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Chapter 1 — Establishment of the Commission

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State evidence


In his evidence at the Emergence hearings, Mr Tom Boland, who was then Head of Legal Affairs at the Department of Education and Science, provided a chronological account of the manner in which the issue of child abuse was dealt with in his Department from 1998 to 2002. He stated that institutional abuse first came to the attention of the Department of Education and Science as an issue that they would have to deal with, as a result of the increase in the number of legal cases being taken against the Department. There was also an increase in the number of Freedom of Information requests coming into the Department from former residents seeking access to their records. More generally, the Department was also aware of the fact that institutional abuse had become a major public issue, following the broadcast of television programmes such as ‘Dear Daughter’22 and ‘States of Fear’.23


Mr Boland said that the then Minister for Education and Science, Mr Micheál Martin, brought the issue of institutional child abuse to Cabinet for the first time on 31st March 1998, and the issue of litigation by former residents of reformatories and industrial schools. There was a general discussion at that meeting as to how the State might best respond to the emerging question of institutional child abuse. There was some discussion of the possibility of dealing with the issue through a Commission process, but at that stage the focus was on establishing a scheme that would provide counselling for the victims of abuse. The matter was not significantly progressed during 1998, but it was raised informally at a number of Cabinet meetings throughout that year.


In December 1998, the Government decided to establish a Cabinet Sub-Committee to deal with the issue of child abuse in institutions. The Committee was chaired by the Minister for Education and Science and was composed of the Tánaiste, the Ministers for the Marine and Natural Resources, Health and Children, Social, Community and Family Affairs, Justice Equality and Law Reform, the Attorney General, and the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform.


Mr Boland said that the Cabinet Sub-Committee’s remit ‘was to bring forward proposals to Government on how to deal with the issue of sexual abuse’. However, according to Mr Micheál Martin, the then Minister for Education and Science, its remit was wider and ‘not just sexual abuse, but the, I suppose, the broad abuse of children’.


The Cabinet Sub-Committee immediately established a Working Group composed of the Secretaries General and related officials from all of the Departments involved. It furnished its report to the Cabinet Sub-Committee on 28th April 1999. The report was entitled ‘Measures to Assist Victims of Childhood Abuse’. On 10th May 1999, the Government agreed the following proposals: Establish a Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. Legislate within the then Dail session to extend the concept of disability under the Statute of Limitations to victims of child sexual abuse who, because of that abuse, were unable to bring claims within the normal limitation period. Immediately refer the issue of limitation periods as they applied to non-sexual childhood abuse to the Law Reform Commission. Establish, over as short a timescale as practical, a dedicated professional counselling service. Provide for an effective programme of publicity for these services. Prepare and publish as soon as possible a White Paper on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse of children. Prepare the legislation for the establishment of a sex offenders’ register as a matter of high priority. Apologise to victims of childhood abuse. The Cabinet Sub-Committee to meet regularly, to review the implementation of the different elements of this decision. Accept the principle of the Labour Party Private Member’s Bill to amend the Statute of Limitations, but in the context that the Government was progressing its own comprehensive programme of measures, including legislation, in relation to child sexual abuse.


Mr Boland explained the policy basis for the various child abuse measures adopted by the Working Group: A point had come where there was a general acceptance in political and administrative circles that that process was not acceptable anymore, and that society and Government needed to engage with this problem in a much more proactive way. In the interests of the survivors of abuse themselves very definitely, but also in the interest of Irish society, that the boil of past abuse, if you like, would be lanced and we would find some answers as to what happened and explanation as to what happened.


He said that this view was informed by ‘a folk memory, if I could use that word, that industrial and reformatory schools were very harsh places’, and also by the report of the Kennedy Committee, the media and, in particular, the ‘Dear Daughter’ RTE television programme. Mr Boland’s view was further informed by meetings with former residents and, to a limited degree, the work done by Dr Gerry Cronin, a social historian appointed by Minister Martin to review the Department’s files.


On 11th May 1999, the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, announced the Government measures relating to childhood abuse, as set out above. At the same time, he stated that ‘the starting point for this is simple, but fundamental. We must start by apologising’.


In his evidence to the Investigation Committee, the Taoiseach described the thinking behind the apology: Well, it was the State has let you down, the State should have done better. There were reasons why it didn’t, but they weren’t in our view justifiable. While times were different and it is never a good thing to try to put policy today to what policy would have been on another day, we still felt in this case that we had left a section of our community, who were vulnerable, exposed in a way that would affect their lives. While all of the other measures in the report were measures of guidance, help, assistance and therapeutic and all of the rest, that sympathy wasnt just the only thing we could do, we actually had to express it in a way that the State does not normally do. These were our people, these were issues that were perpetrated against them and while not giving a judgment on any of the institutions or what people in the institutions were trying or trying not to do, obviously there were circumstances, circumstances of staff and resources and God knows what, and mentality of people. The reality is we were dealing with a group of victims who were decent honourable people, who had suffered and deserved the States best apology the State could give. The best way of doing that, whether it is always accepted or not in life, is to do what you do in your own life, you would say sorry, and that is what we set out to do.


