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'I am fuming, it's so disrespectful': Survivors react to commissioners' refusal to appear before Oireachtas

‘What the nuns said was sacrosanct, whereas our trauma was dismissed as stories’

Mary Harney pictured in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Cork, circa 1955.
Mary Harney pictured in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Cork, circa 1955.
Image: Mary Harney

SURVIVORS OF MOTHER and baby homes have criticised how their personal testimonies were handled by the Commission of Investigation into the institutions.

They have also expressed disappointment that the commissioners on Friday refused the latest invitation to appear before the Oireachtas Children’s Committee.

A number of survivors who spoke to The Journal yesterday described the refusal as “disrespectful” but not surprising. The commissioners are not legally obliged to attend.

The invitation was reissued on 4 June, two days after one of the commissioners, Professor Mary Daly, defended the report at an online seminar organised by Oxford University.

Many survivors have criticised the report, in particular conclusions which state there was a lack of evidence of forced adoption, abuse and discrimination, despite testimonies contradicting this. Some people have also said their testimonies were amended or misrepresented.

During the Oxford event, Daly said the Commission had essentially discounted the testimony given by hundreds of survivors to the Confidential Committee when coming to its conclusions as this testimony was not given under oath – instead focusing on the evidence given to the Investigation Committee.

However, the commissioners’ refusal letter yesterday said this stance took her comments out of context.

Daly also stressed on numerous occasions that the Commission’s hands were tied by the Terms of Reference it had to operate under, as well as the “looming” threat of legal action from the religious orders in question.

The potential legal action of survivors – which has now become a reality in several cases – was seemingly not given the same consideration.

Mary Harney, who was born in the Bessborough mother and baby home in Cork and spent years in the Good Shepherd Industrial School in Sunday’s Well, is among those taking legal action.

The 72-year-old has a masters in human rights law from NUI Galway and is a member of the Clann Project, a group that advocates on behalf of survivors.  She claims her statutory rights were breached by an alleged failure to be given an opportunity to make submissions on the commission’s draft report before the final report was published.

A number of religious orders were given the right to reply to elements of the report before the final version was published in January.

Mary was among those tuning in to the Oxford seminar.

‘I was bawling, I was very angry’

Speaking to The Journal, Mary said watching the event was very difficult and emotional. Hearing survivors’ testimony described by Daly as “stories” was particularly difficult.

“I listened to Mary Daly’s interview and afterwards I was just gutted. What was the point [in giving evidence] if the testimonies that we gave were just going to be ignored?”

“I was bawling [while watching it], I felt very angry. It showed the difference in the weight given to what the nuns said versus what we said. I came from America to give my evidence. There are other Americans, there are other people from the UK and from other countries, how can we all be saying the same thing and yet it’s just a story?

“How can it not be evidence? I gave my history, as it happened to me. That’s a fact. And for her to say that these were stories is to diminish us once again, to denigrate us.

“It’s the same reason that we are not allowed to have free and unfettered access to our documents: We are not believed. We are not truly viewed as adult human beings, as responsible. We are infantilised, as though we don’t know what happened to us.

“And while this has made me angry, it has also gave me the strength to carry on and keep advocating on our behalf.

“Our treatment, again, is implying that we are less than that, that our evidence is worth less than the religious orders’ evidence. This treatment continues the inequality that we’ve been subjected to all through these investigations.”

download (1) Mary Harney Source: Mary Harney

The Commission heard evidence via two Committees: the Investigation Committee and the Confidential Committee.

Witnesses who gave evidence to the Investigation Committee had to swear that the evidence they gave was true, and their claims were questioned in a more rigorous manner.

Mary chose to give evidence via the Confidential Committee based on her previous experience with The Ryan Commission into child abuse. She found this process very adversarial so opted for the Confidential Committee route when giving evidence to the more recent inquiry.

Mary, like many others, has since said she did not realise that going down this route would mean her evidence was not treated in the same way.

“Once more I feel we were dismissed and our hard given testimony was not given the respect it deserved. Instead the testimony of the religious orders was treated as sacrosanct. The nuns’ evidence is viewed as fact, our evidence is viewed as stories.”

