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Dublin: 21°C Tuesday 9 August 2022

Column: We know the horrific details of clerical abuse - but do we understand why it flourished?

Amnesty International Ireland director Colm O’Gorman explains the responsibility we all have to create a society where abuse can’t exist on an industrial scale, as detailed in the ‘In Plain Sight’ report.

Colm O'Gorman

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL IRELAND yesterday released a report which said that some of the acts revealed in reports on clerical abuse here amounted to “torture”. Colm O’Gorman, Amnesty Ireland’s director, writes for on why the group had to commission its own research into the “most systematic human rights violations in the history of this State”.

THERE IS AN obvious clear and compelling reason why Amnesty International Ireland might commission research such as ‘In Plain Sight’.

The issue central to this research, the abuse and exploitation of tens of thousands of Irish children in State-funded institutions as detailed in the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (The Ryan Report) and the abuse detailed in the Ferns, Murphy (Dublin) and Cloyne Reports constitute arguably the gravest and most systemic human rights violations in the history of this State.

Therefore, it is vital that these violations, and the State’s responses to them, be assessed against the standards dictated by International Human Rights Law. For those children who experienced rape and sexual abuse, physical abuse and economic exploitation it is vital that their experiences be recognised as grave human rights violations and breaches of law.

Even post the publication of the Ryan Report there were those who sought to minimise the horrific reality of the abuse inflicted upon so many of our most marginalised and vulnerable children. There have been voices that have sought to dismiss systemic and barbaric cruelty as the norm in the Ireland of the time. Such voices must not be permitted to rewrite or diminish this history, neither now nor in the future, and for that reason it is vital that Amnesty International use the language of International law to clearly name the violations inflicted upon children for what they were.

Systemic and repeated rape isn’t just child sexual abuse and systemic and ritualised beatings are not corporal punishment; they amount to torture in certain circumstances and the degree to which that applies in the context of the Ryan Report particularly must be properly named. But the focus cannot be purely on the past, as if this history has no relevance for our society now. We must consider the degree to which this history reveals vital truths about the nature of our society today. The past only becomes history once we have addressed it, learnt from it and made the changes necessary to ensure that we do not repeat mistakes and wrongdoing.

It is widely accepted that the widespread abuse of children documented in the various reports considered by this research was made possible because the State adopted a deferential attitude to the Hierarchy of Roman Catholic Church.

The State failed to honour its obligations to children and vulnerable adults it placed in the ‘care’ of church run, State funded institutions.

The State pushed vulnerable children to the margins, effectively ‘othering’ them

It failed to investigate and prosecute allegations of child sexual abuse made against priests and religious with the same rigour that it investigated and prosecuted others accused of the same crimes.

It failed to protect and support the most vulnerable children in our society, those living on the margins in some way due to poverty, family status, ethnicity or because of some arbitrary judgement that they were morally suspect.

Instead it pushed them further to the edge of the margins, effectively ‘othering’ them, deeming them unworthy of social inclusion and rightful legal protection. They were made invisible, turned into outsiders by their own society and abandoned to multiple abuses and experiences of exploitation. As such the State deferred to unaccountable and powerful interests and failed to protect the rights and needs of its people. It often responded to allegations and concerns of criminal activity not by investigating the wrongdoer but by diminishing and dismissing the victim. The law was applied, or indeed ignored, to protect the powerful not the powerless.

Accountability has become something of a buzzword in Ireland over the past few years. After the collapse of many of the supposed pillars of our society we have begun to look, albeit it somewhat belatedly, at the concept of accountability. But our focus seems not to be on the broad application and value of the principle of accountability an essential tool to guide good decision-making and governance, but rather on accountability as a means to apportion blame for past failings and to impose sanctions upon those who have failed or wronged us.

This approach is in my view symptomatic of a deeper problem; a culturally systemic failure to appreciate the value of both responsibility and accountability as something other than a burden to be borne or something to be dodged so as to avoid sanction. Our approach to accountability is not one that encourages an honest and frank exploration of failure or error in an effort to properly analyse why or how mistakes have been made, but one that seems to seek scapegoats as a first reflex. That’s not to say of course that accountability does not require an acceptance of responsibility for wrongdoing and the passing of an appropriate sanction where required, but real, meaningful accountability must be about more than that.

Accountability becomes a vital tool to inform good decision-making

Accountability is not simply a means through which we react or repair failure or wrongdoing. It is a vital tool for those charged with making complex and difficult decisions; one that can guide and strengthen decision making and the development of law, policy and practice. Real accountability requires for instance that those in positions of authority who make decisions which impact significantly on the lives of others should consult with and be accountable to those same people in making such decisions and in implementing them. In this way accountability becomes a vital tool to inform good decision-making and ensure that policy decisions serve the very people they most affect.

Essentially accountability demands that power be answerable to those that it is intended to serve. In a Republican democracy such as Ireland the power exercised by the various organs of the State is power conferred upon the State by its citizens. In that context the need for accountability becomes even clearer. The State is the people, and those charged with acting for the general good of society should be clearly and meaningfully accountable to the people in whose name they act.

There is no doubt that there have been enormous failures in the application of the principle of accountability in Ireland. For example there is a general perception that the law does not apply to everyone equally. The letters pages of our national newspapers have been littered with letters highlighting how a different standard of accountability seems to apply to the transgressions of those in positions of power than to, for example, a person on the poverty line who cannot pay their television licence. The fact that a person living on the poverty line can be sent to prison for non-payment of their television licence whilst those responsible for catastrophic failures in the governance of our banking system appear to be above the law, is often flagged as proof that this is the case.

