Reopening the abuse deal
TEN YEARS ago Bertie Ahern, as taoiseach, apologised on the State’s behalf to victims of child abuse. He announced a commission of inquiry to investigate the abuse of children in institutions, and to hear evidence from those who were alleging mistreatment. Separately, a Residential Institutions Redress Board was set up to decide what financial compensation the victims of abuse should receive.
In 2002, Mr Ahern’s government reached agreement on how the cost of compensation would be shared by those responsible for this scandal: by the State, which largely financed the residential institutions where abuse had occurred, and by the religious orders that ran these institutions and whose members perpetrated many of these terrible abuses. That agreement capped the financial liability of the 18 religious congregations affected at €127 million. The State agreed to indemnify the religious orders, and to pay any awards made above that amount.
Even at that time, it seemed a favourable settlement for the religious orders. In 2001, the government’s initial assumption was that the cost of the awards would be some €254 million. It proposed that the State and the religious orders would make a 50 per cent contribution towards those costs. By June of that year the estimated cost of compensation had doubled to €508 million. A year later, when agreement was eventually reached, the likely, but unquantified, cost was even higher. It is reported in this newspaper today that €926 million has already been paid out by the State.
The government completed negotiations in haste, and reached agreement in unusual circumstances on its final day in office in June 2002. The former Labour leader and current justice spokesman, Pat Rabbitte, stated yesterday that everything about the deal made in 2002 by Michael Woods, as minister for education, was unorthodox. “There was no cabinet memorandum. Cabinet procedures were not observed . . . and the deal was capped at a ridiculous figure”.
Mr Rabbitte said that Labour in office would examine the validity of the agreement. Certainly, there were many unusual aspects to the discussions: not least, the effective exclusion of the attorney general from involvement in negotiations on critical aspects of the settlement. Mr Rabbitte has now pressed for a reopening of the indemnity deal to secure a more appropriate sharing of financial liability between the Catholic Church and the State. The State, for its failure to stop the abuse, is liable for anything up to nine-tenths of the compensation cost.
The church, whose members were directly responsible for the abuse of children in their care, pays one-tenth of the financial penalty. The church is under no legal obligation to revisit that agreement. However, a church that has just seen its moral authority further so fatally undermined in all five volumes of a deeply damning report would be well advised to think again. Fr Seán Healy of the Conference of Religious in Ireland makes a regular input into social and financial policy in this State. What has he got to say now?