Survivors of abuse must be allowed speak freely

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The Irish Times – Thursday, March 18, 2010
SHARON COMMINS

silencedA gagging clause which kills all discussion of the process of compensation by the redress board adds to the church’s culture of secrecy

THE TRUTH, they say, will set you free. The test of a true democracy is to be found in how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members.

The depravity, violence, emotional and psychological abuse uncovered in the decade-long Child Abuse Commission Inquiry into residential institutions were inflicted on some of the weakest and most vulnerable members in society – isolated children without a home.

Following the 1999 very public apology by the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, the Residential Institutions Redress Board was set up under laws passed in 2002, charged with compensating those who had suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse in childcare institutions subject to State regulation.

While the debate has focused on various aspects of the redress scheme, it has been to the exclusion of an aspect with implications for a representative democracy: the so-called “gagging clause”. As part of the compensation award, this confidentiality clause bans those who receive redress from talking about their experience of the scheme or from divulging how much compensation they were awarded. While survivors can discuss publicly details of their abuse in institutions, they are rendered voiceless when it comes to their stories of redress.

The penalty for breaking the harsh confidentiality clause is a fine of €3,000 or six months in jail on summary conviction in the District Court, or €25,000 or two years in jail on indictment. As abuse survivor Christine Buckley of the Aislinn Centre, put it: “A person breaking the ‘gagging order’ could be fined more than they even received from the redress board . . . tellingly this means that speaking about your abuse in the institutions is legally worse than being raped and starved and enslaved!”

Understandably many survivors of institutional abuse see the confidentiality clause as a step back into the bad old days where secrecy and concealment were the friends of child abusers. These survivors never really enjoyed a right of privacy when, as young people, they were interfered with, exposed in secrecy, time and time again. By making secrecy a condition upon payment, the very culture of concealment which has enabled these issues to remain hidden for decades is preserved and maintained.

Why the secrecy? Why the threat of imprisonment if people speak about their experience at the redress board? The nature of the redress scheme is designed to avoid the kind of cross-examination techniques used in civil and criminal courts where allegations are heard in an adversarial context, victims get to confront the perpetrators, and where allegations are dealt with by the investigation committee equipped with the relevant powers to pursue an investigation of those allegations.

The burden of proof is lower than the “balance of probability” test used in civil courts, and the redress board cannot make a finding of fact relating to fault or criminal liability on the part of those involved in the running of these institutions. Claimants must prove only that they have suffered physical or psychological injuries consistent with abuse.

Some of the thinking behind the prohibition on disclosure of information is the desire to protect not only the interests of those making allegations, but also the interest of those against whom allegations are made, since they do not have an opportunity to contest those allegations. Arguably the redress scheme would probably never have got off the ground without the clause.

Thousands of victims of abuse looked to the redress board for ultimate vindication of the truth of the trauma they suffered as children. Undoubtedly the confidentiality of those who have been abused needs to be protected. But if the survivors themselves, at the end of redress, want to talk about it, want to advocate and comment on their case, how it was handled and lessons learnt, is there a rational reason why they shouldn’t be able to speak publicly? Which useful public interest is being served by imposing such a ban?

The board’s proceedings were often felt to belittle and demean those survivors who were brave enough to tell of their horrific abuse, according to survivors from various interest groups. But this aspect cannot be discussed because of a penal regime of secrecy which forbids survivors from speaking freely about their experience with the redress board, or advocating or commenting on their case.

A strange anomaly is then created whereby those who perpetrated abuse remain entirely free to advocate, while survivors who courageously went before the redress board are limited in their right to speak publicly on the process. It is only after many years of silent suffering, when nobody would listen, that the truth is beginning to emerge. It is this truth which is fundamental in creating a narrative which acknowledges what happened so that society can recognise and learn from past injustices.

Some of those who appeared before the redress board wish to write plays and poems about their experience of both abuse and redress, while others want to carry out academic research into their experience. But they feel they are effectively muzzled by the confidentiality clause. Given that redress is a major part of their truth, isn’t it reasonable they should have the right to tell their story which is in itself an important act of empowerment?

By encouraging a silencing ritual which further humiliates the victim, and continues a regime of concealment, intimidation and oppression, how can the existence of such deterrents be seen as anything other than damaging to the truth-telling process?

