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Focus: An Abuse of Public Money?

The Sunday Times, February 1, 2004

The head of one victims’ group has accused others of being more interested in state funding than supporting the people they are there to help, write Siobhan Maguire and Dearbhail McDonald

It was the last meeting before Christmas of the National Office for Victims of Abuse (Nova) but the final item on the agenda struck an unseasonal note.

The leaders of victim support groups had been discussing routine matters with officials from the departments of health and education at Nova’s office in Ormond Quay in Dublin. But, clearing his throat, Tom Hayes, the secretary of the Alliance Victim Support Group, said he had one last issue to raise.

The Northern Ireland civil servant said he had a question “about the west of Ireland”. He wanted to discuss “a rumour” that Aislinn, a support group headed by Christine Buckley, had been sending members on free weekend breaks to the city. Hayes wondered how people were selected for these trips and if they were funded by government money.

Buckley, who was abused by the Sisters of Mercy at the Goldenbridge orphanage, was not present at the meeting. But a representative rebutted Hayes’s accusation, and said the drop-in centre for victims was not getting government funding for any such trips.

Hayes’s claims, which he later accepted were based on a misunderstanding, surprised most people at the meeting. Some believed it was a veiled attack against what is considered to be the leading Irish support group for victims of institutional abuse.

Last week Hayes, who spent eight years in an industrial school in Limerick, went public with other reservations he has about the plethora of groups that help victims. Institutional abuse had created a “cottage industry” of support groups, he said. Some of these groups “appeared more interested in receiving state funding than in helping victims”.

The remarks lifted the lid on a simmering dispute. For months, Hayes, whose group claims to represent more than 300 abuse victims, has been making criticisms in private to government officials. He has, in particular, challenged the quality of service offered by state-funded victims’ groups.

Two weeks ago Hayes complained to the departments of health and education — which both fund survivors’ groups — that some victims had claimed they were badly treated at certain groups. He told officials he was concerned about the “volume of complaints” he said he had received about the Cork-based Right of Place, which has assisted 1,800 former residents, and Aislinn, which says it has helped more than 3,500.

Survivor groups reacted angrily when Hayes went public last week. “Tom Hayes is wrong,” said Tony Treacy, the housing officer for Right of Place. “What he has said about us is totally unjust and untrue. He has never even been to see us in Cork.”

Buckley, whose harrowing account of the abuse she suffered featured in the 1996 documentary, Dear Daughter, reacted even more strongly. She instructed solicitors to issue letters warning against any defamatory allegations being made against Aislinn. Through her solicitors, Buckley said that, as far as she is aware, Hayes had no issues with her.

“The Department of Education and the Department of Health have excellent relations with Aislinn, and Buckley has no intimation that any complaint has been received from either,” her solicitors said.

Whatever the truth of Hayes’s charges, his characterisation of a “cottage industry” hit a raw nerve. Why are eight groups, most in receipt of public money, involved in counselling victims? Couldn’t Nova, the government agency, do the job? “It’s about compensation. It is about how much you will get and how long you have to wait for it,” says a victim who was counselled by one group. “The institutional mentality still reigns among survivors, they can’t move on.”

IN MAY 1999, two weeks after RTE screened States of Fear, a documentary detailing the horrors of institutional abuse, Bertie Ahern, the taoiseach, apologised to victims.

Ahern established the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, chaired by Justice Mary Laffoy, who resigned last year in a row with the government. The government also set up the Residential Institutions Redress Board — a compensation fund — and told former inmates of industrial schools who suffered physical or sexual abuse they were entitled to damages.

The final bill could be €1 billion, according to John Purcell, the comptroller and auditor general. The average payment to each claimant so far is €80,000.

The extent of the abuse caseload emerged last Friday when Laffoy reported that 4,128 allegations by 1,712 complainants have been brought to the commission.

The united front presented by victims in 1999 soon dissolved. Natural leaders such as Buckley, Hayes and Mick Waters quickly emerged and each set up their own groups.

“All the groups have their own voice, all have their own opinions, and they all see things differently,” says Waters of Survivors of Child Abuse (Soca) UK.

Last year Waters appealed to victims’ groups to unite or face exclusion from the consultation process on the future direction of the child abuse commission. John Kelly of Irish Soca — which has no connection to Soca UK — says groups “have to have a united approach”. But competition between the groups is now more vigorous than ever.