Mr Micheál Martin, the Minister for Education and Science at the time, said: Basically, I felt at the time that if we stopped short of issuing an apology from the perspective of the survivors it would have been a devastating blow. The package for a lot of them would have been meaningless if there wasn’t that State recognition that what was done to us was wrong and do you please believe us.


The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, told the Investigation Committee that the apology was his and Minister Martin’s idea: Yes, in fairness to the Working Group, I dont think they ever discussed the issue of the apology. The apology, Chairman, I remember how the apology [came] around very clearly, because while all of the issues that we were talking about; professional help and caring and trying to assist these people back who had been badly dealt with by the State in our view, the hurt was not going to be removed unless you said sorry. It was my view and Minister Martins view, we made the decision.


This was borne out by the evidence of Mr Tim Dalton, former Secretary General to the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Mr Dalton said that the apology did not emanate from the Working Group, it was a political decision: It emanated at Cabinet level subsequently ... While the apology was very much in line with what the working group was saying the apology, as a matter of fact, arose later. Yes.


He continued: I mean the Committees working groups report emphasized the need for what was described as a proactive approach, a sympathetic approach, and an apology would have been very much in line with that. Although as a matter of fact the apology came up subsequently.


The Taoiseach and Minister Martin described meetings they had with former residents of reformatory and industrial schools at this time. The Taoiseach told the Investigation Committee: I had met a number of the individuals, individuals who lived in my own constituency and elsewhere as you travel around who made me aware of what they hoped and the concerns they had and, obviously, wanted to see us taking action, and I think were happy to see that we had set up a Cabinet Committee and that we had set up a Working Group that was representative of our most senior public servants ... They wanted to see a Government do something about it, they wanted a forum where they could express themselves if they wished to do, some of them did, some of them didnt, and where they would be able to put forward what had happened in their lives, what had happened in institutions that they were sent to, as they saw it, totally as a matter of State action. They wanted to see us do something about correcting the hurt that they suffered.


He continued: I met a number of these groups and met a number of individuals. I think I can say without exception, they struck me as being entirely genuine, entirely trustworthy and asking me for help, asking for assistance and wanting us to do it because many of them, it had been a long time since they left these institutions and their lives had been affected. Even those of them who had moved on and where their life was together, they believed that this was a hurt that had not been corrected and they were urging us to deal with it comprehensively.

  1. Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Initial Report on Terms of Reference, 7th September 1999.
  2. Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, Report on Terms of Reference, 14th October 1999.
  3. Amendments were also made by the Residential Institutions Redress Act, 2002: See Section 32.
  4. Section 1 of the Principal Act, as amended by section 3 of the 2005 Act.
  5. Section 15(1) of the Principal Act, as amended by section 10 of the 2005 Act.
  6. Section 16 of the Principal Act as amended by section 11 of the 2005 Act.
  7. Section 4(6) as substituted by section 4 of the 2005 Act.
  8. Section 12(1) of the Principal Act, as amended by section 7 of the 2005 Act.
  9. Section 12(1)(d)(iii), as amended by section 7(c) of the 2005 Act.
  10. Section 14, as amended by section 9 of the 2005 Act.
  11. Section 14(1)(a) of the Principal Act.
  12. Section 14(1)(b)–(d) of the Principal Act.
  13. Section 14(1)(e) of the Principal Act.
  14. Section 14(8) of the Principal Act, as inserted by section 9 of the 2005 Act.
  15. Section 14(9) of the Principal Act, as inserted by section 9 of the 2005 Act.
  16. Section 14(11) of the Principal Act, as inserted by section 9 of the 2005 Act.
  17. Section 14(10) of the Principal Act, as amended by section 9 of the 2005 Act.
  18. Section 14(14) of the Principal Act, as inserted by section 9 of the 2005 Act.
  19. Section 14 of the Principal Act, as amended by section 9 of the 2005 Act.
  20. Section 13 of the Principal Act, as amended by section 8 of the 2005 Act.
  21. Section 1(1) of the Principal Act.
  22. ‘Dear Daughter’ was a dramatised programme broadcast in 1996 by RTE which featured Goldenbridge Industrial School.
  23. There were three programmes broadcast by RTE in 1999 in the ‘States of Fear’ series: ‘Industrial Schools and Reformatories from the 1940s–1980s’, ‘The Legacy of Industrial Schools’, and ‘Sick and Disabled Children in Institutions’.
  24. Under the terms of the indemnity agreement reached with the Religious Congregations on 5th June 2002, the Congregations agreed to make a contribution of €128 million towards the redress scheme. This was broken down as follows: cash contribution €41.14 million; provision of counselling services €10 million and property transfers €76.86 million.
  25. An organisation funded by the Congregations that provides counselling for persons who have been abused by religious Orders and Congregations.
  26. This is dealt with in full in the chapter on St Joseph’s Industrial School, Greenmount.
  27. This is a pseudonym.
  28. Cork VEC – Cork Vocational Education Committees.
  29. FÁS – Training and employment authority.
  30. See Third Interim Report, chapter 4.