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County home survivor told to contact police in England, not gardaí, over destruction of testimony

A number of witnesses have contacted the gardaí and Data Protection Commissioner to date.

Mary Teresa Collins and her daughter Laura Angela Collins at a protest outside Leinster House (file photo)
Mary Teresa Collins and her daughter Laura Angela Collins at a protest outside Leinster House (file photo)
Image: Laura Angela Collins

A COUNTY HOME survivor has been told to contact police in England about the destruction of the audio recording of the testimony she gave to the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.

Mary Teresa Collins (60) spent time in the Cork County Home, then a Magdalene Laundry with her mother, before being moved to Coleman’s Industrial School for Girls in Cobh.

She suffered physical and emotional abuse throughout her childhood, as previously reported by TheJournal.ie.

Mary Teresa is one of the more than 500 survivors who gave testimony to the commission. She says she was not informed that the recording of her testimony would be destroyed and she would not have testified if she knew this was the case.

Mary Teresa is among the survivors to contact An Garda Síochána and the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) about the destruction of the audio recordings.

She lives in England and in recent days contacted gardaí in Cork about the situation. She asked to give a statement about the destruction of the audio but says she was told she would have to contact a local police station to do so as she no longer lives in Ireland.

Mary Teresa plans to go to a police station in London this week but does not understand why she cannot make a statement to gardaí. As many survivors now live abroad and cannot travel she believes they should be supported to make statements over the phone.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie today, Mary Teresa said: “Those feelings are coming back, feelings of not being believed. I don’t want to do it outside Ireland, I would have preferred to report it where it all happened.

“I’ve got to walk into a police station in London and go over it all again - having to tell another stranger. They probably won’t know what I’m talking about. 

“It’s just constantly reliving and reliving and reliving, and it takes over your life.”

When asked why a survivor was told to contact a police force abroad, a spokesperson said An Garda Síochána “does not comment on individual complaints by members of the public”.

However, they noted that AGS “has appointed a senior officer to carry out an examination of the Final Report of the Commission into the Mother & Baby Homes, published on 12th January 2021 particularly in relation to any actions required by An Garda Síochána”.

“This examination is ongoing,” they added.

Children’s Committee 

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman is set to appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Children, Disability, Equality and Integration this afternoon.

He is coming under increasing pressure to extend the term of the commission of investigation – a number of campaigners and opposition TDs have called for the commission to not be dissolved as planned at the end of the month.

They say the commission should remain in operation until its members answer questions about its final report and the deletion of the audio recordings.

Campaigner Noelle Browne, who was born in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork, is among those calling for the commission’s term to be extended.

Speaking on Today with Claire Byrne, she said the recording of the testimonies must still exist as modern technology makes it “very hard” to completely destroy information.

“I’m pretty sure that they didn’t record them on a cassette tape that got lost or was smashed to bits, there must be some hard drive or some machine somewhere where they can extract those testimonies,” she said.

O’Gorman has sought clarity on whether or not this is the case. However, he is not expected to extend the term of the commission.

In a letter to the Children’s Committee, the minister said: “Any call to extend the timeframe of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes must have regard to the fact that the independent Commission completed the inquiries it was established to conduct when submitting its Final Report last year.

“A decision on any further action will be informed by the information gathering exercise described above and the legal advices of the Attorney General. It is not clear at this point that an extension is in fact necessary to clarify these matters, or that extending the timeframe of the Commission would assist in this regard.”

In a separate written response to TDs who questioned him about the issue, O’Gorman said: “In its Final Report, the Commission notes that:

Witnesses were asked for permission to record their evidence on the clear understanding that the recordings would be used only as an aide memoire for the researcher when compiling the report and would then be destroyed. All such recordings were destroyed after the report was added to the Confidential Committee electronic repository of information.

O’Gorman continued: “Therefore, the decision not to retain these recordings was taken by the Commission to ensure the anonymity it had promised.

“My Department’s understanding is that recordings were made as an aid to the work of the Confidential Committee and that the above reference includes contemporaneous notes taken by the note taker at the same time and used to create the records retained for the Confidential Committee.”

However, Mary Teresa and many other survivors have denied this assertion – saying they were never told the recordings would be destroyed.

The Clann Project, which advocates on behalf of survivors, has encouraged witnesses to contact the DPC and An Garda Síochána about the destruction of the audio recordings.

The group is not aware of other survivors being told to contact police forces abroad. 

The DPC has confirmed that it has asked the commission to provide a legal basis for the deletion of the records.

O’Gorman is set to reiterate the confidentiality point at the committee hearing today.

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He is also expected to confirm that the heads of a long-awaited Information and Tracing Bill will be ready by late March or early April.

O’Gorman is set to tell the committee that he understands why survivors are “disappointed and angered by the report, finding its tone and language cold and overly legalistic”.

The minister is also expected to state that he is committed to continued engagement with survivors.

Chairperson of commission

The chairperson of the commission was asked to appear before today’s Children’s Committee meeting but declined.

In an email received by the committee earlier this month, former judge Yvonne Murphy declined the invitation, with a spokesperson saying she was “unavailable”. She is not legally obliged to attend.

Committee chair Kathleen Funchion previously told TheJournal.ie that the committee has sent a follow-up email saying it “would facilitate a different date” if needed.

The Sinn Féin TD said the committee wants to have “a proper dialogue and proper engagement” with the commission, and is hopeful that the former judge may appear before it at a later date.

With reporting by Cónal Thomas

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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