How documentaries have addressed the abuse of Ireland’s past

Beibhínn Thorsch

In 1999, “States of Fear” was the first time the Irish people collectively took a raw look at the industrial child abuse in Ireland. In 2020, “Redress: Breaking the Silence”  showed how the State’s handling of this abuse led to further traumatization of survivors.

Mary Raftery’s RTÉ documentary series States of Fear was a hard knock to the stronghold the Catholic Church maintained on this island. While this series unearthed the abuse, Redress went into further details and described for the first time what had come of the State’s reaction to the series.

Redress had been paid to a number of victims as a way of compensating for the abuse they had suffered, however, this latest series reveals the gagging order put in place for those who signed up for the redress payment – and how they are now speaking up against, and in violation of, that gagging order.

Some of the information which about in the first episode included the capitation system which industrial schools had – a system where the school received more money for every child that was enrolled. This led to children being taken out of happy foster homes to instead be brought to court and “charged” to time at an industrial school.

It was at these industrial schools, The Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (The Ryan Report) later found, children were subjected to “chronic” sexual and physical abuse. The Redress documentary revealed how survivors felt they were treated during the process which led to the release of this report.

The investigation committee and the confidential committee ran alongside one another but were separate schemes. Once redress had been received through the Redress Board (set up in 2002), survivors could finally tell their stories to these commissions.

The Investigation Committee investigated complaints and allegations. It had the power to compel those accused to attend it and to compel them to produce any documents it needed to see. The Confidential Committee aimed to listen to a person’s experiences of abuse in institutions in total confidence. The Confidential Committee would not inform anyone or any institution that a person had made an allegation against them and did not name anyone in any report.

Many reported how the investigation committee was poorly done, making them feel attacked as they were confronted with their abusers and told they were lying, compared to the confidential committee. Many reported that they felt suicidal after attending a hearing with the investigation committee.

“How did this come about that the church and state have produced a system that is abusive all over again?” ,survivor Mary Lodato told the programme.

The gagging order to the redress bill was a last-minute amendment in favor of the perpetrators of the abuse, which banned victims from naming their abusers or the institutions they attended. In the Redress series, survivors did not name their abusers but did speak out on the institutions they attended

UCD Professor of Clinical Psychology, Alan Carr, told the programme “If we think back to their experience as children many of them wanted to disclose their abuse, but they were told under no circumstances were they do to that or certain awful things would happen to them… anything that approximates silencing now as adults is likely to make them feel similar emotions.”

He also noted that the redress board’s questioning of survivors, such as allowing the outspoken survivor John Prior to be cross-examined by the Christian Brothers after he had spoken out on the States of Fear series, was potentially detrimental.

“If I go to the redress board and I’m not believed this reminds me of what it was like to be a child in an institution… it may have been that inadvertently the way the redress board was set up it had the potential to trigger that.” he said.

Dr Maria O’Brien, a law lecturer in DCU, told us “It would undermine any respect for the Catholic Church in Ireland if they attempted to act upon this and force the victims to repay any compensation…. by insisting upon non-disclosure agreements in these circumstances, the church has shown a continued lack of transparency and unfairly taken advantage of its position of power to interfere with the victims’ freedom of expression. Usually, contracts are enforceable only where they are entered into without duress.”

The average award from the redress board was €62,250. Over 15,500 survivors received the award, and not all were unhappy with it, as is shown through Sharon Murphy in the programme. Murphy had undergone counselling and had used the money to set up the simple life she desired, telling the programme “I feel ok… I’m done with the blame.”

Survivor group volunteer, Phyllis Morgan, told the programme that most of the survivors would “blow” their redress cheques. They would tell her upon receiving it that this was to “shut us all up”. She notes that particularly if victims were sexually abused they would call it “dirty money” and be more likely to spend it all immediately.

THe DCU history lecturer Mark O’Brien, the historical significance of Redress: Breaking the Silence is undeniable.

“Unless the government wants to imprison (again) the abuse survivors there is nothing the Church nor the State can do to stop victims talking publicly about the redress scheme and their compensation payments. The image of abuse survivors being brought before the courts is something no politician could stand over.”

Cara Nua, another fund set up to aid survivors was also remembered poorly by those who spoke in the programme. The fund would require survivors, who must have received redress to take part in it, to call or communicate through letters, and tell them what they needed. Many felt those they communicated within the service to be difficult to communicate with and didn’t have training on how to speak to trauma victims. As well as this, many survivors suffered literacy problems.

After a lot of convincing, the Catholic Church has over time agreed to pay more to survivors, now contributing roughly one-third of the cost to the compensation scheme. There is still €242 million to pay. The total cost of redress and the surrounding commissions came to €1.5 billion, six times more than originally estimated. It is now being proposed that the records be locked away for seventy-five years.

Beibhínn Thorsch 

Image Credit:RTÉ