Ambiguity surrounding the interpretation of the prohibition on disclosure of information for those who accepted awards means those survivors are often unsure of exactly what is permissible in discussion in the public domain and what is off-limits. It’s this very confusion over the scope of what’s allowable in theory versus practice which usually serves to create an environment of fear where survivors are afraid to talk at all, according to Dr Geraldine Moane, senior lecturer at UCD’s school of psychology.

Such self-imposed censorship will likely have the effect of making one complicit with one’s subordination where silencing is the powerful tool to reinforce subordination. By keeping the victim silent, the survivors are kept controlled.

Given the enormity of distress that gagging clauses have caused several survivors of abuse who accepted awards, you have to wonder why it has not received more debate and challenge. How appropriate was this aspect of the scheme? It is one of the critical issues survivors want addressed, and which was included in Labour’s Private Members’ Bill published last June.

Considering that one of the underlying objectives of the redress board was to bring into the public domain the issue of child abuse in institutional homes, it does not seem consistent or reasonable that people who wish to speak about what went on during the redress process are prohibited from doing so. Surely the prospect of convicting a survivor for speaking out in breach of the gagging order goes against the very nature of open and transparent justice?

If the matter of survivors who accepted awards and breached confidentiality clauses were to be decided by a court, it is unlikely the court would enforce the clause given that this would go against the thrust of open and transparent justice. A potential public outcry might well be another protection mechanism survivors could rely on should they opt to publicise their experiences with the redress system. But having suffered in silence for years, is it fair that survivors are now reliant on public outrage to guarantee them space to discuss their experience with the redress board?

Ultimately, the redress scheme is part of the past that we have to put right before we can truly say that we have done right by the weakest and most vulnerable members in our democracy. By tolerating disincentives for ordinary people to come forward and tell the truth about our past, can this chapter of our national tragedy be truly transformative and be seen to be linked to social, political and legal redress?

Time and time again, it is expressed that “people” want to support victims of institutional child abuse, hear what they have to say, and see the right thing done by these people. If the former taoiseach’s apology for the country’s silence, our failure to hear, our failure to listen to our weakest and most vulnerable members is to ring true, isn’t it time we let survivors tell the whole story of their abuse and redress?


Sharon Commins was an aid worker for the charity Goal when she and a colleague, Hilda Kawuki, were kidnapped in Darfur last year. They were held for over 100 days before being freed last October


See also


Michael Corry’s Letter to The Irish Times

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30 comments on “Survivors of abuse must be allowed speak freely

  1. The best advice I can give you is to contact a solicitor and see if there is anything that can be done. I doubt it but it’s a route that you might consider. I wish you well.

  2. Paddy Doyle, I read you’re book a few years ago.well done.I was reared in the same orphanage as Ann.our family seems to be in a bit of a dilemma ,we have just lost a sister and while going through her bits and pieces we found out that she had started proceedings with the redress board,( I’m not sure yet of the details,we never knew this was done )we were shocked,with this confidentiality thing we don’t know where to turn.Any advice. We’re wondering why none of the rest of us was contacted to verify or deny what she said. Don’t know how much can be said here…… Any advice.

  3. Since when have 99 per cent survivors of Goldenbridge 1930-1963,The Industrial school 1940-1963 been able to speak freely??Not without being bullied shouted at and some evan bullied so much they fled out of ireland if they dare come back and want a say or to tell their story by herself and her close circle. as bad as the nuns and staf were they were not racists neither were the children, (the race card )<JUST WHAT BENEFITS SURVIVORS ARE GOING TO GET FROM IT???????????PLEASE ANSWER ON HERE WE AWAIT WHAT ARE WE ENTITLED TO . YOUR ANSWER PLEASE

  4. Paddy just found this if you need it to post hope it helps our northern Ireland WITNESSES OF ABUSE http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/northern_ireland/8338850.stm

  5. I have been told by a survivor who had be there but left ,that those few who go there are afraid of her.

  6. ANN,> In answer >they promised us payements to match the HIGH Court payouts recieved by the very few. The reason for this being the GROUPS so called leaders didn’t want that it would not have been in THEIR INTEREST had we survivors recieved our just compansation ,Thats why the likes of buckley attended secret meetings without letting any survivors know about anything that has been going on behind our backs ,, NOT THAT ANY OF US BENEFITED IN ANY WAY FROM THOSE PLACES, I for one wouldnt be seen dead in that aislinn its totally distructive . Their only interest has been to keep those groups going we don’t know whose names they have been using on their lists to secure massive funding they have been getting . > and there is only one reason for that >Is so they continue to recieve their huge funding in our name. IT’S Madness.

