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'It looks like the State is hiding something': Senior historian decries plan to seal testimony of abuse survivors

The Retention of Records Bill was approved at a Cabinet meeting in February.

The Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse
The Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse
Image: Leon Farrell/RollingNews.ie

A TOP HISTORIAN at the National Archives has hit out at proposals that would seal records held by inquiries into historic institutional abuse for 75 years.

The Oireachtas Education Committee will hear this morning from Catríona Crowe and some of those who will be impacted by the proposed Retention of Records Bill before it begins formally considering the legislation.

Crowe, head of special projects at the National Archives, will tell the committee that the government would set “an extraordinary precedent” if the bill closes the archives to those who gave testimony to three bodies who dealt with allegations of historic child abuse.

“There would seem to be no good reason not to use the provisions of existing legislation to preserve, withhold and make accessible these very important records…” her opening statement to the committee reads.

“Administrative records of these bodies should be subject only to the provisions of the National Archives Act, and not swept up in this ill-considered attempt to bypass its provisions.”

The bill would seal records from the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB) and the Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee transferred to the National Archives.

The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse was set up in 2000 to hear evidence of abuse from individuals who allege they were abused in institutions from 1940 onwards.

The RIRB was established in 2002 to make awards to individuals who were abused, and the Residential Institutions Redress Review Committee was also established to review those awards.

The bodies hold more than 2 million records between them, with the commission hearing evidence from more than 1,000 people and thousands more receiving awards from the RIRB following further hearings.

The proposed bill was approved at a Cabinet meeting in February, with Education Minister Joe McHugh claiming that retention of the records was essential to ensure that institutional abuse perpetrated against children was never forgotten.

If passed, it would overturn original legislation enacted for the RIRB and two committees to perform their duties, which stated that such records should be destroyed when their work has been completed.

‘We cannot forget’

Carmel McDonnell Byrne, who was held in Dublin’s Goldenbridge Industrial School between 1965 and 1972, will tell the committee that survivors did not agree to their records being sealed when they participated in the Commission or applied to the RIRB.

“It is from my experience and contact with survivors that the bill is likely to cause practical, emotional and psychological problems for survivors…” her opening statement will say.

“Further investigations were and are necessary. This Bill will not allow such investigations to take place.”

McDonnell Byrne, who co-founded the Christine Buckley Centre to provide education and support to those who suffered from abuse, will also say that survivors deserve a right to copies of their testimony if they want it.

She will also suggest that the records should be kept in a museum alongside items from industrial schools, such as pliers used for making rosary beads and samples of clothing.

“It is important for my children, grandchildren and future generations to understand what happened in Ireland and how thousands survived this very harsh and shameful regime,” her statement says.

“We cannot forget what happened to the thousands of children that were incarcerated into 200 institutions run by church and state.”

Dr Mary Lodato, a researcher and a survivor of institutional abuse, will also tell the committee that survivors and their deceased relatives should have immediate unrestricted access to their own files.

She described current restrictions which prevent abuse survivors from sharing their records as “a re-traumatising reminder” of the Church’s authority over them, and claimed that access to them could have a therapeutic affect instead.

“The proposed 75-year sealing of our files creates cynicism,” Lodato will say.

“It makes it look as though the state is hiding something. This state has already robbed survivors of so much, and profited from our suffering. It must give us our history, and let us share it with the nation.”

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