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In Plain Sight: Turning a blind eye to the rape and torture of children

September 27, 2011

Amnesty International is recognized throughout the world as the leading organization dedicated to protecting the human rights of all people.  Founded in 1961 Amnesty proclaims that “Our vision is for every person to enjoy the rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights standards”.

In their 2011 Annual Report Amnesty International, for the first time in its history, cited the Vatican as a violator of basic human rights.  Their report stated that “The Holy See did not sufficiently comply with its international obligations relating to the protection of children”.  They reported that “increasing evidence of widespread child sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy over the past decades, and of the enduring failure of the Catholic Church to address these crimes properly, continued to emerge in various countries.  Such failures included not removing alleged perpetrators from their posts pending proper investigations, not cooperating with judicial authorities to bring them to justice and not ensuring proper reparation to victims”.

This week Amnesty International Ireland issued a report entitled “In Plain Sight”.  While there have been several reports published in Ireland in recent years detailing the abuse of children this report is different.  As Colm O’Gormon, Executive Director of Amnesty International Ireland articulated “The Ferns, Ryan, Murphy, and Cloyne reports tell us what happened to these children, but not why it happened.  We commissioned this report to explore that question because only by doing so can we ensure this never happens again”.

And why did this horrific sexual violence continue unchecked for so long?

O’Gormon answers this question by stating “This abuse happened, not because we didn’t know about it but because many people across society turned a blind eye to it.  It is not true that everyone knew, but deep veins of knowledge existed across Irish society and people in positions of power ignored their responsibility to act”.

And what was it that so many turned a blind eye to?

O’Gorman states that “Children were tortured. They were brutalized, beaten, starved, and abused”.  In Plain Sight concludes that “the sexual abuse in the diocesan reports, and the sexual, physical and emotional abuse, the living conditions, and the neglect described in the Ryan report, can be categorized as torture, and cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment under human rights law”.

Key findings from the report state that in Ireland there was a clear lack of responsibility and accountability for the care and safety of children.  While children were being tortured in residential settings operated by the Catholic Church there was no state authority who was monitoring what was taking place.

The report also determined that the laws in Ireland were not applied equally to everyone.  Those in positions of authority and power were given preferential treatment at the expense of children who were being victimized.  The report found that children’s rights need to be strengthened and become a matter of law.

In addition the report states that the attitudes of individuals and society toward power and authority must change.  The report stated that “The end of deference to powerful institutions and the taking of personal responsibility on behalf of all members of society will initiate some of the changes that are necessary to prevent the occurrence of human rights abuses”.  Likewise, the state itself must work on behalf of all its citizens and not only those who have power and influence.

The questions posed by the report “In Plain Sight” should be asked, and need to be asked by everyone who is dedicated to ending the scourge of sexual violence against children.  The questions should be posed to all citizens of every country where the widespread sexual victimization of children has been allowed to continue unabated for so long.

Who are those individuals in the United States, in Wisconsin, and in the archdiocese of Milwaukee who chose to turn a blind eye to the crimes that they knew were occurring?  What was it that caused them to look the other way?

These questions need to be asked and answered if we are to ensure that our children are safer today than they were in the past.  Ireland’s Children’s Minister, Francis Fitzgerald, warns that we give ourselves a false sense of security in believing that these crimes will not be repeated simply because we are now more educated about sexual violence.

At the launch of the report “In Plain Sight” Fitzgerald made the following remarks.  I include the full text because they powerfully articulate the danger of silence, complacency, and the decision to turn a blind eye when one is confronted with unspeakable evil.  She states that we all have the “urge to deny, to shut our eyes and ears”, to atrocities that occur.  In doing so we are in danger of allowing the awful past to repeat itself.

The remarks of Children’s Minister, Francis Fitzgerald on Monday September 26, 2011:

Thank you for having me here today to launch this Report. I want to commend Amnesty International Ireland for commissioning such a weighty and important study, which looks at four major inquiries and reports into child abuse scandals in Ireland, and the landscape as it now looks.

This report provides a very useful service. It catalogues and details a history of unspeakable abuse against the most vulnerable in our society; our children.  It reminds us that Irish children were subjected to treatment that would be horrifying if it were done to prisoners of war, never mind little boys and girls. Rape, burning, beating, biting. Horrendous, awful torture.

That very awfulness of what happened may go some way to explaining why, as the report says, so many people find the topic too overwhelming to deal with. But the problem with that reaction, that urge to deny, to shut our ears and eyes, is that it can allow the past to recur. It is easy for us as a society to fall into the trap of believing that our current knowledge about what happened equates to safety; the assumption is that because we as a society know that abuse can happen, we somehow make it less likely to happen. It’s is a fallacy. Knowledge is of little use without action.

That is shown again and again in this report. In fact it’s reflected in the very title of the document; in plain sight. It says boldly what we now must accept; people knew about children being abused long before it was put in print in the Ferns, Cloyne, Murphy and Dublin reports.

Members of congregations knew of fellow members who were assaulting or depriving or exploiting those in their care.  Diocese knew of accusations against clergy, communities knew of deprivation and servitude in industrial schools, the courts knew of families torn apart and children willfully institutionalized. In fact, in many cases the courts were the ones tearing the families apart with high-handed patronizing arrogance.

And it is clear that the apparatus of the state was also aware and complicit; Gardai failed to develop prosecutions where they could have, the justice system failed to some of those that were brought and throughout, legislators allowed law to be used to punish children, not protect them.