  7. Portia, you are right >Healing cannot take place if we are not allowed to speak. The Imcompetent Government of the past were DISTRUCTIVE in setting up THE AISLINN, SOCA UK, RIGHT OF PLACE ,THEIR AIM HAS BEEN TO HOLD ALL OF US BACK IN THE PAST.IN SILENCE.

  8. Hello to All, excluded & abused people ,& nice to see soume people writing about the non catholics letters about the bethany home ,thes letters are helping us a lot more than ,you think can i thank you all very much ,& thank paddy & his WEB for all his help , Kind Regards Derek

  9. wats the crack with my money

  10. I for one did not ask anyone to talk for me or to represent me. The money should be divided between all. It’s not for me or anyone else to say what should be done with any persons compensation

  11. Yes Anne it does need an explanation or a change. I have done some research since my original post and find it absolutely abhorrent that this sort of thing should rear its ugly head when there are people like yourselves who have been put through the wringer by the processes of government – it simply becomes intolerable to then be let down again by those who are supposedly there to assist. Perhaps you could publish your bank details so that some of those who are able will provide direct assistance rather than squabbling over their own agendas

  12. Also paddy, for me personally Im afraid the fight is for compensation. Real justice! As you know I was homeless for two yrs until recently paddy, and I know there are many survivors still homeless and living in poverty with the damged minds bodies and souls.

    They promised payments matching High court payouts! We are still waiting and why???
    This should be took to the European HIgh court.
    Anne

  13. Paddy I feel so sad at the discord we are sensing between Barry and yourself especially at this crucial time?!?..you are both fine men who have suffered like many of us and you both work so hard.

    The march Barry Clifford and Hanora Brenan have organised, personally, for myself and my family has been a God send because it is our way of being active/vocal whilst I am still able! To get the justice we all deserve!
    The Redress board was so traumatic, so cruelly excecuted as you are aware that we did not have the chance, the breathe to grasp what was fully going on. It was designed that way and it knocked the stuffing out of me and my familly paddy. There was no counsellors to support us and that was absolutely essential and neccessary. My god, the money they had and wouldn’t even spare us that!
    I woul love you to explain why you have gone so cold on the march all of a sudden Barry?? Barry has never discluded anyone from the march and to my knowledge he has ask everyone to turn up and support him and this is what we need Paddy. It’s for all of us now paddy..please let’s stand together on this.
    We feel so confused and sad right now paddy, I honestly do not understand why you have done this at this time????
    Anne.

  14. The opening lines of Barry Clifford’s post on this site clearly state that the march is for victims of institutional abuse. I believe passionately that ABUSE IS ABUSE IS ABUSE and that RAPE AND BUGGERY ARE RAPE AND BUGGERY WHEREVER THEY OCCUR. This is not my view alone, it is the view of many, many people who have written to this website. As you appear to be having difficulty with what I write and in what I believe in might I suggest that you approach Barry Clifford and others involved in the march to set up a website dedicated to what they believe in and for what they are marching.
    I’m on record numerous times as having called for unity among ALL people who’ve been abused. Rape in one place as opposed to another is a despicable act as is deprivation and humiliation suffered by innocent people. For ten years now this website, has given voice to everyone, It appears to me that you believe I am creating division. I respectfully suggest you look at what I’ve written in newspapers, said on radio and on TV before jumping to the conclusion you have jumped to.
    Paddy
    PS. Your suggestion that this is the second time you posted your message may well be right. What is certain is that the first comment never got to me. As with other messages it would have been posted. I don’t discriminate IN ANY WAY WHATEVER.

  15. I’m not sure what the point your making is. What is beyond doubt is that the almost 15 thousand people who’ve appeared before the Redress Board have been silenced. I am merely one of those people. Your comment, snide as it is, implies that I’m suggesting that I’m the only one that has been silenced. This is clearly rubbish or just a “dig” and me. If that is the case there perhaps it’s indicative that I’m doing something right. Paddy

  16. I just wish I could answer you question as to who else is being silenced. If there is a God then perhaps it is only him/her that knows. Sorry I can’t be of more help. We do know of course the the silence of many children who were abused by religious have been silenced through threats and with what can best be described as dirty money. Paddy

  17. Who else is being silenced? Who else is unable to be posted here? Most who run these types of sites show openness and transparency by posting the submission and then adding a rebuttal or explanation. Seems it is a bit too much like dealing with the church.

    Who else is being silenced Paddy? An answer would be appreciated as otherwise I may have to mail it around to see what others think.