Accountability must first and foremost be concerned with an honest and courageous openness to learning what went wrong in any given context in order to ensure that we address the deficiencies at the individual or systemic level that either tolerated or caused the error or wrongdoing. Once in place accountability mechanisms serve as a preventative tool, preventing wrongdoing and informing better practice and not simply reacting after the fact to mistakes and wrongdoing.

But the Ryan, Ferns, Murphy and Cloyne Reports reveal a deep seated failure to appreciate and incorporate effective accountability into our society and systems. This is true at the level of  the State, but also I believe at the level of the individual. It has become a cultural phenomenon.

Power operated to protect the powerful to the cost of wider society

When such a culture is revealed it is vital that it is considered in the broadest possible context. If we work to identify how power operated in the context of the Ryan, Ferns, Murphy and Cloyne Reports we will undoubtedly gain insights of critical importance as we work to strengthen child protection and children’s rights, but such insights will have also a broader application. Put simply, if in this area, power operated to protect the powerful to the cost of wider society it is likely that this dynamic was repeated in other spheres, be it in banking and business, politics or other sectors of society controlled by powerful interests.

I have believed for some time that the Reports, and the resulting public focus on the issues they reveal, offer a unique opportunity to better understand some of the fundamental flaws in our society. It is important to acknowledge the courage and determination shown by Irish people in recent years in our efforts to get to the root of the various abuse scandals. The fact that the various inquiries and investigations took place is due not just to the courage and determination of those who were victims in this context, but also to the high levels of public support that built as more and more histories emerged which spoke to the truth of what happened in industrial schools, children’s homes and reformatories, as well as in day schools and parishes all over Ireland.

For it is not the case that the emergence of these truths is a modern phenomenon, not by a long stretch. For decades people right across Irish society and at various levels of power and influence knew about the abuse perpetrated by some of those in positions of unquestioned authority, concealed by their organisational leadership and at times with the complicity of agents of the State itself. As this research documents, many voices were raised, many letters written and ignored, before wider society chose to listen and to demand action.

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In many ways there is nothing quite so defensive as a system under threat, especially when that system penetrates an entire society. So often it appears easier to ignore the harm done to others than to work to force change, exposing ourselves as in opposition to the established order. In a society that punished ‘others’ by criminalising them and denying them the comfort and protection of the rule of law it is undoubtedly easier to stay silent, conform and not become an ‘other’ oneself.

Our silence in this context makes us at least in some part complicit. However, it is vital that this complicity not be overstated. Power is not equally shared in our society and the fear of marginalisation is a powerful deterrent to prevent the less powerful from speaking out. But such an application of power, and acceptance of powerlessness, has a deeply corrosive effect upon society. The Ryan, Ferns, Murphy and Cloyne Reports most graphically expose this corrosive impact. By using them as a lens to explore issues such as power, accountability and the role of wider society in holding power to account we can identify, and I hope address, some critical deficiencies in our society.

There is no shame or dishonour in naming and taking responsibility for our own failures, no matter how serious they might be. Looking at ourselves with courage and real honesty never diminishes us. Rather it offers unique learning and opportunities to act with both courage and compassion to become a stronger and more just society.

As such this research should be viewed not as a critical eye cast backwards in time in an effort to identify those whom we might blame for undoubtedly terrible violations, but as a call to understand and take ownership of the various levels failures of responsibility which allowed them to happen, to ensure that we have done all we can to make proper reparations to those harmed and to ensure that we repair the flaws in how our society works to ensure that all of us are guaranteed the full and equal protection of the law and the full and equal enjoyment of our human rights.

Women and men spoke to me of their sense of sorrow and shame

The genesis for this research was my belief that many Irish people did indeed understand that we all, at the level of the individual and as members of wider society, bear some responsibility for ensuring that such violations are not permitted or tolerated. This belief was based was based upon many conversations I had with people around the country following the publication of the Ryan Report in 2009. Women and men spoke to me of their sense of sorrow and shame at the society that we had allowed ourselves to become and expressed a real desire for change. I was struck by how this kind of insight and honesty was not reflected in much of the political or media discourse that followed and became convinced that we all must play a role in working to both identify and work for change where it is most needed.

This research is Amnesty International Ireland’s initial contribution to that process. Whether or not it succeeds in promoting such an essential public conversation is dependent upon the willingness of organisations and people across our country being prepared to participate in that process. Such a profound and vital discourse can neither be owned nor defined by any one organisation or individual. It depends upon all of us.

Polling conducted as part of this research suggests that that an overwhelming majority of Irish people feel a clear sense of responsibility for this dark part our history. It suggests that we believe that we each as individuals have a responsibility to respect and defend the human rights of other people in Ireland. It suggests that a significant majority of us believe that Government acts when society demands that it acts.

Put simply, it appears that we understand that we have a responsibility to effect change where it is most needed and we know that we have the power to do so.

Reflecting upon the key lessons to be drawn from the Amnesty International commissioned research, Minister for Children and Youth Affairs Frances Fitzgerald who launched In Plain Sight said, “The fundamental lesson for me in this is that we must create a society in which no-one is afraid to speak. In which no-one is afraid to challenge authority and power, because deference to the powerful is a guaranteed way to help that power corrupt.”

More information and a download of the research In Plain Sight is available here.

Read: Clerical abuse in Ireland tantamount to torture: report>

About the author:

Colm O'Gorman

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