Mary Lou McDonald TD
Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Bill 2012
Tues, 8 May 2012
It is important to say at the outset that the State and the Government continue to fail the women and children of the Magdalene Laundries and Bethany Home. It is to the great shame of the Fine Gael Party and the Labour Party that they have done nothing to right the wrong perpetrated against these women and children despite having been so critical of the previous Government’s inaction when in opposition.
The current Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, said in 2010 that former residents of the Magdalene Laundries and Bethany Home must be included in the redress scheme. She went on to criticise the then Minister for Education and Skills for failing to allow these institutions to be included in the list of qualifying institutions for redress. She went on to say that for her, and I quote, it “was becoming clearer and clearer that these institutions were, to all intents and purposes places of detention, and that as such, “residents” were effectively sentenced by servants of the state, to periods of confinement therein”. The Labour Party Minister of State, when in opposition at the time, concluded her outrage with a demand for Government to do the right thing. She was correct to do so.
If we go further back to 2005, the Minister’s party colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Jan O’Sulliven, rightly described the scandal surrounding Bethany Home as a matter of national importance. In the same year the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, called on the Government to include Bethany Home in the redress scheme. All three of those Labour Party Deputies are now Ministers of State – they are part and parcel of this Government. During their years on the opposition benches they all shouted loudly against the decision by the Fianna Fáil led Government to exclude the Magdalene Laundries and Bethany Home from the redress scheme. They were right to do so, but I have to ask where are they today? What is the point of being in Government if one does not act against the very injustices that so exercised one when in opposition?
Just yesterday the Justice for Magdalene’s group released new evidence of 38 women and children having been committed to the Magdalene Laundries by the State. In one case, a girl – a child – of just 14 years of age was sent to High Park for two years in 1930 for perjury. As recently as 1983 an unnamed girl – a child – of 15 years of age was committed to the Good Shepherd Convent in Cork for theft. I could go on.
Over the last week criticism has been correctly levelled at the Roman Catholic Church by people on Government and Opposition benches. It is important in the course of this debate to remind ourselves that the State equally has a case to answer. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, said when in opposition that there was irrefutable evidence that the State was, as he put it, “directly complicit” in the confinement of these women and children. The evidence is there – we all know this – and it should not be the case that groups like Justice for Magdalenes or Bethany Home survivor, Derek Leinster, have to keep fighting this fight. Religious orders fundamentally abused their position within Irish society but the State was culpable too. Both must step up, accept responsibility and provide survivors and their families with the redress, supports and services that they now need.
The Bill legislates for the provision of support to people who suffered the most grievous abuse within State and church-run institutions. These institutions, instead of providing a safe haven and secure environment for children and young people, were often places where the most sadistic cruelty was inflicted. The legacy of the religious orders in these institutions is one of sexual, physical and mental abuse. The State compounded the pain and damage to our most vulnerable children by its decision to turn a blind eye to what was happening.
There are differing views on what are the best ways to compensate and support victims of church and State institutional abuse. Each opinion must be listened to and considered. The State must be humble in its response. It failed these people before and it cannot do so again. The Government needs to do much more than provide a sympathetic ear for those who have raised concerns about aspects of the Bill. Everything possible must be done to ensure the victims of abuse receive just recompense.
It seems wrong to have to reduce this debate so quickly to pennies and pence. I do not know that any of us can put a price on assisting survivors and their families to put their lives back together. Last week, a gentleman on the radio spoke about the need to move on. He spoke of wanting to apologise to his former partners for the difficulties in their relationships due to the abuse perpetrated against him as a child while in State care. My heart broke for this man. How can we put a price on giving him whatever support or redress he needs to move on?
The cost of redress is expected to reach €1.36 billion, and the religious orders need to pay up. Holding back on these moneys is creating additional hurt among victims and this is a situation the Government must address firmly and clearly. I have very serious concerns about the fund’s eligibility criteria, which is to be confined to those who received an award from the redress board or compensation following a court decision or settlement. Those who have not received redress to date will be blocked from accessing the fund and as a consequence the State will have failed them yet again.
It is important to note that 40% of the applications made to the redress scheme were by former residents living outside the State. The implications of the abuse they suffered impacted on their education, leaving many illiterate and some destitute. Far too often we hear of now elderly former residents of these institutions who have struggled to integrate themselves into their communities and now live a life of poverty, some in Britain or the US. All they want in life is to return home to Ireland to live out what remains of their lives. However, no provision has been made for them. In this context we are concerned about the Government’s intention to end funding outreach services once the statutory fund is established. I appeal to the Minister to reconsider this. Medical insurance is a real problem for survivors living in the US and Canada, as are nursing and residential care. In what way does the Government and the State intend to support their needs? Consideration must also be given to the views of some former residents who believe the distribution of the available money should be paid directly to survivors in lump sums.
Campaigner Paddy Doyle has noted the vast majority of former residents posting comments on his website are opposed to the statutory fund. Unlike the redress scheme, which provided financial compensation, the new fund will provide for a range of services instead. When we consider how the State failed survivors as children it is understandable they would now not trust the Government to decide on their behalf what their wants and needs are. It cannot go unsaid that the redress scheme itself was for many a truly awful experience. Sean Leonard of Justice and Healing for Institutional Abuse has noted the legal fraternity made a fortune out of the redress scheme. He states survivors were poorly treated when interacting with Departments. We must learn from this.