    Should I seek permission from the Vatican first?

  18. Does this mean that only Paddy Doyle has been silenced and censored?

  19. So what is going on here – I read “It is open ‘For All Other’ victims of abuse wherever they are, or in whatever form it has affected them; It is open to any religions or creed against ” and then I read “Barry, I’ve asked that ALL survivors of ALL forms of abuse be included in the march that you and Hanora are organising. To omit them is in my view is grievously wrong”

    This is not support. This is not a fair and balanced response — “By having a march that exclude people who were abused in day schools and at home the organisers of ANY march are being dangerously selective”

    “It is open ‘For All Other’ victims of abuse wherever they are …. ”

    What goes on here Paddy? Is this another case of emotions running riot and then taking out frustrations amongst the survivors and victims – appears to be along those lines.

    Is there any wonder there is confusion? Is there any wonder people become emotional. I can only see this as being totally unhelpful and disruptive. Where is the co-ordination and mutual support, where is the work of bringing people together – don’t see it here – can only see personal knee jerk reactions turned into personal attacks when in fact there is meant to be a common cause. These sorts of statements only strip away the credibility of individuals at the expense of victims and only do a dis-service to all of us who have experienced abuse via religion. Need to do a lot better.

    Posted for the second time – Paddy is this a case of you agree with the original article but not with the reality of it.

  20. paddy
    WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF ONE OF US COME OUT AND TOLD ALL? IN MY CASE I KNOW NOTHING I was not at the redress board i was told to accept a settlement by legal advice so how can I commit a crime, that must go for 95% of survivors

    DID THE CHURCH/STATE GET IT RIGHT BY PUTTING THE BOARD BEFORE RYAN? IF IT WAS THE OTHER WAY ROUND, RYAN THEN THE BOARD IT WOULD BECOME A LEGAL FRAMWORK FOR THE BOAD TO WORK FROM, THINK ABOUT it AND COME BACK AT ME ALL WELCOME, WHAT SAY YOU BARRY.

    christy.

  21. FUTHER SUBTANTIAL COMPENSTATION
    IS WHAT THE STALLHOLLER SAID ON THE 11 JUNE 2009 IN THE DIAL FOR SURVIVORS, SO WHY ARE THE THE REST OF THE DAIL SAYING NOTHING AFTER 5 DEADLINES GIVEN TO CORI BY COWEN.
    ONLY IN IRELAND THE CHURCH STATE.

    PS NOBODY SPINS LIKE THE VAT I CAN STATE DO

    CHRISTY

  22. PADDY
    THEY SAY THE TRUTH WILL SET YOU FREE, UNLESS YOU ARE A SURVIVOR OF CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE THAT IS, AND HAVE BEEN TO THE REDRESS BOARD
    WHY CAN SHARON COMMINS SAY WHAT SHE SAID AND I CAN NOT?
    WE THE SURVIVORS OF ALL FORMS OF CLERICAL SEXUAL ABUSE OUTLINED IN THE RYAN REPORT CAN NOT TELL THE TRUTH RE THE REDRESS BOARD OR WHAT HAPPENED TO US IN THE INDUSTRIAL SCHOOLS
    BUT THE CATHOLIC CHURCH CAN TELL LIES,
    WE GO TO JAIL, THEY GO TO DINNER WITH AHERN AND THE STALLHOLDER COWEN
    ONLY IN IRELAND ONLY IN IRELAND COULD IT HAPPEN

    CHRISTY

  23. Paddy says:- “I’ve heard it said more than once that those people who had were abused and who had “Mammy’s and Daddy’s” were not abused as badly as those of us who were in industrial schools.”

    Too right, Paddy. There’s this mad notion, that those of us Irish who wern’t incarerated in the Industrial Schools were “better off” than those who were. As if we, the children of parents who were FORCED to send their children to the RC national schools were regarded any differently by our Roman Catholic MASTERS? ALL – I repeat ALL – children under that RC tyrannical regime, were, and still are, regarded as “mere fodder”…

  24. “Some of those who appeared before the redress board wish to write plays and poems about their experience of both abuse and redress, while others want to carry out academic research into their experience. But they feel they are effectively muzzled by the confidentiality clause. Given that redress is a major part of their truth, isn’t it reasonable they should have the right to tell their story which is in itself an important act of empowerment?”

    If the victims signed such a ‘Confidentiality Clause’ because they were terrified or emotionally immature to do otherwise, then surely they can retract their statements, which were effectively COERCED to do so?