Mary is now based in the US and flew back to Ireland to give testimony to the commission in 2016.

“I was told that my testimony would be given to the Commission so I naively assumed that meant that it would be included in the final report.”

The Confidential Committee’s report gets its own section in Commission’s final report but the testimony gathered via this committee was seen as separate to the evidence given under oath to the Investigation Committee.

The former was a less adversarial, information-gathering exercise, while the latter involved witnesses testifying under oath and being questioned in a more rigorous manner. As such, Daly said the information gathered at the Confidential Committee was not legally “robust” and could not be given the same weight as other evidence.

Sixty-four survivors gave evidence to the Investigation Committee and 36 provided sworn affidavits, whereas over 500 witnesses gave evidence via the Confidential Committee. Just 19 people applied directly to give evidence to the Investigation Committee, and it’s not clear how the other witnesses were chosen.

“I was appalled by that revelation that basically the evidence given to the Confidential Committee was throwaway testimony that wouldn’t be considered. That has caused me more emotional upheaval.

“Once again, people are saying, ‘Oh, we believe you’. And yet a Commissioner said that our testimony wasn’t given weight or considered to be the same.

If someone had said to me in the beginning that my confidential testimony was not really going to be considered, why would I – why would any of us – put ourselves through the emotional trauma that occurs every time we have to go through what happened to us?

“Why would we do that, if we knew that it would not be given equal weight in the commission’s report?”

Mary is among those calling for the Commission’s final report to be repudiated. She said the government’s view that doing so could delay redress is “nonsense”.

‘Back with a vengeance’

Daly told the Oxford event that the Commission had to be “ultra careful” in terms of what it published due to the “looming” threat of legal challenges.

“If we wrote something that was averse or critical about an individual or an entity, an institution, we had to write a draft report, send them that draft report where we made these critical observations and supply them with the accompanying documentation. And they had a chance to read that, and they had a chance to come back.”

This, she said, happened “with a vengeance” and she gave the example of the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

The Commission of Investigation was set up following claims that up to 800 babies were interred in an unmarked mass grave at a former Bon Secours home in Tuam, Co Galway – following extensive research done by Catherine Corless.

Excavations carried out between November 2016 and February 2017 found a significant quantity of human remains, aged from 35 foetal weeks to two to three years, interred in a vault on the site.

Speaking about Tuam, Daly said: “The burial report, I would have thought, was fairly conclusive in what we said about both Tuam and Bessborough but we got heavy pushback on both.

“Tuam came with this extraordinary assertion that those burial tanks were actually purpose-built burial vaults. The kind of thing you see in continental Europe used by royal and other families.”

She said the assertion that “a cash-strapped local authority would have constructed something like that in the 1930s” was very unlikely. “They had the nerve to send that back to us,” she added.

At the site of the former institution in Bessborough in Cork, the burial place of over 800 children remains unknown.

‘Meaningless’

Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman recently told survivors that the Commission of Investigation could have used their personal testimonies “to inform the processes and outcomes of the inquiry”. In a letter sent to some survivors and their relatives last weekend, O’Gorman said the Terms of Reference under which the Commission operated did not prohibit the commissioners from using the testimony.

The testimony given to the Confidential Committee was not transcribed or included verbatim in the final report – some of the testimony was included, at times paraphrased, and the recordings were used to fill in forms that gave an overview of people’s experiences in the institutions.

In the letter O’Gorman told survivors: “Your evidence stands as a profound published account of the lived experiences of those who suffered within the walls of these institutions. For my own part, I want to be clear – you are believed.”

Mary said that telling survivors they are believed is “meaningless” if the official record indicates otherwise. O’Gorman may no longer be in office when redress is actually given, Mary adds. What if his successor takes a different view?

Mary said rejected the final report should have no impact on delivering redress.

“That’s nonsense – redress can still be administered. The Commission itself gives [the government] leeway – they can go above and beyond the recommendations – to construct redress in another form without this report.