So in that context it is easy to see how people could be overwhelmed by the topic. Because it strikes at our very national identity. Whatever happens to us, we Irish like to believe we are fundamentally a good people. Kind. Generous. Brave. Open-minded.

So how could we have allowed this systemic abuse of children to have gone on for so long? How could a decent society have let this happen?

Part of the answer is outlined in the report. It outlines the factors that allowed this abuse to occur and it shows how some of those factors still exist. My cabinet colleagues and I are acutely aware of that latter fact. In fact, my Department and Ministry exist in part to address it.

But one causitive factor, one national attribute is becoming ever clearer to me as I read more of what happened in our schools, clubs, churches, homes and communities.


At every turn, Irish people kept their mouths shut out of deference to state, system, church and community.

When they should have been unified in fury and outrage they were instead silenced, afraid to even whisper a criticism against the powerful. Much of the blame for that lies in a past where the chasm between the powerful and powerless was too vast to close, but let’s not fool ourselves into believing that abuse occurred in a sepia-toned Ireland that is dead and gone. Abuse – awful shocking abuse – happened long after we knew of the atrocities of the distant past.

And again it was covered by deference. It was facilitated by the well-meaning and the weak, by the cowardly and the complicit, by the silent and the supportive.

The fundamental lesson for me in this is that we must create a society in which no-one is afraid to speak. In which no-one is afraid to challenge authority and power, because deference to the powerful is a guaranteed way to help that power corrupt.

We have to move Irish society to a position where we are not afraid of debate; where there are no sacred systems that take precedence over our people. Children matter. Families matter. People’s health, hopes and happiness matter. Everything else is subservient to those things. We must make sure that no system and no people are ever allowed to become so important that lives are destroyed to protect their reputation.

The State has acknowledged its failures, most recently following the publication of the Cloyne report where myself and my colleague the Minster for Justice, Equality and Defence echoed Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s apology for any State failings identified in the report.

I know that words can only go so far, and the Government, principally through my Department and the Department of Justice and Equality, has undertaken to follow those words with decisive actions which I believe will improve the lot of all children on this island, and allow them to live their lives without the fear which was allowed to hold such a tight rein over so many for so long.

We must recognise that more can always be done and we must never become complacent. We must also recognise that society has a role in caring for children – too often in the past people who had direct knowledge or suspicions of abuse, chose to turn a blind eye.

As Minister for Children and Youth Affairs I am driving a series of measures designed to strengthen our child protection framework. This includes the introduction of legislation to underpin the Children First Guidance, which is designed to enhance child protection through putting in place the laws, the practices and the mechanisms to ensure that the harrowing legacy of child abuse in Ireland, outlined by the Ferns, Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports, is consigned to the past. This will go a long way towards the creation of an over-arching mindset that child abuse, in any form cannot and should not be tolerated. This legislation is something which has been called for by many, and it will happen.

Children First will also be supported by an assurance framework which will include strong emphasis on inspection and the need to provide demonstrable evidence that the rules are being properly implemented across all sectors.

In addition to the above my colleague the Minister for Justice, Equality and Defence is finalising legislation which will put the vetting of employees on a statutory footing and also allow for the sharing of soft information as part of the vetting process. Minister Shatter is also progressing legislation on Withholding Information on Crimes against Children and Vulnerable Adults. This will, essentially, make it an offence for a person who has information that could help in the arrest, prosecution or conviction of an offender, for a serious offence committed against a child or vulnerable adult, not to pass that information on to the Gardaí, where they know that information could help.

The measures I have outlined are in addition to a wide range of ongoing actions set out in the Implementation Plan in response to the recommendations of the Ryan Commission. Actions being taken as part of the Plan, such as the recruitment of additional Child Protection Social Workers, will I believe make a difference at the coalface.

The Amnesty report looks at power, accountability and the role of wider society in holding power to account. It is quite obvious that power corrupted where that power went unchallenged at both organisational, Government and societal level. It is also quite obvious that many in society feel a sense of shame at what has been allowed to happen to children who deserved our protection, respect and understanding. A critical error was the unquestioning deference to an organisation making itself out to be the paragon of virtue it obviously was not.

In his preface Colm O’Gorman argues that those charged with acting for the general good of society should be clearly and meaningfully accountable to the people in whose name they act. I wholeheartedly accept this assessment. I know that I and my colleagues will be judged on the decisions we make. I believe that the work we are doing and the plans we are making will better serve children’s interests.

The Report also considers in detail the status given to the child, particularly children forced into residential institutions for a myriad of reasons. When children had the courage to speak out about abuses being perpetrated, they were not listened to, not believed, and not given the credit they deserved. Their voices had no weight.

I believe that now more than ever we are listening to our children and, most importantly, taking their views and concerns seriously. People are becoming more attuned to the signs of abuse. My Department has been to the fore in opening up to children the debate about the future direction of this country and their place in it. The level of participation by children in Department-sponsored activities is significant. Children and their representative groups are involved in discussions on the National Children’s Strategy. Children in residential institutions are consulted on their care and future plans. The HSE is working hard to ensure that all children in fostering arrangements have access to a social worker so that they have someone to relate all experiences – good and bad – to.

Plans for a Referendum on children’s rights, looking to balance the rights of children and parents in the Constitution, will also bring this debate into every home and school, and this is to be welcomed.

It will take some time to absorb the detail of this report, which will give rise to much debate. I look forward to being part of that debate and to doing everything in my power to effect real and lasting change.

Thank you.

One Comment
  1. ruth moore permalink

    THANK YOU, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL for this bold and long awaited report. Children around the World are somewhat safer today because of your stand.
    Ruth Moore

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