States of Fear, the redress board and Ireland’s folly
. . . . . . . . . . What renders the entire story of North Wales even more disturbing is that, although it does indeed illuminate the making of a modern witch-hunt, the witch-hunt in question is but one among many. To place our own historical predicament in perspective we should perhaps recall the experience of our ancestors who lived in towns and cities in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe. Those who found themselves in the midst of a witch-hunt then must almost invariably have believed that they had been caught up in some local aberration. It was only when historians had the chance to gather up the fragments of these local witch-hunts and piece them together into a single narrative that the idea of the great European witch-hunt came into being.
Nor do the kinds of sexual abuse crusades enumerated here exhaust the taxonomy of modern witch-hunting. One campaign which has gathered momentum rapidly over the past decade is the one now being conducted against the Roman Catholic Church. Once again it must immediately be acknowledged that some of the allegations which have been made against Roman Catholic priests – possibly the majority of the early ones – are genuine. Others, including a number based on bizarre recovered memories, are quite evidently false.
The church has greatly exacerbated its own predicament by adopting policies of concealment and denial towards cases where priests have sexually exploited the young people in their spiritual care. On too many occasions the Church has sought to suppress the facts. Out of naivety or moral dishonesty or both, it has created situations in some dioceses where known sexual offenders were given new opportunities to re-offend rather than being stopped.
The folly of the policies adopted by the Church in the past, however, should not be allowed to disguise the fact that the Catholic Church has now been demonised. The process of demonisation has inevitably made it into a target for a growing number of allegations.
Naive onlookers may assume that all these claims are being made spontaneously. However, a significant proportion are being generated by lawyers who have discovered that sexual allegations have given them access to the deep pockets of the Catholic Church, and who are actively encouraging potential clients to make new complaints. According to Patrick Schiltz, associate dean of the law school at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis , the current frenzy of allegations – which is particularly intense in the United States – stems from a decade-long campaign by plaintiff lawyers. ‘It’s like warfare,’ he says. ‘Phase One was for plaintiff lawyers to maximise bad publicity and destroy the credibility of the Church. Phase Two is to use that publicity to push for legislative changes. Phase Three will be to collect.’ An analogous process also appears to be taking place, particularly in North America, in relation to other churches, especially the Mormon Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The pattern which has resulted, in which a core of genuine complaints has come to be surrounded by a large and growing penumbra of false allegations, is one which has significant parallels with the pattern of care home allegations in Britain. In Canada, as noted in the introduction, a massive number of compensation-driven false allegations have been made in relation to care homes. And in Australia the first trawling investigations have already been launched.
Another country which has developed a particularly intense and dangerous crusade against child abuse is the Republic of Ireland. Here, as in almost every modern instance, the collective fantasy which has been progressively developed has a core of reality. The beginnings of the story go back to 1994 when the authorities in Northern Ireland sought the extradition from the Republic of Father Brendan Smyth, a Catholic priest who was facing a number of counts of child sexual abuse to which he would eventually plead guilty. It would appear that he had previously been protected against allegations by his own Norbertine order, which had moved him from parish to parish as complaints arose, and failed to alert the police. Perhaps because of the age of the allegations, which went back twenty years, there was a delay of several months during which the Irish attorney general took no action in relation to the extradition request. Unfounded reports began to circulate in Dublin that the process was being deliberately delayed in response to a request made at the highest level by the Catholic Church. An Irish opposition deputy, Pat Rabbitte, then referred in parliament to the possible existence of a document that would ‘rock the foundations of this society to its very roots’. He apparently had in mind the rumoured existence of a letter written by the Primate of All Ireland, Cardinal Cathal Daly, to the attorney general in Dublin. In this letter the Cardinal had supposedly interceded on behalf of Father Brendan Smyth and requested the delay in his extradition which had in fact taken place.
No evidence has been produced that any such letter ever existed. Yet, as a direct result of the rumours which now swept the country, confidence in the ruling establishment was undermined and the Fianna Fail government of Albert Reynolds fell, amidst talk of a dark conspiracy involving politicians, members of Opus Dei, the Knights of Columbus and others. This conspiracy was allegedly seeking to cover up the activities of paedophile priests.
It should not be necessary to labour the similarities between the imaginary conspiracy which led to the fall of an Irish government, and the imaginary conspiracies which were invoked in the early stages of the story of North Wales. The Irish story then developed in a manner which paralleled the development of the North Wales story. In 1996 the producer and director, Louis Lentin, made a television documentary about abuse in children’s homes which was shown by RTE, the main public service broadcasting station in Ireland. It focused on the brutal regime which was said to have been operating during the 1950s at St Vincent’s Industrial School, Goldenbridge, one of a network children’s homes or detention centres which were funded by the state and run by the Catholic Church. The documentary featured allegations made against Sister Xavieria, one of the nuns belonging to the Sisters of Mercy order which ran the home. The woman ‘survivor’ at the centre of the film claimed that, on one occasion, she had been caned by Sister Xavieria so severely that the entire side of her leg was split open from her hip to her knee. She says she was treated in the casualty department of the local hospital and believes that she received 80 to 120 stitches. No medical evidence has ever been produced to substantiate this bizarre claim. The surgeon who ran the casualty department at the hospital in question has given evidence which renders it highly unlikely that such an incident ever took place. Apart from anything else, the surgeon points out that caning would not have caused a wound of this kind, which would have required surgical treatment under a general anaesthetic and not stitches in a casualty department. Yet although the evidence suggests that the woman’s memory was a delusion, her testimony was widely believed at the time. In the wake of the broadcast, atrocity stories about Goldenbridge and other industrial schools began to proliferate.
