In the Irish gulags abusers roamed free because children didn't matterAdded on May 26, 2009
By Fergus Finlay
Tuesday, May 26, 2009
I DROVE to Clonmel on Sunday for the finals of an under-nines and under-10s football tournament. It was organised by Clonmel FC and brought together young footballers from the six Munster counties. They (and the rest of us) had a brilliant afternoon and we were made to feel really welcome by the Clonmel team.
"Kids for kids" is the slogan of this invitational tournament, and it raises money for the work we do in Barnardos. It's a great idea that, isn't it - kids enjoying their sport, really having a go at competition, learning a bit about themselves in the process and raising a few bob for other kids along the way.
All the clubs that took part have wonderful youth policies and they're all staffed (if that's the word) by dedicated volunteers
- coaches and parents, and people who've given their lives to their clubs and the kids they work with, year in and year out.
Looking at the kids playing, each of them able to imagine a bright future as the next Roy Keane or Damien Duff, and watching the pride and joy of their parents and coaches, you could almost forget for a moment the darkness that unfolded across our country last week.
But in some ways the contrast between the happy-go-lucky kids I met on Sunday and the tortured, hunted children I've been reading about all week made it even more painful.
I don't feel I have the right to speak for the survivors of institutional abuse in Ireland. I've met many of them over the years and I'm in awe of their courage and determination.
The anger of people like Christine Buckley and John Kelly, even today in the wake of their total vindication, is both palpable and entirely justified. Theirs is the authentic voice of reproach to a system that betrayed them and left them in hell.
And yet I do believe the rest of us have an obligation to try to analyse this and to see what sense, if any, can be made of it. I heard someone on radio say the other day that everyone over 50 in Ireland shares some portion of the blame for what happened.
I'm not sure if I agree with that - but I do keep asking myself the same question: if I had known, would I have tried to stop it? Because there is one conclusion that I believe has to be faced up to after you finish reading the report of the commission, and it is this: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is no cliché; it is the most profound point of the entire history of institutional care in Ireland. The torture and degradation of generations of children was not the work of bad apples. It was the result of a corrupt system. The failure to stop it was not the result of oversight or mistake. It was part of the same corruption.
The glib words being uttered now that stop well short of any acknowledgement of systemic abuse, and very well short of a declaration that the perpetrators will be handed over to the justice system, is part of the same corruption. And so too is the insistence that people who did horrible, terrible things to children cannot even be named.
We know that many - probably almost all - of these abusers who are still alive feel no shame. By not naming them we are allowing them to have the last laugh. That it beyond corrupt.
I am not saying that in any sense the commission itself is corrupt as a result of its decision not to name abusers. It has a variety of reasons for not doing so - not the least of which, I imagine, is that it would have been dragged through the courts by some of the religious orders had it decided otherwise.
But there is no reason for the rest of us - at least those of us who know the real identity of these abusers - to carry on with that pretence. Until the report of the commission was published, for example, anyone who had any understanding of what had happened in Goldenbridge knew the principal perpetrator was a woman called Sister Xaviera. There is no basis whatever, having read the report, why she should be entitled to a new and anonymous identity as Sister Alida.
To get back to the essential point - the core issue at the heart of the abuse of thousands of children was an abuse of power. The children concerned, by and large, didn't matter to the system - they were a burden. Their lives were already blighted by poverty and right from the very beginning it was considered alright to treat them as less than citizens.
Consider four basic facts.
First, there was, for example, no due process about the way they were sent to institutions. Children were, literally, plucked from their families and incarcerated for years, although they had committed no crime. Not one of those tens of thousands of children, throughout that entire period, was ever represented.
No judge or court ever heard a defence of them, or ever heard any complaint they might have to make about their incarceration. The most basic legal rights were simply, and casually, removed from them.
Secondly, one of the underlying facts about the way they were treated was that the worse the treatment, the bigger the profit for the religious orders. The way in which the entire system was funded provided a built-in incentive to starve the children and to deprive them of heating and clothing.
For years the religious orders have asked us to take into account that the system was underfunded by the state and that the religious had to go to great lengths to make up for that deficiency. It was a gigantic lie. State funding wasn't huge, but if the orders hadn't siphoned off money for their own purposes, it would have provided at least better nutrition.
FACT three. The orders protected abusers, especially when the abusers were their own. They pretended they didn't understand, or that it might be possible to reform the abusers with prayer.
Another lie. They knew full well that everywhere they sent an abuser they were putting more children at risk. But to protect the institution, they shuffled the abusers around anyway.
Fact four. The state was complicit. Once the state had got rid of the problem of needy or troublesome children, it bent over backwards to facilitate the religious and to help them cover up any problems. Throughout the terrible decades that this abuse went on, I have no doubt there were some civil servants who would have conspired, if they had to, in covering up murder.
In short, there was as much accountability throughout the entire system as there was in the Gulag Archipelago or the killing fields of Cambodia.
Profits were made, abusers went free, power was wielded mercilessly because the children were invisible and therefore, ultimately, they didn't matter.
Well, there are still invisible children in Ireland. Children whose voices aren't heard, who may be suffering in silence.
The question we have to ask ourselves is: do they matter now?