Address by President of the Irish Human Rights Commission

28th September 2011

I thank Dr. Manning for a very informative and enlightening address. I am strongly committed to the promotion and protection of human rights in Ireland, particularly children’s rights. I note that today is the 19th anniversary of Ireland’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child – I am calling it national children’s day.

I wish to focus on commending all the national NGOs, civil society organisations and relevant stakeholders for their contributions to the UPR process. I would particularly like to congratulate the UPR cross-sectoral steering group for its innovative and inclusive national consultation process, which I believe is the model of best practice for NGO consultation and could be shared with others, particularly developing countries, after the report. I note also the act of engagement by the Department of Justice and Equality.
I wish to ask Dr. Manning the value of establishing a Department of Justice and Equality NGO standing committee, akin to the Department of Foreign Affairs NGO standing committee which was established in 1997, in order to provide a formal framework for a regular exchange of views between the Department and the NGO-civil society community on the follow-up and implementation of the UPR recommendations in Ireland over the next four years.

Order of Business, 27 July 2011

27th July 2011

The point I wish to raise concerns the aforementioned Amnesty International report by Dr. Carole Holohan, which was informed and reviewed by an independent advisory group and commissioned by Amnesty International, namely, In Plain Sight, Responding to the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne Reports. At 430 pages, the report is of considerable length and obviously will take Members time to consider. It would be worth our time both to read it and to consider how best it could be debated in the House. The report acknowledges and understands what went wrong but also is working to ensure we establish a child protection system that is fit for purpose, lest we ever allow this to happen again. The “we” on which Amnesty International puts value is not simply about the church or the State but pertains to “we” as a society. In Plain Sight calls on us to acknowledge the extent to which the systematic abuse and exploitation of the tens of thousands of vulnerable Irish children in State and church run institutions was known across Irish society. The report does not purport to play the blame game. It moves beyond what has been to date a largely factual discourse about the who, what, where and when of the widespread and systematic abuse in question to a more philosophical and sociological analysis of why. To understand why it happened will help us to transform the present.

At the launch yesterday, Colm O’Gorman, executive director of Amnesty International, said:
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 wrongdoings.

Another striking and vital feature of the report is the acknowledgement that the abuse survivors endured is not only morally repugnant, shocking beyond many people’s comprehension and patently illegal, but amounts to a grievous violation of their human rights. The Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Fitzgerald, launched the report yesterday and acknowledged the Government’s legislative agenda. This House needs to have a debate about that agenda. I also ask the Leader to call on the Minister to redouble her efforts to ensure the constitutional the amendment to strengthen children’s rights is held without delay, that we ensure the full implementation of the UN convention on the rights of the child in Ireland, study the report and use it to inform our policy on child protection.

Commission of Investigation Report into the Catholic Diocese of Cloyne

27th July 2011

I wish to begin by thanking the Leader and the Cathaoirleach for ensuring that this important debate is taking place before the House rises for the summer recess.

Article 19.1 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states State Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse. Ireland ratified this convention in 1992 and the Holy See ratified it in 1990. The Cloyne report covers the period from 1996 to 2009. This debate must focus on the role of the church. We can discuss the role of the State on another occasion. I hope we will have an opportunity to do so when the forthcoming reports to which the Minister referred, including that relating to the 200 children who have died in the care of the State, are published. I assure colleagues that I will have plenty to say at that time on the role of the State. Today, however, I wish to focus on the Cloyne report.

The people of Ireland are hurting and they are angry. Those who were sexually abused by Catholic priests in the Diocese of Cloyne and elsewhere are hurting, as are their families, friends, partners, spouses and others who love them. There is much pain among members of the wider community. Many Catholics, including me, feel betrayed by the actions of those priests who sexually abused children and the actions or inaction of those within the hierarchy who covered up those crimes. Many priests must surely feel that pain, that hurt, that sense of being so badly betrayed.

People are angry because this is the fourth report to deal with the neglect or emotional, physical or sexual abuse of children by priests or religious in this country. There is massive anger as a result of the fact that a great deal of this abuse was perpetrated by people whose actions were covered up by others. There is also outrage because so much of the abuse of children was carried out in an environment where many adults had knowledge but where they chose to remain silent. People are incensed because so much of the abuse of children about which we have read in these reports was totally avoidable. Something has fed the anger to which I refer, namely, the responses of those who bear responsibility for causing the abuse of children, for covering up such abuse or for remaining silent while others around them engaged in abuse.

