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Compounding Injustice Will Not Help Victims - [Sister Helena O'Donoghue]

The Irish Times - Thursday, July 4, 2002

The desire to see religious orders "pay until it hurts" over the role of some religious in child abuse is reckless and offensive, writes Helena O'Donoghue

The story of residential institutions is a sad one from every side. It has been told and retold through the media, and efforts at expressing sorrow or offering help have understandably met with rejection.

Finding a way forward was not easy. The Government decided to create a redress scheme. The religious orders were invited to contribute and have recently signed an agreement.

We hope this will bring healing, forgiveness, and closure to a painful chapter of the nation's history. We have generally refrained from speaking in public because of the possibility of causing further pain. This meant taking a lot of pain ourselves, risking our credibility and demoralising our members, families, friends and colleagues. But we believed that former residents needed, and deserved, to be heard.

The religious congregations contributed to the redress scheme to avoid the extra pain to those abused by going through the courts. They would also prefer money to go directly to former residents. Thirdly, they were anxious to bring healing, reconciliation and closure quickly to those abused. The religious orders concerned do not represent the whole church, nor all the clergy.

TV programmes have presented vividly the painful stories of individuals who spent their childhood in institutions. These presentations have been accepted as fact. The role of the media has been significant in getting recognition for the wrongs of the past. Those who had never been listened to were given a forum and a voice for the first time.

However, the media are not equipped nor appointed to act as judge, and at times appear to fail to achieve fairness and balance. The role of judge is properly the work of an independent and authorised body. To seek formal examination is not to question the veracity of the claims. Such claims can only be strengthened by the confirmation of a competent examining body.

Despite wide condemnation of religious orders, independent examination of this painful subject is just beginning. The courts have heard few residential abuse cases. Media and political commentators talk of the "criminal culpability" of religious orders and their "moral obligation" to pay until it hurts. This is dangerous and offensive talk.

The Laffoy Commission is the appointed listener, investigator and judge. The lapse of time - commonly 40 and 50 years - has seriously impeded the prospect of precise determination of culpability. Many of those complained against are dead or infirm. The commission will have to decide whether it is just to determine complaints of such antiquity.

But, without its judgment, or that of the courts, the extent of liability is unknown, and what might be appropriate by way of contribution by congregations is therefore based on speculation or prejudice. It is necessary for the dignity of all sides that, where possible, the truth be established.

Compensation is normally linked to the judicial establishment of liability. The Government announced the setting up of a redress scheme, independent of and in advance of the Laffoy Commission. The degree of State culpability is no more established than that of the religious orders. This will eventually raise questions.

For the complainants, the redress scheme is positive. It will provide compensation more easily, more certainly and more speedily than the courts. It is a humane approach and the religious orders welcomed it for that reason.

The redress scheme presented the orders with a dilemma. Since a number of those accused vehemently deny the allegations against them, our participation in this scheme could be seen as a sentence of guilt by compensation. Before the Redress Bill was passed, an element of due process was included in the Act.

This was helpful to the congregations. The religious leaders, by contributing to this scheme, could be accused of indicting members untried in any forum (except television). Religious leaders cannot do this either under canon law or civil law. Nor can anyone else. We do not mend injustice by compounding it with more. Further, what happens if any outcome of the Laffoy Commission differs from that of the redress board? These questions arise because the redress scheme precedes Laffoy.

This is not to say that religious will not be found guilty - some will, and they should face the rigours of the law - but the work of the Laffoy Commission cannot be pre-empted.

Complainants, commentators, and politicians have difficulty when the orders say "some" people were hurt in their care. For example, more than 11,000 children were cared for by Sisters of Mercy since 1940. Fewer than 4 per cent have made allegations.

No Sister of Mercy has been convicted of anything. This is true of many orders. Out of some 126,000 children in institutions since 1930, around 2,000 have made complaints. That is 1.5 per cent. That is "some" and not "most". Of course, one complaint is one too many, and we do not take these figures with anything less than serious concern and regret.

Commentators further refer to the governments in Canada and Australia that pursued the religious congregations for compensation. They ask why our Government is not doing that? The difference is that, in both those countries, culpability had been established by the courts or statutory inquiries. Compensation was indicated, appropriate and required. The Irish situation is unique. We have not progressed to that point.

Without formal judgment, the congregations looked at their probable expenditure in the courts. They felt this could form the basis of a contribution without necessarily implying guilt of any member. Consequently the 18 congregations involved, which differ widely in size, resources, past involvement in residential institutions, and in the nature of the allegations against them, made an offer to the Government.

A package of €128 million was agreed, including credit for properties transferred to the State or voluntary sector. We regard the package as a moral, fair and just contribution.

The funds will come from the shared resources of members who pool their earnings by vow for the sake of the work of the congregation. They are members who never worked in the residential institutions. Some gave their lives with kindness and dedication to caring for vulnerable and troubled children, and never did any wrong. These funds will be diverted from the many services provided voluntarily by religious orders - hospice care, addiction centres, support for marginalised groups, and from projects in the third world.

They will deplete funds required to care for older members, hundreds of whom worked without salary or pension in the large voluntary hospitals and saved the State hundreds of thousands of pounds every year. This is the money of the individual sisters, brothers and order priests who are known and respected in each local parish - they never did anything but good. Further, they are also taxpayers, contributing like every other taxpayer to the State's portion of the redress fund. They are dismayed by what is demanded of them now by unfriendly public opinion.

Our contribution pays for a share of the awards to be given in the redress scheme or in the courts. The Government will not be paying on the double. This situation prevents no one from taking a case to court rather than to the redress board. The indemnity covers only residential institutions. Initially the agreement included an educational trust. A figure of €12.7 million was earmarked for the benefit of former residents and their families. Religious orders never intended to be responsible for that trust. That money is for State educational programmes.

The idea of a trust was dropped because administration costs would be prohibitive and a considerable portion of the funds would be depleted.

There is an assumption that most of their property was "gifted" to the orders. It is therefore deemed that the property belongs to the people. The facts do not bear out this perception. Much of the property was acquired by purchase or by dowries or family gifts. Where property is sold, the proceeds are designated formally for the service of the purposes of the congregation. They do not go into the pockets of the members.

The desire to see religious pay until it hurts, or to extract all of the cost of the scheme from them, without objective validation, is to engage in a modern dissolution of the monasteries.

My comments do not lessen our serious disavowal of all abusive behaviour. I repeat our sincere apology to anyone abused in our care. We hope that this redress scheme, and our participation in it, will bring a new beginning for those whose lives were blighted by their experience as children in institutional care.

Sister Helena O'Donoghue is a member of the executive of the Conference of Religious of Ireland (CORI) and of its negotiating team with the Government