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A Long Journey in Search of Justice for Victims of Abuse

Irish Times, Tue, May 19, 2009

RITE AND REASON: The long-awaited report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse is to be published tomorrow. One of the first former residents to go public on her experiences in the Goldenbridge institution reflects on events of recent decades, writes CHRISTINE BUCKLEY 

TWENTY-FIVE years ago I started what seems now a fairly simple investigation to find out who my parents were. Perhaps, I thought, if they were still alive 37 years after my birth, I might even meet them. Little did I know that thousands of other people would be inspired by that investigation and the spin-off from it – some to undertake similar voyages of self-discovery and others to go beyond this through counselling support and education to develop renewed selves.

In 1985 I found my birth mother and three years later I travelled to Nigeria to meet my father. There, I told him about my life in Goldenbridge Industrial School (at Inchicore in Dublin) and how I intended to go public about the horrors of that place once he returned to Ireland to meet my children.

In 1992 Dad duly arrived and his old friend Gay Byrne invited both of us to tell our story on RTÉ Radio. Many might have thought that would be the end of it, with maybe a book, possibly titled Daughter Finds Parents, which would close with an almost fairytale ending as we could all live happily ever after. But thousands of others wanted help to undertake similar investigations and wrote and phoned Gay Byrne and me asking for our help. Their stories demonstrated how many children, several with the collusion of the judiciary, were incarcerated in industrial schools to undertake slave labour in order to swell the coffers of the religious congregations.

Not alone were many deprived of any knowledge of their parents, but their sense of self-worth was corroded by inhumane treatment and neglect. “School” was a complete misnomer. While I was one of the few fortunate ones to receive a secondary education, and subsequently qualified as a nurse, most didn’t even get a decent primary school education.

These institutions have been the subject of a major and lengthy investigation by the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, which is to report tomorrow.

After the overwhelming response to the Gay Byrne radio interview, a senior member of the Mercy congregation apologised on the airwaves and agreed to meet me to discuss funding a counselling service for a handful of women who were with me in Goldenbridge. Alas, that promise was not realised.

It was those following years of delay, exacerbated by the denials or dismissals by the religious and their apologists in the lay world, as well as elements in the media, which meant that further, more telling evidence was required.

For this reason I agreed to Louis Lentin’s invitation to participate in his 1996 TV documentary Dear Daughter . While Louis intended, as the title suggests, focusing on my story and highlighting the fairytale ending, I persuaded him to incorporate the harrowing tales of other brave women in Goldenbridge.

This was designed to demonstrate that it wasn’t just one person’s experience. Sadly, two of those women have since died. Yet again the scale of the response widened with many more people speaking out against the way the Sisters of Mercy and other religious congregations treated children. They also provided evidence that the mistreatment was not confined to the Sisters of Mercy but was perpetrated by a number of religious orders.

The Sisters of Mercy set up the Faoiseamh helpline But such was the response of religious sympathisers that RTÉ acquiesced and broadcast one of the most one-sided Prime Time programmes in its history, which included interviews with a Sister of Mercy held responsible for ill-treatment, and her sympathisers.

RTÉ refused me a right of reply in studio despite my co-operation with the producer. Such a right of reply was given to the Sisters of Mercy in our Dear Daughter programme.

Notwithstanding that, a “One Happy Day” reunion took place in the RDS with the support of two Goldenbridge woman, Carmel McDonnell-Byrne and Bernadette Fahy as well as wonderful volunteers from the general public. The day was magnificent and shocking. Yet again further evidence would be necessary.

In the meantime, over those years I met politicians from the three main political parties to seek help for those who had contacted me.

My requests ranged from seeking an inquiry to finding out what went on and why in those institutions, as well as to the provision of counselling and education for victims of abuse.

Austin Currie, then minister for children in John Bruton’s government found excuses to avoid meetings, as has his fellow Northerner, President Mary McAleese. Perhaps it’s because of what Northern Catholics have suffered that they seem to be find it more difficult to believe what we suffered at the hands of the religious in the Republic.

In contrast, even in opposition and then when in power, former taoiseach Bertie Ahern and Micheál Martin, then minister for education. were willing to meet, listen and believe. Meanwhile, broadcaster and journalist Mary Raftery had been in contact with me and I assisted her in meeting people who were willing to be interviewed for her series States of Fear. It was supported by the book Suffer Little Children , written by Mary and TCD lecturer Eoin O’Sullivan. In response to that programme Ahern issued a historic apology on behalf of the State, on May 11th, 1999, which at last provided the vindication that the State, which had sought to brush us under the carpet, finally acknowledged what we suffered.

He also set up the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, a nationwide counselling service, and the Residential Institutions Redress Board. Self-help groups such as the Aislinn Centre, Right of Place in Cork and centres in Britain were established to assist fellow survivors.

Other services soon followed. These included the National office for Victims of Abuse (Nova); the Origins Tracing Service in Barnardos, to enable people access personal details about their childhoods and to assist them in tracings parents, and siblings who were sadly often separated on committal; and the Education Finance Board. It was set up (as part of the State indemnity agreement with the religious congregations) to financially assist former inmates and their relatives in availing of educational services. Nova also set up a helpline counselling service.

In the 2004 Baltimore Fishing School report, former chair of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, concluded “that victims accounts were credible” and described conditions at Baltimore as “so harsh and deprived by the standards of today as to verge on the unbelievable”. There are dark days ahead as we await Mr Justice Seán Ryan’s findings tomorrow.

To promote healing, it is important to learn why abuses occurred and who was responsible. It is also anticipated that Mr Justice Ryan’s report will include recommendations for the safeguarding of children in care. But recommendations mean nothing unless they are implemented and strictly adhered to with frequent unannounced inspections. Otherwise we could be revisiting a similar chapter of institutional child abuse in years to come.

What we find out tomorrow will indicate whether the journey for justice, undertaken by so many and for so long, has at last been successful.

Christine Buckley is director of the Aislinn education and support centre at Jervis House in Dublin