There has been, rightly, collective outrage against Cardinal Seán Brady’s failure to tell parents that their children were being abused by, or in danger of being abused by, Fr. Brendan Smyth. Many of us have read with horror the questioning by the church that survivor Brendan Boland had to endure at just 14 years of age. For many the redress board process was an equally cold and harsh experience. Lessons must be learned from this.
Councillor Sally Mulready, chair of the London Irish Women’s Survivors Support Group has said applicants to the redress board who were rejected on the grounds of being late should not be excluded and I agree with her. We have been told the funds supports will include access to counselling services, health care provision, housing needs and education. We need to ensure these services and supports will be adequately resourced and delivered. The Minister has also said the fund will promote understanding of the effects of abuse on former residents among service providers and will evaluate the effectiveness of the approved services in meeting the needs of former residents. In all honesty I question the capacity of the Government to deliver on this commitment, and I feel very sure that many survivors equally question it.
Child victims of sexual abuse whose cases have been taken up by the State can wait several months before even the most basic counselling services are provided. Often their families receive no counselling whatsoever. Last month the HSE revealed that approximately 178,000 people are on outpatient waiting lists to be seen by a consultant after referral by a GP. Tens of thousands of citizens have been waiting years for housing and may never in their lifetime move off the housing waiting list. The Government plans to cut a further 37,000 public sector jobs, so how can we guarantee and reassure victims and survivors that their needs will be met?
Christine Buckley of the Aislinn Centre has noted enhanced access to counselling services and education have greatly reduced recidivism but so much more is needed. Access is important but, in equal measure, so also is the time involved in accessing the supports and services. In many instances we are dealing with very elderly people who require urgent assistance. There is the reasonably held view that many of these services are already available to people as a matter of right, meaning the benefits of the statutory fund will be minimal. This is a point that should be made. Paddy Doyle, whom I mentioned earlier, has also noted that as survivors get older, their needs change, particularly when their levels of mental health and mobility deteriorate. As a result, some survivors will have greater needs than others yet it is unclear how the board will deal with these changing needs and, in some cases, imbalances.
The fund should have provision to pay for the education requirements of children whose parents were the victims of abuse. This can be an important step in breaking the cycle of inter-generation hardship that can be directly attributed to institutionalised abuse. John Kelly of the Irish branch of Survivors of Child Abuse, SOCA, has suggested the introduction of a universal card scheme whereby each survivor would get credits and these could be conferred to a family member.
The legislation must also examine how the awarding of assistance will affect residents of the Six Counties and Britain whose benefits are means tested and must be protected. Children of survivors will be excluded from accessing services as provided for in the Bill. This is a mistake.
Full access to education and counselling are critical components to breaking a cycle that began with the State’s failure to protect our vulnerable children.
A former resident of an industrial school in County Kerry wrote last month in a letter to The Irish Times of wanting to give her children what she had been denied, an education. This woman’s right to education was denied by the State. Her father was also a survivor of an industrial school and both her parents were illiterate. She described how her son has achieved 11 honours in his junior certificate – a bright lad – but now she worries that the family will not be in a financial position to send him to college. Perhaps, in an even worse indictment against this Government, the young lad is considering leaving school so he can help support his family, as his mother’s community employment Scheme will end in November and the family’s income will be reduced. The letter concluded by saying that education is the passport to ensuring that the family’s cycle of deprivation and social welfare dependency does not continue. This is a position of common sense and dignity, and I urge the Government to adopt it and listen to the words and needs of this woman.
Speaking in the Dáil in 2009, the Minister, Deputy Quinn, said: “No words of mine or of anybody else in the House can undo the damage, harm or hurt caused to and which continues for those people. However, the actions that we take can make some redress to them, their children and their children’s children”. He went on to charge the then Fianna Fáil Government for having “let free the horrendous record of the Department of Education and Science that continues to the present day”. He put it to the Minister that there was a continuing culture of deferment and obedience to the Roman Catholic Church and its religious orders in the then Department of Education and Science that had frustrated getting answers to the most simple questions.
I believe the Minister spoke with integrity on that occasion. Now, he is in charge and is making the decisions. He cannot afford to get it wrong. Of all the matters raised in the course of this debate and on Committee Stage, the issues of eligibility and ensuring the State, in the most fulsome way, recognises the damage done to victims and survivors and compensates them in the fullest way must be clearly guaranteed and underwritten in the legislation. I do not believe that is yet the case. The issue of means testing the provision of services to any of the victims or survivors must be clarified. Survivors must have the comfort of knowing that they will have access to properly resourced services, with no impediment put in their way by the State.
Now that he is in the Government, does the Minister have the same courage he displayed when he was in the Opposition? I hope he does. The victims, survivors, their families and their communities need a full resolution from the Minister. That is the least all of us owe them. I commend them for their efforts. I hope the Minister has listened to our words and that we can constructively fashion the legislation to meet all those needs.