The hardest word

18 Mar 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 18 Mar 2022

Pic: Gianna Bonello, Unsplash

There was a minute of silence. Then, one by one, four ministers spoke. It was a profoundly moving occasion.

Victims were in the Chamber to hear them out, so too were representatives of the organisations that had inflicted so much pain and suffering upon them.

The apologies which followed the Historical Institutional Abuse Report, published way back in 2017 may have been a long time coming yet  the event was all the more remarkable for that. For what was to follow was if not quite unprecedented then highly unusual.

These were clearly heartfelt statements and not at all typical of the sort of language that normally characterises scripted public apologies. They were unqualified.

We make no apologies for quoting so extensively from them. Every word matters. Each one needed to be said.

Michelle McIlveen. “Whilst in the care of the State you were made vulnerable – we did not ensure all our residential homes were filled with love and safety. We did not ensure these homes were all free from hunger and cold; from mistreatment and abuse.

“It was the State’s responsibility to do that, and it failed you.

“We neglected you, rejected you, we made you feel unwanted. It was not your fault. The State let you down. “We recognise that, as adults now and survivors of historical institutional abuse, you carry the effects of that suffering and its continued impact on your daily life.

“When we asked what you needed to hear in the State apology – some of you told us that – “it is about being believed when we tell you what has happened to us as children.”

“You were not believed.

“We are sorry that you were not believed.

“The State has listened to you and the State believes you.

“We are truly sorry."

Naomi Long provided more context and detail, spelling out some of the abuse: “

  • children who were isolated, made fun of and shown-up in front of others because of bedwetting;
  • young females on the brink of puberty uneducated in the ways of the menstruation and sexual health or provided with inadequate feminine hygiene products;
  • children being referred to by a number and having their identity taken away;
  • excessive housework, chores and industrial-type work;
  • the practice of bathing children in Jeyes Fluid;
  • the use of physical restraints;
  • bullying; and
  • the removal of birthday gifts and presents of toys, clothes, sweets – depriving children of the softer and more tender aspects of a child’s upbringing. “

Nichola Mallon cited the appalling neglect of those who were sent to Australia.

“Children left our shores and were promised a better life, but for many the optimistic future they deserved never happened. 

“The Hart Inquiry found that the State was indifferent to the practice of the voluntary sector of sending child migrants to Australia.

“It failed to fully inform itself as to what was happening once it became aware that children as young as four were being sent abroad.  

“It failed to make any enquiries whatsoever as to the fate of these children.

“It failed to make any representations to the British Government about the operation of the child migrant scheme.

And she acknowledged that, perhaps most distressingly of all for many victims the experience was just the beginning of a lifetime of pain and suffering.

“Many of you have told us that you were able to overcome your painful past and that you went on to have a happy life.

“However, we also know that countless people have lived with the pain and trauma over many years, and continue to suffer.

“We hope that today’s apology can contribute in some small way to your healing.”

Conor Murphy had the last word.

““We know that not every survivor wants an apology and we respect that. No apology will change what happened to you, nor right the wrongs of the past. 

“The apology we offer you is unconditional.

“We should have protected you and we did not. We are sorry.

“You were harmed by those who should have cared for you. We are sorry.

“You told the truth, yet you were not believed. We are sorry.

“We are responsible. And we are so very, very sorry."

These statements are of the highest importance because they provide unanimous reassurance from the state that what happened can never be allowed to happen again, without equivocation of any kind.

And who are we to question those victims who then left the Chamber rather than listen to scripted statements on behalf of the institutions involved? The HIA report is extremely long and very harrowing and the suffering endured unimaginable. It is an important, if difficult, read.

But what lessons can we draw from all of this?

One of the most troubling aspects of these cases and others like it has been for organisations to imagine that preserving their reputation is in opposition to facing up to allegations of sexual abuse by staff and so inaction or even cover-up is seen as a valid option.

It can come about because the organisation believes it has a higher purpose which will be damaged if allegations were to surface.

This happened with those religious organisations which chose to move clerics accused of sexual abuse between parishes or other religious communities in the hope that prayer and repentance was the answer and that dealing with the authorities would somehow damage the promulgation of their faith.

It also happened with charities in the international aid sector who chose to ignore evidence of their own staff and agents sexually exploiting the vulnerable because they believed that this would impede their fund-raising.

Thus William Anderson, formerly in charge of safeguarding at Oxfam told the International Development committee’s investigation into abuse within the sector : “It took me a while to realise that some of my early conversations were at loggerheads; when I talked about risk it was about protecting the vulnerable whereas most risk conversations in Oxfam were about reputational risk and how to protect the Oxfam brand.”

The ruinous consequences of these strategies are plain for all to see.

The Catholic church, in particular, may never recover.

Second is the lifelong consequences of physical and or sexual abuse in childhood and just how long it can take before victims are even able to tell anyone about it. Tragically those most vulnerable are often most at risk which means in turn that we must be especially vigilant about those we trust to care for them. This also means that many perpetrators escape punishment and explains why it can take so long for the full extent of abuse to emerge.

Sadly there is more to be told, and the history gets darker and even more uncomfortable.

We still await an inquiry into mother-and-baby homes in Northern Ireland. And here it is not just the church and state that have questions to answer and apologies to make. The chair of the interdepartmental Working Group examining the issues Judith Gillespie told MLAs in2021: “I can tell Committee members that the overriding reason that women entered mother-and-baby homes, for example, was familial pressure. Families wanted a problem to go away, and, as a result, they sent their daughters and sisters away from home. Often, these daughters and sisters were under 18 and, in some cases, considerably under 18. Often, they were vulnerable. Often, they were in a relationship where there was a power differential with the father of the child. In some cases, they were victims of rape, incest and unlawful carnal knowledge.”

We do not know how many women were committed to these places because records are inadequate. However it is estimated to be around 13,000 mothers. How many children survived is even harder to say.

The point being that if, and when there is ever a formal, public apology made about this second shameful scandal we will all have to confront a most uncomfortable aspect of our past – the complicity of so many in what has been chillingly referred to as Ireland’s architecture of confinement – a place of shame where those deemed unworthy were locked away from the rest.


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