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Opinion: It is a bittersweet time for victims of institutional abuse – the least we can do is listen

Victims of mother-and-baby homes as well as the Bethany Homes must finally have their voices heard.

Mairead Healy

THIS WEEK, a number of the victims groups representing the mother-and-baby homes as well as the Bethany Homes came together to finally have their voices heard. In the past number of weeks, we have seen headlines reverberate all over the world, leaving many people truly shocked at a time when people thought they could be shocked no more from the previous Magdalene, industrial schools and child abuse scandals.

It has been a long time coming for the victims, who have knocked on many doors over the years and were repeatedly ignored and denied even the merest level of acknowledgement, when other injustices were being addressed. For the victims, this is a bittersweet time. Alongside the joy that they are finally being believed for the injustices they experienced, this is also an extremely emotional and challenging time for them as every detail of the abuses in the mother-and-baby homes and Bethany Homes becomes public knowledge and is discussed and debated in every household in the country. What we must remember is the voice of the victims, they must not be lost in all of this, particularly in relation to the inquiry which is being set up to investigate the abuses.

Full independence

In defining the form and scope of the inquiry, it is first essential that full independence is ensured in order that the victims can have full confidence in the ultimate findings of any inquiry. Linked to this, we have called for the appointment of an international judge to head up the inquiry, and for victims groups to be consulted in the appointment of the chairperson and other members of the inquiry commission. Additionally, the victims groups have also called for the vital need to consult with them in relation to defining the terms of reference and scope of the inquiry.

Of particular concern is the risk that some of the homes will be left out of the investigation and, for this reason, the groups have called on a fully inclusive inquiry where all victims of state institutions will be included in this, including not only the mother-and-baby homes and Bethany Home, but additionally including county homes, church of Ireland Magdalene home, Westbank and Ovaca House in Wicklow alongside the inclusion of the Magdalene homes. It would be a profound injustice not to include all the victims, which previous inquiries have done and which has represented a double injustice to the victims. The coming together of both the Catholic mother-and-baby homes and the Protestant Bethany homes on this issue, demonstrates the united view that everyone has, that there should no longer be any cherry-picking of some injustices over another.

Fast-track the redress

Another aspect which is important for the victims, due to the elderly nature of many of the victims, is the urgent need for a speedy inquiry which will fast-track the redress. The victims believe that a modular scheme would be the best solution to implementing an inquiry, in which various areas of the abuse would be considered separately, such as the vaccine trials, high mortality rates, illegal and forced adoptions and the issue of mass graves.

Another important aspect of the abuses, which has not received as much attention in the media, is the abuse and degrading treatment experiencing by the women themselves within the institutions. This must also be addressed.

Notwithstanding the inquiry which will be taking place over an extended period, there are immediate mechanisms which can be put in place at this stage. In particular, the groups are calling for memorial stones to be erected at all of the mass grave angel plots and for the names of all of the deceased babies to be placed there. It is of vital importance for the victims that a name must be given to each and every victim. Other immediate actions which should be implemented include a helpline and counselling service which should be available to the victim’s currently experiencing severe trauma at this time. Additionally, we believe that a full State apology is required at this stage by the Government, with a fuller apology once the inquiry is concluded.

UN Torture Committee

Regardless of the outcome of the inquiry, the victims groups will still be presenting our report against the Irish Government to the UN Torture Committee, whilst we acknowledge that the Government has finally bowed down to public pressure in recent weeks, it is still important to raise at the international level the violations that have led to the failures of successive governments to acknowledge and address the abuses which took place within these institutions. Linked to this, it is important that the UN will be in a position to scrutinise the inquiry in its examination of Ireland in 2015 and ensure that proper redress is provided to the victims.

However, in all of this, the voice of the victims must be heard. Mary Lou McDonald summed it up well during the Sinn Fein Private Member’s motion on Wednesday night, saying it was not the babies who were illegitimate, but it was the State, Church and indeed society which was illegitimate.

After everything that the victims have been through from the initial abuse, to the denial of what happened to them for so long, the very least that society can do for them now, is to ensure that they are finally listened to.

Mairead Healy is the legal advisor for the Coalition of Mother and Baby Homes and Bethany Groups.

Opinion: Abuse and neglect are being hidden in plain sight – but will we open our eyes?

Read: Bethany Home, where 222 children died, to be included in mother and baby home investigation

About the author:

Mairead Healy

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