of Suffer the Little Children that the reason children were admitted to the industrial schools was because of poverty is far too one-dimensional. This completely ignores the relationship between the industrial schools and child protection, the fact that some children welcomed the opportunity to leave home for a place of safety, and found it in the schools, and that the Irish public - even in poor communities - supported the removal of children from cruel and neglectful parents.

Thus it is perfectly reasonable to accept the compelling evidence that such appalling child abuse went on while subjecting Raftery and O'Sullivan's work to critique. This is how knowledge and understanding develops and how the process of healing and justice-making can be advanced for survivors and all those implicated in this appalling episode in our history. - Yours, etc.,

Harry Ferguson, Department of Applied Social Studies, University College Cork.

`Suffer The Little Children' - Lettter from Brendan Conroy
The Irish Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Sir, - Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan, the co-authors of the book Suffer the Little Children, seem determined to react defensively when faced with any kind of challenge to their research. Their continuing failure to engage with what the editor of The Irish Times has described as "valid and sustainable" criticism does them no credit.

For example, in a letter to this paper (January 13th) they claim, erroneously, that an incident described in their book involving the death of a boy in Artane in the 1950s is the subject of an ongoing Garda investigation. (An event, incidentally, about which their main witness has now given three very different accounts.)

Later that same day on Eamon Dunphy's The Last Word radio programme, it was put to Mary Raftery that the Garda Press Office had confirmed that this incident had been investigated previously but was no longer the subject of investigation, and that unless new evidence were to emerge there would be no further investigation. Mary Raftery's unbelievable response to this information was: "This is complete rubbish. This is rubbish. This is rubbish!"

Ms Raftery has recently accused others of denial. How does she account for her own?

Failure to face up to unpalatable truths and name-calling those who differ with your opinions simply places more obstacles in the search for a fuller understanding of child abuse past and present. For the sake of justice for all, this has got to stop. - Yours, etc.,

Brendan Conroy,
Mulvey Park, Windy Arbour, Dublin 14.

Child Abuse Inquiry Offers Valuable Opportunity
- Article by Harry Ferguson
The Irish Times - Tuesday, February 8, 2000

As the Commission on Childhood Abuse approaches, it is crucial that we examine its potential contribution to the issue of institutional abuse, and reach a full understanding of its purpose in terms of justice-making and healing.

The commission is to have two strands, or committees, hearing different kinds of testimony: one from survivors of the industrial schools; the other concerning how the abuse happened.

The decision to conduct affairs in this way is eminently wise, enabling two complementary but at times conflicting aims of justice-making to be achieved: to try to establish who was responsible and why, in the interests of accountability and learning, while meeting the core aim of giving survivors an opportunity to relate their experiences of abuse.

Crucially, the sociological task of reconstructing the conditions within which such abuse could occur should be achieved without denying the reality of the abuse. It is easy to overlook the importance of an adequate context being provided.

In fact, any discussion of child abuse necessitates consideration of the very nature of the society in which it went on.

Since the RTE States of Fear series was broadcast last year, the standard explanation has become that the industrial schools were about, in Fintan O'Toole's words, "the criminalisation of poverty", as a ruthlessly punitive Church and State swooped to incarcerate the children of the poor, while an indifferent community looked on.

My own research (see Doctrine & Life, January, 2000) suggests that some children of the poor were indeed, quite scandalously, taken into care because their parents were not given enough State support to care for them. But children were also removed to the industrial schools because of child cruelty.

In the region of 80 per cent of reports to the ISPCC (the main agency to take children into care) came from the general public, which shows that child protection had significant public support, even among the poor, and that some children were taken into care because the community viewed their parents as cruel or neglectful. Some children welcomed finding a place of safety in the schools.

None of this serves as any justification whatsoever for what went on inside the schools. But it is crucial to understanding the complexity of why children were taken into care (some survivors themselves do not appear to know this), the meaning of child abuse and the concept of child welfare that were present in society, and the dynamics of perception, power and trust relations in how the schools were viewed (often wrongly) as helpful.

That some children who were abused at home experienced further abuse within the care system only adds to the tragedy, and raises huge questions as to why more of these children were not treated with compassion in the schools.

THE creation of a specific committee to hear survivors' testimonies means there can be no ambiguity in the commission meeting the first condition of justice-making, which is truth-telling.

