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Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (CICA), Investigation Committee Report Vol. II

Extract from Chapter 6 of Vol II “The Sisters of Mercy” Section 6.73 to 6.80

Ms Christine Buckley had made serious allegations of abuse arising out of her time in
Goldenbridge on the Gay Byrne radio programme on 8th November 1992, but it was the ‘Dear
Daughter’ programme in February 1996 that represented a turning point for the Congregation.
Although earlier books had been published and interviews broadcast, they were relevant only to
particular convents or Diocesan Congregations, whereas the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme was the
first to confront the Congregation as a whole:

It actually was the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme in 1996. Because earlier those two books
would have probably come to the attention of the particular convent connected to the
orphanage in which their experiences were recounted but in 1996 we had come together
as a Congregation and the impact of the ‘Dear Daughter’ programme on us is hard to
describe really because the impact of the story and of the coverage in the media following
that, it was like a tidal wave that came over us for which we were not prepared either
structurally or in terms of how we understood the past at that time.

The programme had an enormous impact on the way that the Congregation viewed itself:
The impact was enormous on the Congregation. One of the reasons was because we
had held a particular picture ourselves of our involvement in the care of children and that
particular programme certainly shattered all of that. We had within the Congregation
many, many Sisters who had no experience of industrial schools. They wouldn't have ever
been attached to a convent where there was an industrial school. They were never
involved in them themselves. They wouldn't have them in their memory. Suddenly there
were all of these allegations coming to us and we really didn't know how to deal with them
at the time. I think we went through the shock and denial and that whole sense of could
this be true ... We didn't have a base of knowledge ourselves to check it out against. So
our initial response was that kind of dismay. Huge hurt within the Congregation for the
people who were coming forward with their stories. All of that had a huge impact on the
morale of the Congregation. I say that because it was in an effort to try to create some
understanding of that, that we engaged in the process I spoke about earlier, that kind of
self-reflection process around how could this have happened? How did we contribute to
creating situations where this could have happened? It was a very painful time. Then we
had Sisters within the Congregation who were extremely pained by somehow now seeing
their life's work being cast in a totally different light. These would be the very elderly
Sisters. That was very difficult for them.

Sr O’Neill stated that there was enormous pressure on the Leadership Team at the time:
... it was the tension of holding all of those pieces and trying to support everybody involved
at that time. I am talking particularly in the years '96, '97, '98.

The Sisters of Mercy were aware of ‘Dear Daughter’ before it was aired. When it was being
made, the Congregation commissioned Mr Gerard Crowley, a childcare specialist, to carry out an
investigation into Goldenbridge Industrial School, in an effort to provide the Congregation with an
independent view of what happened there, and to give the Congregation some assistance in
deciding how to respond to the allegations that were being made. Mr Crowley’s report is
considered in detail in the chapter on Goldenbridge: for present purposes, it is sufficient to note
that it reached a preliminary view that the allegations were broadly credible. In her evidence to the
Investigation Committee in the Phase I hearing into Goldenbridge, Sr Helena O’Donoghue stated:

The approach gave us, if you like, some understanding initially of how we might view our
situation at the time and we out of that made our apology. We took the main conclusions
from it that the regime was harsh and insensitive to the needs of children, that it was
inadequate and did not meet their basic needs.

Following ‘Dear Daughter’, the Sisters announced the setting-up of a helpline and a counselling
service. Also, in an effort to build up its level of understanding, the Leadership met with every
Sister in Ireland who had worked in childcare. It also met with every Community which had had
an industrial school attached to it in the past:

We learnt a number of things. We learnt that their understanding of their time spent in
childcare in these industrial schools, their understanding was that they had done well
under very difficult circumstances ... They would acknowledge that the atmosphere in
those institutions was certainly not conducive or helpful to addressing the emotional needs
of children. They talked about the lack of funding. They talked about the lack of resources
in terms of help. They talked about an ... institutional sort of daily set up that wasn't
conducive to either attending to children's individual emotional needs ... Or to developing
to the degree that they would now want with the individuality of children. They would
recognise there was harshness ... But they wouldn't accept the more serious allegations
that have been made against them.

Sr Breege O’Neill stated that the relationship that individual Sisters had with former residents might
have clouded their view or led to a ‘rose-tinted’ picture of what life was like in the industrial schools:

... what complicates the whole piece for us is that those Sisters continued to have ongoing
contact and friendly relationships with many who were in our institutions and who to this
day come back and they visit. They stay for weekends in the summertime in those
Communities. So in some way that sort of tradition maybe informed our picture of what
we thought the relationship was. People would attend weddings and christenings of
children and all of that, and letters would be exchanged. I suppose one of the things we
learnt from going around talking to the Sisters was the huge affection they have for those
who were children in the institutions and with whom they have that ongoing contact. We
try to hold that side by side with the huge pain that many people who were in our
institutions speak about. That has been a real dilemma and tension point for us as a

In addition to these interviews, the Congregation:

... engaged ... in a very intense process of reflection throughout the whole Congregation.
Just trying to understand what structures of ours brought about a situation where the
stories that were emerging in the 90s could have happened. We have enlisted the help
of historians and psychologist, theologians to help us with that reflection. To try to
understand the context of the time, but also our own structures and anything within those
that might have led to that.

After the broadcast of ‘Dear Daughter’, the Sisters of Mercy issued their first public apology, in
February 1996. This stated:

In the light of recent revelations regarding the mistreatment of children in our institutions
we the Mercy Sisters wish to take this opportunity to sincerely and unreservedly express
our deep regret to those men and women who at any time or place in our care were hurt
or harshly treated. The fact that most complaints relate to many years ago is not offered as
an excuse. As a Congregation we fully acknowledge our failures and ask for forgiveness.

Aware of the painful and lasting effect of such experiences we would like to hear from
those who have suffered and we are putting in place an independent and confidential help
line. This help line will be staffed by competent and professional counsellors who will
listen sympathetically and who will be in the position to offer further help if required. In
this way we would hope to redress the pain insofar as that is possible so that those who
have suffered might experience some peace, healing and dignity.

Life in Ireland in the 40s and 50s was in general harsh for many people. This was reflected
in orphanages, which were under funded, under staffed and under resourced. It was in
this climate that many Sisters gave years of generous service to the education and care
of children. However, we made mistakes and irrespective of the passage of time as a
Congregation we now openly acknowledge our failures and ask for forgiveness.

Regretfully we cannot change the past. As we continue our work of caring and education
today we will constantly review and monitor our procedures, our personnel and our
facilities. Working in close cooperation with other voluntary and statutory agencies we are
committed to doing all in our power to ensure that people in our care have a protective
and supportive environment.

We were founded to alleviate pain, want and misery. We have tried to do this through our
work in health care, education, child care, social and pastoral work. Despite our evident
failures which we deeply regret we are committed to continuing that work in partnership
with many others in the years ahead.