Residential Institutions Statutory Fund Bill (2012)
I welcome the publication of the Bill. The Ryan and Murphy reports investigating abuse, including that which occurred at residential institutions, were shocking in their revelations of systemic abuse of a verbal, physical and sexual nature. For many years, courageous individuals attempted to expose the despicable activities of some people who had been entrusted with the care of thousands of vulnerable children. There were many obstacles to uncovering the truth: a deep unwillingness to act on the part of religious orders, the turning of a blind eye by the State, fear among the media of the ramifications of investigating what were then rumours and, above all, a deferential public seemingly unwilling to ask questions or raise social issues.
Given all this, it is entirely appropriate that the burden of rectifying as far as possible the grave injustices and mistakes of the past should be shared by the State and the churches. Disgracefully, previous Ministers allowed their own deferential views to limit the amount of compensation payable by religious orders, leaving the taxpayer to foot the lion’s share of the bill. The revelations in the Ryan and Murphy reports evoked understandable anger from survivors, their families and wider society at the response of religious groups. Some religious orders, clearly shocked and humbled by the revelations, pledged voluntarily to increase their contributions, and the Bill will facilitate this. The legislation is a product of extensive consultation between the State, the religious orders and, most significantly, the survivors of abuse. The fund will be available to an estimated 15,000 former residents who successfully complete the application process to the existing Residential Institutions Redress Board or who separately agree settlements which would have fallen under the remit of the redress board.
The legislation also facilitates the appointment of a board to oversee the fund, and there is no doubt the board will play a significant role in determining its effectiveness, chiefly by ensuring that appropriate services, including mental health, health, education and housing support services, are in place. The board will have at least four members who resided as children in some of the institutions in question. Provision is also made to ensure the board has appropriate expertise in the keeping of accounts, fund disbursal, management and administration, and so forth. I am pleased to see that the chief executive of the board will be accountable to Oireachtas committees and that the Freedom of Information Act and recourse to the Ombudsman will apply. These detailed provisions should provide reassurance that public moneys will be spent efficiently and effectively in an attempt to rectify the serious and disturbing events of the past. It must always be remembered, however, that compensation cannot undo the theft of innocence and the loss of carefree and happy childhoods which were instead characterised by violence, abuse, intimidation and suffering.
I wish I could say I have no concerns regarding the administration of previous funds to recompense survivors, but I cannot. Unsettling matters have been brought to my attention by constituents who are survivors of abuse regarding the conduct of some organisations that were established to provide services to survivors. Serious questions have also been raised by journalists investigating organisations. It must be acknowledged that a great many organisations involved in assisting survivors do an impeccable job to the highest standards, and they must be commended for this. However, at least one organisation, Right of Place, which has offices in Galway and in Cork, has had to receive extra financial support from the HSE to remain solvent and, in the very recent past, has been unable to provide satisfactory accounts detailing to whom public funds were allocated. As a result, the HSE rightly requested monthly expenditure and activity reports and quarterly face-to-face meetings with the organisation. This raises the fundamental issue of proper and prudent expenditure of public moneys.
The residential institutions statutory fund must demonstrate that legislators have learned from the recent past, just as Irish society has learned from the grave injustices the system facilitated throughout the 20th century. Every cent must be accounted for and every cent must benefit survivors as they attempt to address the problems caused by the traumatic experiences of their childhoods.