That survivors will not be doubted by being questioned by lawyers helps to ensure that truth here means more than simply establishing the facts of the abuse, but also attending to the psychological, emotional, and spiritual dimensions of their experience.

This helps to deprive the abuse of some of its corrosive power, heightened by years of secrecy and silencing. It ensures that a second dimension to justice-making can be met: that victims are not only heard but believed, with full acknowledgement that the abuse should not have happened - a process enhanced by the public accountability and witnessing of evidence enshrined in the commission.

The costs of having been abused are, in every sense, huge. A group of 20 survivors of abuse by religious who were brought together by the Centre for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence in Seattle, which specialises in work with victims of clerical abuse, estimated that they had spent a total of 55 years in therapy at a cost of $298,000 in attempting to come to terms with it.

Then there are the social and human costs for those who were impoverished as well as traumatised through the industrial school system, but have no resources to pay for help. At a minimum, the institutions implicated need to cover costs such as therapy.

Such restitution constitutes a third crucial step in justice-making because it represents a symbolic restoration of what was lost, acknowledging the wrong and harm done and the provision of concrete means to bring about healing. Shamefully, however, the Catholic Church continues to show no interest in restitution. This refusal endangers the cause of healing in profound ways.

Survivors need to reach a point at which they can pursue their just claims for restitution without ceding any power over their present life to the perpetrator. Indeed, this is precisely what they have had to do here, as Bernadette Fahy shows in Freedom of Angels, her important account of her healing journey from abuse in Goldenbridge industrial school.

The terrible, painful truth with which the commission will face us, and with which survivors have to live day-in, day-out, is that no one can rescue them from their pain. But justice-making and healing are social processes and the commission can provide a forum constructively through which they are promoted as part of a continuing process of social and personal transformation.

A key question remains whether the religious institutions involved have the integrity to choose to take responsibility for acting so as truly to make justice a reality, and for healing the pain they have caused to others, as well as themselves.

Harry Ferguson is a senior lecturer in the Department of Applied Social Studies, UCC


NOTE re Risteard MacConcradha - referred to in Breda O'Brien's article dated 10 January 2000

`States of Fear' Programmes
The Irish Times - Thursday, May 27, 1999

Sir, - Fintan O'Toole (May 21st) says that at a childcare seminar in 1971, after the publication of the Kennedy Report, two civil servants who represented the Departments of Justice and Education were called into a private meeting with Bishop Casey and Sr. Stanislaus Kennedy. I represented the Department of Justice on the Committee on Reformatory and Industrial Schools Systems, chaired by the late District Justice Eileen Kennedy, between 1967 and 1970.

Maybe three times in over 30 years, I have been present at functions in which Sr. Stanislaus participated. We have never met and we have never spoken, person to person. We did not meet personally, nor did we speak to one another, at a Kennedy Report seminar in Killarney in 1971. During that seminar, neither Bishop Eamon Casey nor Sr. Stanislaus herself invited me to - much less called me into - a private meeting, to express criticism of the Report. In alleging that they did, Mr O'Toole's article adds a further hurt, to the many - in my opinion, undeserved - hurtfulnesses which Sr. Stanislaus has had to endure recently. The Irish Times ought to make amends for misrepresenting her.

At Bishop Casey's request, my Department asked me to attend this seminar, hosted by him. The sessions were chaired by the late Mr Vincent Grogan. Sr. Stanislaus contributed. I can recall her commenting, in open session - and several others later reiterated her comment - that the Report "damned with faint praise" the religious, who although they originally undertook conduct of these schools, when the public authorities of the time refused, had, nevertheless, always been seriously under-funded and under-resourced by public authorities, who ought have done otherwise. Her right, and the right of others, to maintain this contention and to express it must be acknowledged.

On the second day of the seminar, I took the initiative of speaking privately, for perhaps 10 or 15 minutes, to Bishop Casey and to Mr Grogan jointly. Sr. Stanislaus was not aware that I was doing so and she was not present. The person who had represented the Department of Education was not aware either, nor was he present.

My conversation with Bishop Casey and Mr Grogan related to "faint praise" being neither the burden, the purpose nor the thrust of the Report and the emphasis at the seminar on "faint praise" not reflecting at all how the recommendations of the Report strove to overcome a historical legacy of shortcomings in the residential care of children in the schools.

- Yours, etc.,

Risteard Mac Conchradha,
An Charraig Dhubh, Co Atha Cliath.