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Cross to bear: Ireland’s Ryan Commission into child abuse in the Catholic Church

Ireland has undergone a painful purification regarding widespread child sexual and physical abuse in what were once revered institutions of church and state. Since the 1990s, no less than 14 high-powered…

The report into the Irish Catholic Diocese of Cloyne pointed to dysfunction at the centre of the Catholic Church. Flickr/William Murphy

Ireland has undergone a painful purification regarding widespread child sexual and physical abuse in what were once revered institutions of church and state.

Since the 1990s, no less than 14 high-powered and damaging reports into the abuse and exploitation of children in church-run orphanages, industrial schools and parishes have been published.

The central thread in all these reports has been of a story of cover-up by the State and institutions putting their own interests before those of children. When confronted with evidence of sex abuse, religious authorities responded by transferring offenders to other locations, where in many instances they were free to abuse again.

The story emerging from Australia is uncannily similar to what occurred in Ireland. The Royal Commission should look at the process that was undertaken in Ireland as the only other country to have undertaken a national inquiry. Judge Ryan who oversaw the publication of the 2009 Ryan Report after nine years, concluded the rape and abuse of children within the care of the Catholic Church was endemic. Judge Ryan has advised the Royal Commission not to have a specific time limit as the Ryan Commission process shows they had to deal with a number of unexpected obstacles.

The commission’s original judge, Mary Laffoy resigned in 2003 over claims that the Irish Department of Education – which was charged with inspecting the orphanages and industrial schools – was refusing to hand over documents to her. The Ryan Commission also did not expect they would draw on the testimonies of thousands of former inmates and officials from more than 250 church run-institutions resulting in a 2,600 page final report. During the commission’s investigations, oral evidence was collected from more than 1,000 people, mainly aged from their 50s to 70s. Several hundred travelled back to Ireland from the UK, US and Australia to describe their childhood of terror and intimidation. This time, support and opportunity must also be given by the Royal Commission.

The purification in Ireland continues and it will take a number of years to ensure that the best interests and views of children are taken into account in childcare, access, custody, guardianship and adoption cases. In the aftermath of the Ryan report’s publication, the then-government and President Mary McAleese said the report could be used to bring perpetrators of child abuse to justice. Our current Taoiseach (Prime Minster) Enda Kenny in 2001 delivered a landmark speech in the Dáil (Parliament) on the publication of the Investigation into the Catholic Diocese of Cloyne pointing to a “dysfunction” that exists at the heart of the Catholic Church – the Vatican.

However it is significant to note that over three years since the publication of the Ryan Report, the Irish state has not prosecuted those priests, nuns and lay personnel that committed the crimes of rape, torture, neglect, starvation as outlined in the report. Eleven files had been forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in relation to prosecutions on the basis of evidence provided by the Ryan report. The DPP has directed no prosecution in eight of these abuse cases and decisions are still pending on the remaining three case files. The lapse in time since the abuse took place, a lack of witnesses and a lack of evidence has hampered the ability of the State to take prosecutions.

As the Royal Commission commences its work, it is important to remember the welfare of the children currently in State care is of paramount importance. In Ireland a referendum held on October 10 this year passed the recommendation that children’s rights to be enshrined into the Irish Constitution. While turnout was significantly low (33.5%) the amendment received all-party support and significantly, cautious support of the Catholic Church. The amendment makes it mandatory to report any complaint from any child about abuse. People working with children are now obliged by law to report any concerns those children express to them. If they receive a credible report that a child or young person has been abused they must now under law pass that on to the Gardaí (Police) and other relevant authorities.

The failure to protect children can also be attributed the Ireland’s overall attitude to women, sex and morality. The Catholic Church still intervenes in social policy debates and 84% of the population still identify as Catholic. The Irish State is still dependent on the Catholic Church in providing many services. Over 92% of Ireland’s State primary schools are still owned by the Church and run under a Catholic ethos.

Reform and change is slow but efforts have commenced to shift the ownership with pilot areas emerging across Ireland giving parents a preference on the running and ethos of schools. Ireland without doubt has a significant way to go as the process of purification continues.

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  1. Lynne Newington


    I always wondered why Mary Robinson never did anything during her time as president.
    She even went onto the United Nations and I wouldn't be surprised she was given the position to get her out of the way.
    She had strong affiliations connected to the church.

    1. Éidín O'Shea

      Regional Community Development & Engagement, Irish Politics & Social Policy at University of Southern Queensland

      In reply to Lynne Newington

      The Presidential role in Ireland is largely ceremonial role-Mary Robinson was a transformative president and achieved much during her tenure-Her job in the UN came close to end of her second term and was offered her largely due to the awareness she brought to the world of the Famine in Rwanda and her legal background in human rights-(her new autobiography is a wonderful read).

      Mary McAleese who followed her as president is very close connections to the Irish Catholic Church and since her tenure ended last year she has been pursuing PhD research in Rome on Canon Law and has of late been very critical of the church on a number of social issues (marriage equality etc).

  2. Sean Lamb

    Science Denier

    " The lapse in time since the abuse took place, a lack of witnesses and a lack of evidence has hampered the ability of the State to take prosecutions."
    The Irish DPPs might be interested in the informal "rule of two", principle that the Australian police work to. Which is basically if you can find two complainants who have no obvious links to each other that will testify, then each single complainant gains in credibility - sort of Gestalt Theory in a sense.

    I hear Peter Fox is looking for a job - perhaps we could send him over to Ireland? He was always pretty adept at flushing that 2nd complainant out....

    1. Lynne Newington


      In reply to Sean Lamb

      He won't be looking for work don't worry, those seeking his demise are the ones now running for cover.
      I don't know why Catholics alway attack someones "mentality", when expedient, even their own, including clergy.
      I know of one they tried to "rewire", back in the 70's and he only wanted to leave.
      Franciscan again.

    2. Sean Lamb

      Science Denier

      In reply to Sean Lamb

      Ahh well, last I heard Peter Fox himself was saying he was compelled to resign. I would be disappointed to hear if that was not true, one would hope that one would have to suffer a tiny bit of suffering before donning the garb of martyrdom. It seems in these modern times even a momentary discomfort is not necessary.

      You have lost me with the Franciscans - then again I afraid the Tacos of the Anglican Synod are as foreign to me as the Maize of Canon Law.

  3. Lynne Newington


    Yes I know, she's giving the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith a hard time at the moment, speaking up for several priest's and working through the maize of Canon Law that causes division, using the example of Anglican Archbishop Rowan Wiliams not permitted to take Communion in the Catholic Church.
    I thought that a liitle strange as Anglican Third Order Franciscans can, one I'm aware of attending Mass at the parish church I once attended.
    But then, the Franciscans appear to be a law unto themselves, so far, even going under the radar of this Royal Commission.
    I'm not sure the fact they're not under the episcopal governence has anything to do with it, or just they've made 'offers too good to refuse", being one of the richest orders in the world, financially I mean.

  4. Michael Leonard Furtado

    Doctor at University of Queensland

    Eidin, thanks indeed for a very informative and enlightening article. The account you give of the Ryan Commission helps one better appreciate the unclear lines of authority relating to the reporting of child abuse, especially by Catholic educational providers in Australia, by drawing attention (for me, at least) to the cultural links between the bulk of Catholic school provision in this country and the Irish school system.

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