  25. “Why the secrecy? Why the threat of imprisonment if people speak about their experience at the redress board?”

    If Irish people have to ask themselves that question, as individuals – in 2010 – then they are obviously seriously psychologically retarded. Even a blind person would know what is going on in our society today!

  26. Its a brilliant and well thought out argument. Well done Sharon Commins.

    Still, personal experiences as a former key decision maker in very large worldwide organisations responsible for human safety, I could give a slightly different flavour on what this looks like to me.

    Firstly, large organisations, states and legal systems rely on massive volumes of regulations for guidance and compliance in dealing with critical matters. In such systems, key decision makers have discretionary powers in how they represent key technical-legal matters.

    IN many instances in my own experiences, it often became a case that a reluctant co-decision makers could combined two positive rules from the rule book(which was 2 volumes each 6″ thick), to create a third negative rule. Alternatively any positively disposed person could take mixture of ‘ifs and buts’ and make a third rule which could have the opposite effect, especially if the mater was unclear.

    The key decision maker in such a system is open to influence and that person’s decision making has a huge impact on the people down the line. ( A puff of wind in Rome can be an incarceration order for thousands). In fact in such systems of complex regulation, the bias is towards the protection of the organisation regardless of discretionary power. But then add discretionary and deeply prejudiced decision making and you have a scam.

    Influence on decision making is of course no small factor in the outcome. Stakeholders in any project are key influencers and in fact the project functionaries and their peers-the decision makers themselves owe their very crust to the influencers and in this respect are entirely beholden to them. (unless of course they wat to resign)

    As for Ireland and past abuse exposes, a few facts have to be borne in mind especially in regard to influencers:

    1: Ireland is/was a papal state.

    2: Large number of Irish people remain loyal to the clerics.

    3: Fianna Fail founded its alliance with the catholic church in order to maintain power. This has worked for 90 years.

    4. Like it or not, the judiciary is not independent and (as Marx postulated) at worst is merely a tool of the ruling class.
    (ruling class = stakeholders)

    5: The Irish state, government, judiciary and religious are therefore key influencers on any enquiry.

    It is my opinion that, Ms Commins writes her article in the very context in which the stake holders planned that it should be written, minute arguments serving in bias to prevent the whole truth emerging, legal argument.

    To put it bluntly, the whole outcome of the project and the modest criticism it has received was long ago planned by the key stakeholders and the very basis of counter argument is a lightweight footing made available to deflect attention from the glaring truth.

    As Brian Cowan said in the States in the past few days, The Irish state still has to respond responsibly to the crisis. And when he says ‘responsibly’, we to have to ask, to whom?

    Don’t worry Brian, you’ll still get a fair crack at making it look like you can get it all to work out the ‘right’ way for your co-stakeholders. And that may be enough to get you off the hook.

    And Brian if it doesn’t, you can always jump the barricades but be wary, not everyone will be your friend.

  27. Powerful piece of writing this. The ‘gagging clause’ is now being linked to the Oath of Secrecy. The church and the state have dirty hands on this. No wonder the Government is keeping it’s head down.

  28. Healing cannot commence until the victim is free to speak his/her truth.

    The Vatican know fine well that they have control until then.

    Keeping a human soul hostage is a crime of the worst kind.

  29. The Patriarchal system can only survive because of secrecy….so let them all speak out and we support them.

    This has to be a breach of the victim’s human rights.

    I know first hand the damage those gagging orders have on human souls.

    Gagging orders are ABUSE

  30. ” Now Emer,

    Your welcome here today. In front of you, you will find some tissue and some Tipperary water, please let the “Board” know if you require any more boxes or indeed water.

    Now Emer, before we begin to further torture you, we are not happy to ask this of you, but it’s for OUR Sake

    When you leave this room you are never to mentioin anything that took place here. You will be giving some papers to sign, it’s in your own interest, let me say that once more , It’s in your own interst Emer. That you sign these papers and remain silent about what went on in this room with “THE BOARD” do you understand?

    Yes Emer

    Can I just ask a quick question, PLEASE.
    Yes Emer

    Why are you calling me Emer?

    I beg your pardon

    I’m Alice Brophy, I was sent over from the Solicitors office to hand deliver these papers. I’m the solicitors legal assisant. I can’t seem to get out, all the doors are LOCKED……….

    Oh apoligies Ms.Brophy
    We LOCK the doors for everyone’s safety

    Ms Palmer perhaps you could…

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