The Christian Brothers apologised for the shocking abuse of children revealed in the Ryan report when it was published. Only days beforehand, however, the Christian Brothers had written to the Residential Institutions Redress Board rejecting any allegations of systemic abuse and stating that the only form of corporal punishment allowed was moderate slapping on the palms of hands. By that time, the Christian Brothers would have known that such denials were not borne out of honesty. When survivors of industrial schools and members of the wider public learned of those denials, the apology rang rather hollow. The reluctance of religious congregations to pay their fair share of the cost of redress did not reveal an appreciation of the revulsion many people felt on reading about the degrading and disgusting treatment of children that was related in the Ryan report, nor did it demonstrate an act of remorse or recompense which many would have expected as an absolute minimum.

This was followed by the reaction of the Irish Catholic hierarchy and the Vatican to the Murphy report. Irish bishops were collectively shamed by the extent of the cover up in the Dublin Archdiocese and said it revealed a culture of cover up that existed throughout the church in Ireland but individually they said they had done nothing wrong and insisted that there was nothing in the reports that should cause any of them to have to resign despite the wishes of so many of those who had been sexually abused as children.

In early 2010 Irish bishops went to Rome to meet Pope Benedict who, in turn, sent a papal letter to Irish Catholics. The voices of survivors were ignored and no one took responsibility. Instead of acknowledging that this was a Catholic Church problem on a global scale, everything from secularism, petty gossip, homosexuality and the media were blamed and all this time the anger of the people of Ireland was rising.

Apologists will also decry the lack of attention during this debate to the failings within the State and its child protectionism practices but that is nothing more than an attempt to divert the attention away from the Catholic Church as we discuss the Cloyne report. It makes me think of when I was young and had done something wrong and was caught out by my mother and I would immediately have pointed to my brother and say,”but he did it too”. My mother, who is a wise woman, would have said “wrong is wrong and two wrongs do not make a right”. Today we should deal with the role of the church and equally on other occasions, as we have done recently when we dealt with the Fourth Report of the Special Rapporteur on Child Protection, deal with the role of the State.

Two weeks ago the Cloyne report was published. It quickly became clear that the oft-repeated claim by Catholic bishops that all the revelations of the abuse of children and its cover-up by them was a thing of the past was seen for what it was, just another self-serving attempt to minimise the findings of previous reports so that bishops could remain in office and manage any loss of reputation to the Catholic Church.

The people of Ireland were rightly angered to learn in the Cloyne report that all the time the church was insisting that the application of its own child protection guidelines meant that such a cover-up could never happen again, the reality was that Bishop John Magee had no interest in those guidelines and he delegated their implementation to Monsignor Denis O’Callaghan who did not even agree with their content and, as a consequence, child protection practices in the dioceses remained dangerous for many years.

Apologists for the Catholic hierarchy, few and far between as they have become, pretend that instructions from the Vatican, like the 1997 letter from the Papal Nuncio sent to Irish bishops on behalf of the Vatican congregation of the clergy, did not contain explicit instructions not to follow civil obligations but it is clear what was intended for bishops was to follow Canon Law only and not the guidelines that they had presented to the Irish people. Wrong is wrong.

Few people in Ireland have had any time for the excuses that some choose to make to justify and explain away the blatant disregard of child welfare, their safety and protection. For many years the response of the Government has not reflected that hurt and anger that the people of Ireland have felt. This failure to properly articulate how the people felt ended last Wednesday in the Dáil when the Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, responded to the publication of the Cloyne report. He said: “The rape and torture of children were down-played or managed to uphold instead, the primacy of the institution, its powers, its standing and reputation”. He went on to say: “There is little I or anyone else in this House can say to comfort that victim or others, however much we want to”. My understanding is that many victims or survivors are more comforted to hear the political leader of this country articulate very clearly their anger, disgust, revulsion and sadness that all of this has happened.

While our anger, disgust, pain, revulsion and sadness are all totally understandable, much more is needed. Many people who deeply care about advancing the safety, welfare, protection and rights of children had been advocating for a long time for many changes in administration, in practice, in legislation and in our Constitution where we need to strengthen the rights of children. I agree with Senator Darragh O’Brien that this rises above party politics and groupings. This is an issue on which we can find common agreement. In this regard, I acknowledge the plans outlined by the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs and also the plans that the Minister for Justice and Equality is taking on.

The Government, the survivors and the people of Ireland, not just Irish Catholics, await an appropriate response from the Holy See to the revelations of the Cloyne report and to reports which preceded it. What is required is an acknowledgement of their part in the long-standing cover up of the sexual abuse of children in this country by Catholic priests. That should be followed by an unconditional apology for that cover up and an unambiguous instruction to priests and the hierarchy to follow civil obligations, not just civil laws, and to always put children first.