Category: Archive

New plan to probe reform school abuse

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Andrew Bushe

DUBLIN — An innovative approach to public inquiries has been decided on by the government to probe allegations of physical and sexual abuse in state-funded, mostly religious-run institutions.

High Court judge Mary Laffoy will oversee a commission that will involve a two-tier system of hearings. Though the hearings will be in private, the commission’s report will be made public.

At one level, a confidential committee will simply be a sympathetic forum to listen to victim’s stories of their experiences while preserving their anonymity.

Another investigation committee will fully probe the allegations, call witnesses and cross-examine those appearing before it.

Victims will be free to switch from the confidential inquiry into the investigation committee. Each committee will have separate membership.

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Promising a "very searching investigation," Education Minister Michael Woods said the commission "may identify institutions in which abuse occurred and the people responsible for the abuse and may make findings in regard to management and regulatory authorities."

"I know from what I have seen in some of the files that is going to be very, very revealing," he said.

The investigating committee will have the full powers of the High Court and will be able to compel witnesses to attend and demand discovery of documents. It is expected to take about two years to complete its work.

If it gets evidence of ongoing abuse the gardai will be informed immediately. The final report will go to the gardai, who may initiate prosecutions based on it.

Details of new legislation establishing the inquiry were outlined by Woods, who said there was a steady stream of about 15 people a week contacting his department seeking their files from the archives or making complaints.

No decision has yet been made about whether hearings will be held abroad.

Abuse allegations are understood to have been by Irish people now living in abroad in countries like Britain, Northern Ireland, America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

A spokesman for the commission said it is "anxious to facilitate people," but that it was too early to comment on operational details like where hearings would be held.

In addition to the hearings, counseling will be offered to victims by health boards from a service being set up by the Department of Health and Children.

The inquiry will probe allegations of abuse in about 60 state-funded "mother and child" adoption homes and industrial and reform schools.

The schools had more than 1,000 children a year referred to them by the courts — some for minor misdemeanors like playing truant from school — and the state paid per head of children held.

Most were run by Catholic religious orders and the abuse allegations extend back to the 1930s.

Several religious orders have already issued apologies to victims and compensation claims against them are pending in the courts.

New legislation to extend the statute of limitations under which sexual abuse claims can be taken is already before the Oireachtas. The question of liberalizing time limits on physical abuse claims has been referred to the Law Reform Commission.

Woods said the inquiry would be a "long delayed opportunity" for victims to receive the sympathetic hearing that was their due.

"The past failures of our society regarding child abuse in institutions will be acknowledged," he said. "The facts of abuse, however unpalatable, will be brought into the open."

Many of the victims had reported the abuse when they were children but were not believed.

TV documentaries and Garda investigations have uncovered a level of abuse that has caused widespread shock. The screening of the programs led to a flood of calls to counseling helplines from traumatized victims.

Last year, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern made an unprecedented apology to the victims for the country’s "collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue. Too many of our children were denied love, care and security," he said.

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