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Phil Mortell

Phil Mortell has had long experience as a senior social worker and has reflected on the whole issue of what has been called 'the steep learning curve' on the issue of sex abuse. He has written a challenging article specifically for [We Are Church] WAC Ireland, in which he shows how late the caring professions in Ireland were in recognising the seriousness of child sexual abuse. This is how he introduces his article: 'Is it possible that the Murphy Report is unfair to the Dublin Archdiocesan Auxiliary Bishops in assuming that they possessed a level of understanding in the area of child sexual abuse which was not shared by their contemporaries in the expert/professional health care system?' If you wish to read his article, click on the following link:

Learning Curve on Awareness of Child Sexual Abuse?

Child sexual abuse went un-noticed for much of the 20th century. Like other criminal behaviours (domestic violence, for instance) it was largely ‘invisible’ and only began to be recognised as professional and public awareness developed and society found resources to deal with it. 

The Ferns Report (2005) suggests that “public consciousness of the problem of child abuse (and in particular child sexual abuse) was a gradual development from the early 1960s” (p.11).  A more realistic assessment is given on the following page: “It is generally accepted that awareness of the nature of child sexual abuse in Ireland coincided with high profile cases such as the Kilkenny Incest Investigation in 1993 and the West of Ireland Farmer Case in 1995”  (p.12).

A Committee was set up by the Department of Health in 1975 to establish the extent of the problem of non-accidental injuries to children.  This Committee was made up of eminent consultant paediatricians and high level representatives of nursing, social work and other disciplines and agencies (including the Irish Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children).  In March 1976 this Committee produced the Report on Non-Accidental Injury to Children.  

The Report states: “It should be noted that non-accidental injury includes not only physical injury, but also nutritional deprivation, neglect and emotional deprivation and trauma” (par. 2.1).  There is no reference to sexual abuse in the Report.

The subsequent Department of Health Memorandum on Non-Accidental Injuries to Children (March 1977), follows suit: “The guidelines in this memorandum concentrate on the problem of actual, suspected or potential non-accidental physical injury to children.  While many of the approaches and procedures suggested would also be appropriate in cases of injury arising from emotional deprivation or neglect, the evidence of such injury might not always be clear cut” (par. 2.2).

Again, there is no mention of sexual abuse in a Memorandum that became, in effect, the handbook for the doctors who were Directors of Community Care in the eight Health Boards and 26 Community Care Areas around the country.

Revisions of these Department of Health Guidelines were produced in 1980 and 1983, but continued to deal only with physical abuse and neglect.

The government sponsored Task Force on Child Care Services, set up in 1974 to initiate a radical overhaul of the law and services relating to children, published its Report in 1981.  This was meant to be the definitive work on Irish child care services, but made few enough references to child abuse and hardly any to child sexual abuse. 

However, throughout the 1980s in Ireland attitudinal changes were beginning to emerge in the professional system on foot of a growing awareness that sexual abuse was a prevalent social issue. 

This development is evidenced in the Department of Health Guidelines for professionals, referred to above, on handling child abuse cases.  Earlier versions of these guidelines (1977, 1980 and 1983) dealt only with physical abuse and neglect and it was not until a further revision in 1987 that child sexual abuse was formally recognised as a category of abuse in its own right.

The Report of the Review Group on the West of Ireland Farmer Case (1998) refers to the impact of a major conference on child sexual abuse, held in Dublin in 1983 and organised by the Irish Association of Social Workers.  This was the first conference of its kind in Ireland and placed the issue on the professional social work agenda.

1987 was the year when the Public Inquiry into child sexual abuse in Cleveland in the UK received considerable publicity.  In 1987 also the first child sexual abuse assessment units were set up in two Dublin hospitals, Temple Street and Our Lady’s, Crumlin. 

The impact of these developments was largely confined to the ‘expert’ system and it wasn’t until the next decade that a series of scandals and child sexual abuse inquiries impinged on the awareness of the general public in Ireland.

A book on abuse of children at an orphanage in Cavan, ‘Children of the Poor Clares’, was allegedly turned down by 15 Irish publishers before being eventually published in Northern Ireland in 1985. 

