IRELAND: In Plain Sight - Responding to the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne Reports

The abuse and exploitation of tens of thousands of Irish children in State funded institutions as detailed in the report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the Ryan Report) and the abuse detailed in the Ferns, Murphy (Dublin) and Cloyne Reports constitute arguably the gravest and most systemic human rights violations in the history of this State.

In response, Amnesty International Ireland commissioned a report to assess these violations, and the State’s responses to them, against the standards dictated by international human rights law.

But the focus cannot be purely on the past, as if this history has no relevance for our society now. We must consider the degree to which this history reveals vital truths about the nature of our society today. The past only becomes history once we have addressed it, learnt from it and made the changes necessary to ensure that we do not repeat mistakes and wrongdoing.

Main Findings

1. No clear lines of responsibility make true accountability impossible.

This report demonstrates how the absence of clear lines of public and private responsibility in the provision of services, along with the absence of effective accountability mechanisms, allowed the abuse of children to continue unchecked. In the case of residential institutions, it wasn’t that the system didn’t work but rather that there was no system. While both the perpetrators of crimes against children, and the institutional Church within which they operated, hold responsibility for this abuse, State authorities also failed in their duty to monitor residential institutions effectively, to act appropriately when abuses by agents of the Catholic Church in communities came to light, and to take action to prevent the continuation of abuse.

2. The law must protect and apply to all members of society equally.

The Reports on child abuse highlight how the law did not serve or apply to all members of Irish society equally. The most obvious example of this is how children who were placed in residential institutions were branded as criminals as a result of the court committal process, while the majority of perpetrators of abuse have not been held to account by that same criminal justice system. Despite the severity of the crimes revealed in the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy (Dublin) and Cloyne Reports, which range from physical assault to rape, very few perpetrators have been convicted. Furthermore, no criminal charge has been laid against those in positions of authority in the Catholic Church who concealed crimes against children and allowed known sex abusers to continue to have access to children and to continue to abuse with near impunity. The Reports raise serious questions about the rule of law, given the evidence of deferential treatment shown to priests and bishops by members of the Gardaí. 

3. Recognition of children’s human rights must be strengthened.

This report includes a human rights analysis of the abuses detailed in the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy (Dublin) and Cloyne Reports. The sexual abuse in the diocesan reports, and the sexual, physical and emotional abuse, the living conditions, and the neglect described in the Ryan Report, can be categorised as torture, and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment under human rights law. The Reports also demonstrate that children’s rights to private and family life, the right to a fair trial and the right to be free from slavery and forced labour were contravened, as was their right to education and to physical and mental health. The invisibility of children in law, policy and public debate is directly related to the fact that children do not have express constitutional rights. It is essential that the rights of the child be made explicit in the Irish Constitution and that the paramount importance of the rights of the child be explicitly enshrined in law. 

Children do not represent a homogenous social category and children from different subsections of society have very different experiences. The majority of children in industrial schools were placed there as a direct result of the poverty of their families. We must not ‘other’ any groups of children. Particularly vulnerable groups of children today include children in care, Traveller children, children in the criminal justice system, children with mental health problems, children experiencing homelessness, children living in poverty; and asylum-seeking children.


4. Public attitudes matter. Individual attitudes matter.

The Reports identify the impact of deference to the Catholic Church on how people responded to abuse and suspicions of abuse. Fear, an unwillingness and an inability to question agents of the Church, and disbelief of the testimony of victims until recent times indicate that wider societal attitudes had a significant role to play in allowing abuse to continue. The end of deference to powerful institutions and the taking of personal responsibility on behalf of all members of society will initiate some of the changes that are necessary to prevent the occurrence of human rights abuses.

Wider societal attitudes to children who experienced residential institutions were often negative and hostile. The prejudice and discrimination they experienced led many to emigrate, leading to the further disintegration of families who had already been divided when the children were placed in institutions. We must be aware of the impact of prejudice and negative attitudes towards marginalised groups in our society. Negative attitudes towards children in the criminal justice system, people with disabilities, asylum seekers and people with mental health problems makes life more difficult for members of our society who may already be vulnerable. 

5. The State must operate on behalf of the people, not on behalf of interest groups.

The Reports demonstrate how the State had a deferential relationship with the Catholic Church. The complaints of parents, children and lay workers about problems and abuses in residential institutions were dismissed by Department of Education officials, while the reputation of religious orders was defended by Ministers and TDs in the Dáil. While Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s recent criticism of the Vatican suggests a less deferential attitude to the Catholic Church, transparency in the operations of all arms of the State is necessary to prevent interest groups from exerting undue influence. In all spheres, political actions must have at their core the best interests of the wider population and not sectional interests.

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