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Beyond the economy:
Church abuse should be a serious election concern

23rd February 2011

With the general election now only days away, we ask whether the candidates running for office are ignoring the Ferns, Ryan, and Murphy Reports and their collective indictment of this nation’s treatment of its children.  It is a serious question, asked in light of the scant attention afforded the issue of Church-State relations over the course of the campaign.  

But, even as the economy agenda dominates the political debate, we ask whether the incoming government will complete the unfinished work of making right the abuses suffered by women and children in residential and other institutions? Simply put, does the financial crisis veto all other social and political concerns for the foreseeable future? 

If you were expecting to find answers to these questions in the party manifestos, you would be wrong.  Reading these publications, it is impossible to determine where the political leaders stand on these issues. Social and child welfare is either ignored altogether or appears peripheral to the various plans for government. The implications for survivors of institutional abuse are deeply troubling.    

So, before heading to the polls on Friday, we think it important to remind the electorate of the June 2009 all-party Dáil motion pledging to “cherish all of the children of the nation equally”?  Were we not meant to understand by that motion that the neglect of vulnerable and/or socially marginalized children was a thing of the past? 

Some of us were sceptical at the time.  Within months of the Ryan Report, the outgoing Minister for Children characterized the 2009 Institutional Child Abuse Bill as “premature.” That legislation would have extended the Residential Institutions Redress Scheme to groups previously excluded. They remained excluded. It would have removed the “gag order” from survivors who went through the RIRB.  And, it would have wiped clean all criminal records for adults detained as children in residential institutions. Survivors still wait for their political leaders to deliver these reforms. 

The Murphy report was published in November 2009, and one year later its full import was realized with the publication of excised material detailing the heinous abuses perpetrated by Fr. Tony Walsh. We seem to have forgotten Brian Cowen’s defence of the Papal Nuncio’s non-cooperation with the commission of inquiry on terms of diplomatic protocols?  We didn’t know then, of course, that the Papal Nuncio instructed Irish Bishops in a 1997 letter that the Vatican had “serious reservations” about a plan for mandatory reporting of clerical sex-abuse cases to the police.  The Cloyne Diocese report will likely arrive later this year, in the first months of the new government.  Will those political leaders have the courage finally to hold the Catholic Church accountable for past abuses, and in doing so prioritize the rights of survivors? 

Irish society has witnessed the HSE compelled to produce figures for the numbers of children who died in its care over the past ten years—estimated at 200. Likewise, we learned of the 219 infants who died while resident in the Bethany Home, dispatched to an unmarked grave at Dublin’s Mount Jerome Cemetery. Dare we ask that politicians investigate the nature of the state’s involvement in these deaths?  And, what of the infants who died in Catholic mother-and-baby homes like Bessboro, Sean Ross Abbey or Castlepollard?  Where are those infants buried? 

In November 2010, the Irish Human Rights Commission found sufficient evidence of significant human rights violations in the nation’s Magdalene laundries to recommend that the government institute a statutory inquiry.  The IHRC Assessment report recognizes the importance of restorative justice for a population of aging and elderly survivors. The outgoing government refused to act, referring the document to the Attorney General’s office for review. No action was taken. Again, our political leaders failed the most vulnerable of our citizens.

It doesn’t stop there. Irish society is still waiting for a constitutional referendum on children’s rights.  We are still waiting for adoption legislation that recognizes the right of adoptees to access their birth records. And, we are still waiting for emergency social work coverage for vulnerable children during weekends and holiday periods. Children left un-protected. Will our newly elected government ensure their health and safety?

In the final days of this campaign, we ask for whom does the political system work in this country?    

Not for our most vulnerable citizens?  Not for those seeking to reclaim their stolen past? Not for those seeking justice for abuses perpetrated on them at the hands of Catholic religious orders and the State.  Not for those children of parents victimized by a culture of political deference to the Catholic Church?  Not for adult adoptees seeking to know who they are and where they come from?  Not for a population of elderly and aging women desperate to know that what happened to them in a different era was wrong and that they were not at fault? 

Whoever is elected to office next Friday, our political leaders must demonstrate the political will to address the unfinished business of our nation’s past—the business of Church-State collusion and complicity in the abuse of tens of thousands of our citizens.

James M. Smith, Associate Professor, English Department, Boston College

Mari Steed, Director, Justice for Magdalenes

Claire McGettrick, Adoption Rights Alliance

Paddy Doyle, Author: “The God Squad,” Moderator, http://www.paddydoyle.com

Maeve O’Rourke, Harvard University Law School Global Human Rights Fellow


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“In all of us there is a hunger, marrow-deep, to know our heritage, to know who we are and where we have come from. Without this enriching knowledge, there is a hollow yearning . . . and the most disquieting loneliness." 

Alex Haley, Author of Roots 





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