“The redress should be based on the violation of human rights that occurred. There’s nothing stopping them from giving us redress, but it seems that they’re fixated on medical cards and financial redress, instead of looking at the whole issue of justice, which is the more important thing for many of us.

“I acknowledge that [financial redress and medical support] will satisfy some people’s needs and that should be taken into account, but there are many of us who see justice in a different way.

“I see it as creating legislation that will give us unfettered access to our information, our birth certs, all the information that pertains to all aspects of our time and our relatives’ time in these institutions.

“I believe that misinterpretation of GDPR is stopping them from giving us the access we’re entitled to.”

In terms the legal challenges being taken by her and other survivors – due for another High Court hearing next week – Daly said: “We are entitled to a judicial review and that’s what I’m asking for, that the Commission’s findings are reviewed.”

‘Compounding the trauma’

Saoirse* also gave evidence to the Confidential Committee under the assumption that the commission would consider it when coming to its conclusions about how the institutions were run.

“I knew nothing about the fact there were two committees,” she told us.

Saoirse spent time in Ard Mhuire mother and baby home in Dunboyne in the 1980s. She said she wanted to keep her daughter but was coerced into signing the adoption papers under duress.

“It was so exciting to give birth to this gorgeous little girl, it was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me, and I was determined to hold on to her.”

Saoirse vividly remembers handing her daughter over to a social worker, recalling: “I can still picture her running away with my baby.”

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“It’s the most unnatural thing in the world to separate a mother and her child,” she said. Saoirse eventually found her daughter over 20 years later.

Speaking to The Journal during the week, she said the content of the final report left her very angry and that Daly’s recent comments were “mind-boggling”.

“To say we were just telling stories is like saying we were telling lies or making it up. She said they were just stories. We didn’t go up [to Dublin] for fantasyland.

“Do they have any comprehension of how difficult and painful it was to re-live the pain and terrible memories?

“The chapter on Dunboyne in the long-awaited report is unbelievable, all about the dimensions of the building, the extensions built, Meath County Council giving them planning permission, but little about what should be in it, the voices of the mothers,” she said.

Saoirse said that recent developments have “compounded the trauma” for survivors.

“People don’t understand the amount of trauma we experience every time we have to go through this. It takes it out of us emotionally, mentally, and socially. I don’t engage socially with people when I’ve been through one of these so-called sessions, I want to be alone, it’s difficult to be a part of our society in a way.

“When this happens, it just takes an emotional toll every time.”

Saoirse said that by not appearing before the Oireachtas committee – or any forum to answer questions – the commissioners are not being held accountable. She said their refusal to appear before the Children’s Committee is “very disrespectful” and left her “fuming”.

Daly told the Oxford event that she previously spoke to her colleagues about “how we could have integrated the confidential inquiry into the report”, but that it “would have taken a lot of time, additional time, I mean”.

“It would have taken hundreds of hours of cross-checking, rereading against the other evidence available from registers and so on. Then maybe interrogation, and then maybe working out how to integrate the two.”

Saoirse said the Commission should have spent more time, and money, to do a more thorough job.

“She said that it would take hundreds of hours, so then spend hundreds of hours doing it. They had a budget for €25 million and they only spent half of that. They should have spent all the money and done a better job.”

In a letter sent to the Oireachtas Children’s Committee on Friday, the three commissioners state that their findings could be “put in peril by an appearance before some of the Committee’s members whose rush to judgement without due process, is already a matter of record”.

The letter goes on to state: “While the Confidential Committee was separately constituted, its report is an important element of the Commission’s final report. It is not true to say that the testimonies of the women were ‘discounted’ or ‘discarded’ by the Commission. Professor [Mary] Daly did not say this. Others did.

“The accounts given were very much taken into account by the Commission. They were relied upon to the extent that the Commission considered appropriate having regard to the totality of the evidence gathered by the Commission and before making its findings.

“Those accounts were also reported in a manner that preserved confidentiality in the lengthy Confidential Committee report which was, as directed, ‘of a general nature’.”

*Name changed as interviewees’ request

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