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HIAI: Institutional Abuse: A New Narrative

by Joseph Napier

On the 20th January 2017 Sir Anthony Hart presented the findings of the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry (HIAI). The fact that he was able to do so just days after the 3rd Anniversary of the commencement of oral hearings was remarkable. The Northern Irish public and politicians alike had long become sceptical of Inquiries tarnished by spiralling costs and expansive timeframes. There must have been genuine concern in all quarters that the latest attempt to examine facets of our past would similarly flounder. Having to open the spectre of abuse across an unknown quantity of residential homes and uncover an unquantifiable number of victims was daunting in the extreme. The complexity of the investigation, the sensitivity which so many interactions required and the vulnerability of so many witnesses was heretofore unprecedented. It can only be a lasting legacy to Sir Anthony Hart, his Panel, the dedicated HIA legal and support team that the Report was, despite the intricacy of its role, presented on time and within budget. It is of little surprise that many see it as a model for future Inquiries.

Sir Anthony Hart paid tribute within his report and his presentation to the co-operation and contribution of the Institutions and participants to the HIAI. While institutions, organisations and Churches have quite rightly been criticised in the past for secrecy and lack of openness it was plainly obvious that they all embraced the HIAI in a spirit of openness, honesty and transparency.  While certain politicians sought to undermine confidence in the HIAI by criticising the co-operation of the institutions with the Inquiry Sir Anthony Hart has publicly recognised and thanked the institutions for their proactive, co-operative and collaborative approach. There was a genuine view among the Congregations that this was the last chance to get to the truth, or as close to it as one can after 20 – 70 years. Ireland has lived with the horrific spectre of child abuse since the early 1990s. Since then, organisations, individuals, Religious Congregations and the Churches in general have faced a sustained campaign of criticism. Much of it has been justified, but buried around the edges have been hurtful and malicious allegations against innocent individuals. An Inquiry gave many an opportunity to correct and place on public record their story and their reality and it was in that spirit that the Congregations embraced and played and active and important role within the HIAI.

As the victims vocalise that their voice has now been heard it should not be overlooked that this was a voice which many had heard over the last two decades. The Congregations have, for the last 10-15 years, been engaged in meeting with residents and their representatives and paying out over a £1million pound in settlements/redress and nearly the same again in claimant fees. This is in addition to their extensive contributions to professional counselling services both north and south or the border. It is noteworthy that the HIAI has largely endorsed the practice of the institutions within their Redress recommendations. Far from ignoring their responsibilities the Congregations have been actively involved in trying to manage a complex area unilaterally. It was an unenviable position. On the one hand they were forced to spend huge sums of money in successfully contesting false and vitriolic accusations which had the financial backing of the state (Larkin v De La Salle Provincialate [2011] NIQB 129) and on the other having to meet, listen, understand and attempt to compensate and console genuine victims of abusive staff.

Findings of abuse and the provision of redress is not new. What this Inquiry does add to the narrative is that the causes of abuse are multifactorial and that the culpability for same cannot be as easily determined as it has been perceived in the past. The HIAI took a broad view of how life in Northern Ireland and residential institutions coalesced. It heard about the dire and abject poverty that existed in Derry city and in some areas of Belfast. It examined the role of the Northern Ireland government, as it then was, in their efforts to inspect and fund the various homes. Contemporary commentary exposed the state’s acquiescence in the funding of voluntary homes and their indifference to the transportation of primary school age Catholic children to Australia. It became readily apparent that the state did not value the poor, destitute and vulnerable children to which it had inherited the responsibility to protect and cherish. Not only did that responsibility come with the privilege of power but it was enshrined within the state’s own legislation which the HIAI determined they frequently ignored or failed to fully implement.

It is widely accepted that abuse is defined much wider than the extreme barbarism enacted by the likes of Fr Brendan Smyth. Abuse comes in many forms. There can be no denial of the failure of the Congregations to properly police their own flock when it comes to the abusive behaviour of their members. There can be no denial that a number of individuals, in total contradiction to their vocation, abused and badly mistreated children. When the Congregations had actual knowledge of such abuse it is beyond comprehension how they failed to interject and prevent reoccurrence. However, many victims do not report that type of abuse. They report a lack of warmth, a lack of facilities, a lack of love and a lack of preparation for life after care. These are all basic necessities for life which could easily have been alleviated with funds, investment and commitment from Church and State alike. At one time in Derry, two nuns were ‘looking after’ 80 children. The State knew that. The Sisters were unable to increase staffing levels. The State knew that. How difficult, despite the best efforts of well-meaning staff, was it going to be to find love and warmth in that environment?

The Congregations invested heavily in time and resources to their homes. The State certainly assisted but there was never sufficient funding to properly address a fundamental lack of staff and poor physical conditions. At times staff worked without any pay at all just to try and keep matters going. Far from ideal does not go close to describing the critical position the homes operated in. Indeed, next to living in or working in the home, one can only truly get an idea of the stress and strain these homes operated in by reading the personal diaries of those tasked with giving the best part of their lives for the betterment of the children in their care. The dedication to the children, the concern for their welfare and the common humanity; all aptly illustrated by weary scribbling. It was fitting that Sir Anthony Hart paid tribute to the many excellent staff who toiled in the homes. Describing their commitment in modern parlance as ‘24/7 365 days a year’ still fails to do justice to the sheer strain. It is a great travesty for them, that their effort has been so badly tarnished by the few. The fact that some former residents remain forever grateful is the sole lasting comfort in advancing years.

Society, wider than the State, knew all about these homes. To their credit, many like Mackies and the St Vincent De Paul (to whom Sir Anthony paid tribute) did their best to help but by and large a collective blind eye was turned. The most vulnerable within that society were cast aside by it. The cost, both human and financial, of investing in them was left to others. The consequential saving was made by Society and the State. On Friday20th January 2017 the HIAI determined that the State, having abdicated its duty of care for many years, has a responsibility to make amends to its ‘children’.

The Congregations who identified the spectres decades ago and who have been trying, in complex conditions to provide pastoral outreach and financial redress, are no longer alone. The victims now have the recognition of the state. The Northern Ireland Executive will have to examine the failings of its predecessors. Collectively and collaboratively the Institutions and the Churches stand ready to engage, as they did with the HIAI, with the Northern Ireland Executive to formulate and structure a Redress Scheme which is fair and proportionate to victim, taxpayer and institution alike.

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