In April and May of 1999 RTE broadcast a much more extensive account of the industrial schools in the form of a three-part documentary series, States of Fear, which was written, produced and directed by the journalist Mary Raftery. The programmes contained much historical material which appeared to be soundly based. They portrayed the industrial schools as part of a grossly underfunded and chaotic child-care system, in which Dickensian conditions had prevailed for decades longer than most people would have assumed possible. Most of the schools had clearly been inadequate both pastorally and educationally. Corporal punishment was frequently used and it seems beyond doubt that some regimes were both repressive and brutal. The programmes also featured a series of claims by former residents of the schools that they had been physically or sexually abused by members of orders such as the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and the Sisters of Charity. References were also made to a number of unexplained deaths which allegedly took place in these schools. Raftery herself has explicitly rejected the ‘bad apple’ theory which seeks to explain the acts of abuse which were alleged as aberrations from a system which was essentially benign:
The series provoked a huge public response. As Raftery puts it, ‘Outrage at the crimes committed against these children was expressed continuously for the three weeks of the series, across acres of newsprint and hours of radio broadcasts all over the country.’
The reaction of the government was swift. On 11 May 1999, the date that the final programme in the series was due to be broadcast, the Irish prime minister, Bertie Ahern, made the following statement: ‘ On behalf of the State and of all citizens of the State, the Government wishes to make a sincere and long overdue apology to the victims of childhood abuse for our collective failure to intervene, to detect their pain, to come to their rescue.’ Little more than a week later the minister for education, Michael Martin, announced the establishment of a Commission to Enquire into Childhood Abuse, chaired by a high court judge, Miss Justice Mary Laffoy. The Commission’s proceedings, however, became bogged down in legal argument and delays over documents. In September 2003, after the government had proposed that the Commission would investigate only sample allegations of abuse instead of the 1,700 complaints which were before it, Mary Laffoy resigned.
In 2002 the government set up the Residential Institutions Redress Board of Ireland, whose purpose was ‘to make fair and reasonable awards to people who, as children, were abused while resident in various institutions in Ireland’. The maximum payment to any individual was set at the very high level of €300,000 (or £200,000). By November 2004 it was reported that the Redress Board had already received 4,633 applications ‘and continues to receive applications at a steady rate’. As was noted in the introduction to this book, an Irish government report compiled in 2004 estimated that the potential final number of claimants could be around 8,900, at a cost of €828 million in compensation payments. In view of the fact that, as this report was being compiled, the Cheshire-based solicitor Peter Garsden was advertising for British-based Irish complainants on his website, and teams of lawyers were already preparing to scour Australia, New Zealand (and presumably the United States) in search of more allegations from expatriate Irish citizens, it is entirely possible that this estimate will be exceeded.
In this case it seems beyond doubt that very many children and young people did suffer abuse in the Irish industrial schools, not least because of the draconian extent to which corporal punishment was sometimes permitted and used. At the same time, however, there is clear evidence that large numbers of incidents have been fabricated, imagined or retrieved as ‘memories’ as a result of counselling or other forms of suggestion. It would indeed be remarkable if the creation of the Redress Board, which has extended extraordinarily generous terms both to complainants and to their lawyers, did not lead to a very high level of false allegations.
What has certainly happened already in Ireland is that journalists and politicians have inadvertently created a witch-hunt of their own – one in which the members of religious orders have effectively been demonised and in which false allegations have already played an extremely significant role. Just as the story of North Wales was wholeheartedly accepted in Britain by a number of distinguished journalists, including Paul Foot and Nick Davies, so in Ireland something similar happened. There, a narrative in which a significant amount of history is mixed with a great deal of fantasy or fabrication appears to have been adopted, with few reservations, by some of the country’s leading journalists. .
5. Raftery and Sullivan, p. 3
6. Irish Times, 16 November 2004. The government estimate referred to was made in the 2004 annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The same report notes that, although awards had been made to nearly 2,000 former residents, only 11 had been awarded more than €200,000, and only one had received the full payment of €300,000. It should be noted, though, that (as in any lottery) it is the theoretical availability of such high sums which tends to encourage false allegations. The average award was in any case €77,000 a figure which does not include legal costs.
The article went on to relay many of the allegations made by Lee Steward, including the false allegation against Gordon Anglesea, who was not named and was disguised as ‘ a powerful public official’ who had previously been investigated and cleared.
© Richard Webster, 2005