Last year, following huge payouts by the Catholic church to Mervyn Rundle and Colm O’Gorman — victims of paedophile priests — Buckley claimed survivors of institutional abuse were being treated as “third-class citizens” compared with those abused by diocesan priests.

Complicating the matter further, Let Our Voices Emerge (Love), a group of people with positive memories of institutional care, stepped into the arena to defend the religious orders. Buckley branded them “teacher’s pets” and Love retaliated by calling for better auditing procedures for victim support groups.

The Department of Education, which funds Nova, concedes there is no “formal quality control process” to assess the level of services, and “no formal complaints procedure” for dealing with complaints against support groups.

Senior officials privately admit they know all about the fighting. One official says it was “widely known” that conflict and personality clashes had started even before Laffoy was appointed. “This is an all-out turf war,” the official says. Each group “has its own agenda” and is interested in “feathering its own nest”.

“The groups are always having a go at each other and it has been like that for as long as I can remember. We have a remit to work with the support groups and make sure that we meet regularly to discuss any concerns. Of course, if allegations are being made we have to look into them.”

The comptroller is already reviewing a number of victims’ groups’ accounts. But the in-fighting is likely to worsen. Patrick Walsh of Irish Soca has branded Hayes’s comments “irrational” and “offensive”. Hayes remains defiant and believes his claims are being taken seriously by the government.

He also says “a culture of dependency” has engulfed the support groups. “What we have are organisations run for victims by victims, and it is like a vicious circle because victims end up in an environment where the past is always present,” he says.

Patricia Casey, a professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin, agrees this is a possibility. “The inherent danger with self-help groups is that unless they are headed by skilled and qualified facilitators, dependency can be induced and reinforced, rather than healing encouraged,” she says.

Hayes and his supporters want thorough reform. They are not calling for victims groups to be disbanded, but to be managed by fully qualified, independent professionals. But is the government likely to act, or is it still too wary of victims and too embarrassed about its role in turning a blind eye to institutional abuse?

LAST week Christy Mannion, an adviser to Micheal Martin, the health minister, held an informal meeting with Hayes and his wife Ruth, also a member of the alliance group.

The three met in Buswells hotel in Dublin and Hayes outlined his proposals for a uniform, professionally led victims’ group. The civil servant left an impression on Mannion, who found him “very sincere” and promised to raise his concerns with the minister.

The alliance group wants the centre to be under the control of the Department of Health. “It must be open to all victims of institutions and should be aligned to the national office with the overall responsibility vested in professionally trained personnel,” says Hayes. “It would be reasonable to expect that all other issues to do with the smooth running of a government centre such as health and safety, fire, security, confidentiality and a complaints procedure would be established as a matter of form.”

Martin and Noel Dempsey, the minister for education, will soon be briefed by their officials on the conflict between the groups and on ideas to reform the “cottage industry”. But discussions will not begin until the government deals with the criticism contained in Laffoy’s third interim report. Published last Friday, it again castigated the government for its failure to co-operate with the inquiry.

In the meantime, Hayes faces a chilly reception when Nova meets in two weeks. “I have no axe to grind but it is time to see some changes in the way victim support groups are managed and the quality of services being offered to survivors. I’m not going to be quiet. It’s a matter for the government now to step in and take control.”

Fighting for funds

Nova: the government agency established in 2000 to deal with the support groups. Nova got €460,000 from the Department of Education in 2001-2003

Aislinn Centre: Set up in 1999 by Christine Buckley. Since then it has received €184,279.56 from the state

One in Four: Set up by Colm O’Gorman. It received €504,000 in 2003

Right of Place: Since it was formed in 1999, Right of Place has received €1,422,476.91 in government funding

Le Cheile Eile: A small, Navan-based support group, it has received €4,000 in government support

Irish Soca: A support group run by John Kelly, it receives no public funding

Soca UK: (No link with above). Led by Mick Waters, it has assisted 1,500 Irish victims resident in Britain and received €162,382

Alliance for the Healing of Institutional Abuse: Led by Tom Hayes, it represents over 300 victims and has received €49,288 in government funding

Right to Peace: A Clonmel-based support group chaired by Michael O’Brien. It has received funding of €35,000

Outreach: A British-based support service which has received €1,357,696