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Minister tells survivors he believes them as opposition call report 'whitewashed fiction'

Roderic O’Gorman has told survivors that the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes was not prohibited from using their testimony.

A picture of nuns and children from a mother and baby home was projected onto Sean Ross Abbey as part of the Herstory Light Show on St Brigid's Day.
A picture of nuns and children from a mother and baby home was projected onto Sean Ross Abbey as part of the Herstory Light Show on St Brigid's Day.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

Updated Jun 8th 2021, 9:50 PM

CHILDREN’S MINISTER RODERIC O’Gorman has told survivors that the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes could have used their personal testimonies “to inform the processes and outcomes of the inquiry”.

In a letter sent to survivors and their relatives over the weekend, O’Gorman said the Terms of Reference under which the Commission operated did not prohibit the commissioners from using the testimony.

The minister sent the email after one of the commissioners, Professor Mary Daly, last week acknowledged that the Commission essentially discounted the evidence given by hundreds of survivors to its Confidential Committee.

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.”

Campaigners and opposition TDs have called for the Commission’s final report to be repudiated, with Social Democrats TD Holly Cairns today saying it is “at best, heavily disputed and, at worst, a whitewashed fiction”.

During an online event organised by Oxford University, Daly repeatedly said the Commission’s hands were tied by the Terms of Reference it had to operate under. She also said that the Commission had to be “ultra careful” in terms of what it published due to the “looming” threat of legal challenges.

Daly’s appearance at the event was the first time one of the commissioners involved in the report had spoken publicly about their work.

A number of legal experts have since said the terms didn’t in fact prohibit use of evidence given to the Confidential Committee. The terms state that the Commission could rely on that evidence “to the extent it considers appropriate”.

In the letter sent to survivors on Saturday, and seen by The Journal, O’Gorman also takes a different stance to Daly.

The minister wrote: “The Commission’s terms of reference were designed to provide for a comprehensive and robust statutory inquiry.

“They were also designed to facilitate a truth-telling exercise; a process whereby people could come forward and tell their stories without fear of harsh cross-examination, traumatisation or loss of privacy.

“The terms of reference for the Commission made clear that the general report of the Confidential Committee, containing the personal experiences of survivors, could be relied upon to inform the processes and outcomes of the inquiry.”

NO FEE Minister O'Gorman Birth Information and Tracing Legislation JB3 Children's Minister Roderic O'Gorman (file photo) Source: RollingNews.ie/Julien Behal Photography

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.

The main purpose of the Confidential Committee was “to listen to the experiences” of survivors. The Commission previously stated that this committee “may be suitable for you if you wish to have your experiences heard in a sympathetic atmosphere by experienced people and you do not want any person or institution to know that you are giving evidence to the Commission; the evidence you give will not be open to challenge”.

Sixty-four survivors gave evidence to the Investigation Committee and 36 provided sworn affidavits, whereas hundreds of survivors 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.

Many survivors have criticised the Commission’s final report since it was published in January, 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.

A number of survivors and relatives have told The Journal in recent days that the latest revelations are “insulting” and “dehumanising”.

Derek Leinster, a Bethany Home survivor, today said: “It was pretty obvious from the start that using two different systems was not going to work.”

Leinster said the State “has a duty” to go contact the 550 people who gave evidence via the Confidential Committee “to establish the best way for them to receive the justice they deserve in a proper and professional manner”.

Speaking this afternoon, Taoiseach Michéal Martin said that there are “lessons to be learned in terms of the models of inquiries that we initiate, but it is challenging”.

“I don’t believe the Oireachtas Committee should interrogate the Commission,” Martin said.

I think we have to develop models which allow for proper exchange of views, particularly in an environment like this, and I don’t think it should necessarily be a barrier to recruiting people into the future to chair commissions and to become members of Commissions of Inquiry of this sort.”

“I think we do have work to do within the Oireachtas to work out what is the best model, what are the best models, for inquiries of this kind.”

Oireachtas committee

O’Gorman wrote that he was contacting survivors and their families “in light of the concern, distress and upset which I know many of you may feel following developments relating to the Confidential Committee”.

He continued: “You have been profoundly wronged by our State and by the religious orders involved. The Government’s response is built first and foremost on this acknowledgement, and we have said that the response will not be bound to solely the recommendations contained in the Final Commission Report.”

O’Gorman also stated that “a restricted academic event was an inappropriate forum” for one of the commissioners to publicly comment on the report for the first time.

He added that he has written to the three former Commissioners requesting urging them to accept a new invitation to appear before the Oireachtas Committee on Children.

The invitation, which was sent on Friday afternoon, asked the commissioners to attend a meeting on 17 June – a date that can be moved if needed.

The chairperson of the Commission of Investigation, former judge Yvonne Murphy, in February declined an invitation from the committee to appear before it, with a spokesperson saying at the time she was “unavailable”.

The committee then offered to “facilitate a different date” if needed, and extended the invitation to the other commissioners if Justice Murphy could not attend.

The other commissioners are Dr Daly, a retired professor of Irish History at University College Dublin and former president of the Royal Irish Academy, and Dr William Duncan, a retired professor of Law at Trinity College Dublin.

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Taoiseach Micheál Martin and Tánaiste Leo Varadkar last week both called for the commissioners to appear before the Oireachtas committee. The Commission was wound down at the end of February and the commissioners are not legally obliged to appear before the Oireachtas as it was an independent entity.

In his letter O’Gorman also told survivors he is “committed to advancing” tracing and information legislation “as quickly as possible”, as well as establishing a redress scheme – which is expected to be up and running in 2022.

“Work has also almost concluded on the development of a redress scheme. I welcome the very strong response to the public consultation process for the scheme. This will inform its design and I will bring the final report to Government for approval in the coming weeks,” the minister wrote.

‘Whitewashed fiction’

Cairns today said the government must “repudiate this hopelessly flawed report”.

In a statement, Cairns, a member of the Oireachtas Children’s Committee, said that “this Commission was instituted to get to the truth of what happened in a very dark chapter of our past. We now know that, what is presented as the truth is, at best, heavily disputed and, at worst, a whitewashed fiction.”

Speaking about the letter sent to survivors, she added: “The Minister, having now admitted the Commission got the most basic element of their solemn task wrong – their interpretation of their terms of reference – can no longer stand over this report as a reliable appraisal of that period,” Cairns said.

“I called for the report to be repudiated last week and I am making the same call today,” she said.

“This report is the only official State investigation into Mother and Baby Homes. It cannot omit the testimony of those who suffered in these institutions. That would be grotesque.”

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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