In 1986 Gay Byrne’s radio show gave air-time to allegations of sexual abuse by former residents of the Christian Brothers boys’ home, Artane, but with little or no impact.

In 1992, two sexual abuse cases, the “X case” and that of Lavinia Kerwick, were extensively reported and commented upon in the national media. 

The following year, 1993, saw the publication of The Report of the Kilkenny Incest Investigation.  The media discussions on this and the two 1992 cases combined to revolutionise the public perspective on sexual abuse of children.  In the Dail debate on the Kilkenny Incest Investigation Report the then Minister for Health went so far as to acknowledge that “the terrifying sexual abuse suffered as a child by the young woman happened at a time (late 1970s – early 1980s) when the existence of child sexual abuse was not even publicly acknowledged.”

In the late 80s and early 90s the issue of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy had created major scandals in Canada, the USA and the UK and was beginning to surface in Ireland.  In 1993 it was the subject of an article by the present writer, titled “Twenty Questions for the Bishops,” in the December issue of the clerical magazine, Intercom.

In mid-1994 the Fr Brendan Smith case made the headlines and sexual abuse by clerics was placed firmly centre-stage in Ireland.  The Ferns Report (2005) comments that both the Kilkenny Incest Investigation (1993) and the West of Ireland Farmer case (1995) “demonstrated that child sexual abuse was a crime perpetrated by apparently upright and decent members of the community.  Both these cases, however, dealt with sexual abuse of children within families.  It was not until after Fr Brendan Smyth’s arrest in Belfast and the publicity that surrounded the seeking of an extradition warrant by the Northern Ireland authorities in 1994, that Irish society was fully exposed to the phenomenon of systematic abuse of children by third parties who were in a position of trust and authority over these children” (p. 12)

In February 1996 RTE broadcast Dear Daughter, a documentary on Christine Buckley, a survivor of alleged institutional abuse during the 1950s in the Goldenbridge children’s home in Dublin, managed by the Sisters of Mercy. 

1996 saw the publication of the Report of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Advisory Committee on Child Sexual Abuse by Priests and Religious.  The Child Sexual Abuse: Framework for a Church Response, it is more often referred to as the Framework Document or the Green Book. 

It is interesting to note, in the light of tensions between the Archbishop of Dublin and Religious Congregations on the matter in 2009, that the Green Book required religious superiors to inform their local bishop of any allegations against religious living in the diocese (5.1).  It is also noteworthy that the Green Book recommended that all allegations of sexual abuse, including retrospective complaints by an adult, should be reported to the civil authorities.  Three years later, Children First, National Guidelines for the Protection and Welfare of Children (1999) would require reporting to the civil authorities of retrospective cases only where there was a current risk of sexual abuse (4.6).  In other words, the Green Book allowed no discretion in the matter of reporting retrospective or historical complaints of sexual abuse.

The Report of the Review Group on the West of Ireland Farmer Case (1998), also known as the McColgan case, commented significantly: "It is clear that in the late 1970s and early 1980s the concept of non-accidental injury was known to workers but not very often encountered.  It is clear from our review that child sexual abuse was a rarely presenting phenomenon until 1983.  When the disclosure of sexual abuse was made, in 1983, in this case, it was the first time the social worker or the general practitioner involved had ever came across the problem of intrafamilial sexual abuse. . . . Within the review of this particular case, it is interesting to contrast the response to the disclosure of sexual abuse in 1983 to the disclosure which was made in 1993.  In 1983 the workers were shocked, bewildered and uncertain as to how to proceed. In 1993 the intervention was fast, decisive and effective."

1998 also saw the publication of the Murphy Report into sexual abuse scandals involving coaches in the Irish Swimming Association.

It is clear then that the expert/professional system of doctors, social workers and psychologists in Ireland was on a learning curve in the area of sexual abuse from the beginning of the 1980s.  Is it possible that the Murphy Report is unfair to the Dublin Archdiocesan Auxiliary Bishops in assuming that they possessed a level of understanding not shared by their contemporaries in the professional system?


Phil Mortell, M.A., C.Q.S.W.
Social Worker