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Mary Raftery Hails (4th) Apology by Sisters of Mercy

Sisters of Mercy Break Rank
Irish Times, May 6, 2004 by Mary Raftery

Yesterday's statement by the Sisters of Mercy is an event of considerable national and even international importance. It is without precedent on any continent where children have been abused in Catholic Church-run institutions, writes Mary Raftery

What makes it so significant is that the Mercy nuns have broken ranks. They have finally stopped blaming others (the State, society) for the abuse of children in their industrial schools, and have themselves taken full responsibility for the damage they caused to the thousands of children who grew up in their care. Crucially, they have stated directly to victims that they believe them when they tell of the "physical and emotional trauma" they suffered as children.

This issue of belief has been central to the concerns of many of the survivors of abuse at industrial schools. They have felt with great justification that while conditional apologies have been made by many of the religious orders involved, these nuns and brothers still do not really believe them and their experiences of abuse.

Yesterday's unequivocal statement from the Mercy nuns is the first crumbling of the hard line that the religious orders have adopted towards victims. Inevitably, the unconditional nature of the Mercy apology will beg important questions of the other 17 congregations who ran industrial schools in Ireland. As by far the largest provider of such institutions, it is fitting that the Mercy nuns should provide the lead. The question is whether any of the others will have the moral fibre to follow.

"We do not know what any other congregation needs to do," Sister Breege O'Neill, the head of the congregation's leadership team, told me when we met on Tuesday in advance of her press conference yesterday. "This is about our journey, our own need to reclaim our integrity, to be faithful to our calling and to reach out to people in need. We have to realise that compassion has to become more important than litigation. Our greatest distress is that we have caused such distress to so many people both now and in the past."

It is possible to take a cynical approach to the nuns' new apology, to argue that it is easy for them to confess now that they have secured a legal indemnity from the State.

"I have no answer to that," Sister Breege says, "except to say that we're not doing this because of the church/State deal. We've been involved in a reflective process around this crisis for a number of years. We've been looking at every aspect of ourselves, our training and formation, our history, and this statement is the result of that process. Our greatest difficulty has always been to admit we got it wrong. And the truth is that the indemnity deal has not brought us any nearer to closure on the issue."

There is a possible analogy here with the South African truth and reconciliation process. The public confessions by perpetrators of human rights abuses could only occur there in the context of the amnesty which they were promised. In this country, it could be argued that State indemnity is the equivalent of that amnesty, that it may allow all the congregations the space to take full responsibility for their crimes against children.

It is clear that the criminal justice system has failed in this regard, and both the Redress Board and the Ryan (formerly Laffoy) Commission remain embroiled in controversy. Perhaps the Mercy nuns have shown the first real step towards some kind of a healing process for the victims of abuse.

Speaking of the notorious church/State deal, Sister Breege O'Neill is adamant that it will not be renegotiated. However, she does say that the nuns will do anything necessary to bring about healing for the victims, and doesn't rule out the allocation of additional resources by the congregation in this process.

Their new apology also does not mean that they now accept each and every allegation made against them. That a number of their members vigorously protest their innocence was for a long time the single biggest stumbling block on the way to making yesterday's statement. But, it is highly significant that their statement contains no reference to false allegations.

"We will uphold the right of our sisters to due process," says Sister Breege. "At the same time, our hope is that this apology will change everything in the long term. We have now taken full and unconditional responsibility for our failures and we must focus on people's need to be heard and to be believed. And we do believe them. Their experience is what is important. We want to hear them and do anything in our power to ease their pain."

I have in the past been a strong critic of the Mercy congregation. However, I now believe it is finally beginning to grapple with the appalling truth of the thousands of lives which it destroyed in its institutions. It is a process which may well split the Mercy nuns down the middle. What is now clear, however, is that their leadership believes that it is only by confronting this truth that both the nuns and their victims can have any chance of being set free.