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Lest we forget: The Ryan Report and what then

Anne O’Reilly*

Following ten years of inquiry the final report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (The Ryan Report) was published on 20 May 2009. Almost six months on it is appropriate to reflect on the response of Irish society. In the midst of current debate on issues such as the state of the Irish economy, the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA), unemployment, the need for cutbacks in government spending on public sector services and social welfare, it is important that we do not lose sight of the recommendations made in the Ryan Report. We owe it to the men and women, who as children experienced the reality of the Irish system of residential care and detention to ensure that the twenty recommendations of the Commission are incorporated and applied in Irish child protection and welfare policy.

Stretching to five volumes the Ryan Report is an enormous document that clearly illustrates the presence of neglect as well as physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children in a range of institutional settings. Over 1,500 witnesses gave evidence to the Commission through hearings of the Investigation Committee (1,090) and the Confidential Committee (791). The report documents, in at times graphic detail, the abuse experienced by many individual children who were placed in institutions and its impact on their subsequent careers and life experiences. The Commission was also clear in its criticism of the role of the Department of Education and individual religious congregations. It criticises the ‘deferential and submissive attitude of the Department of Education towards Congregations’ which it argued ‘compromised its ability to carry out its statutory duty’ (Ryan Report, Vol. IV:451). In its concluding analysis the Commission stated that ‘The defects of the system were exacerbated by the way it was operated by the Congregations that owned and managed the schools. This failure led to the institutional abuse of children where their developmental, emotional and educational needs were not met’ (Ryan Report, Vol.IV:451).

A total of twenty recommendations were made by the Commission. Four of the recommendations focused specifically on the need to ‘address the effects of abuse on those who had suffered’ (Ryan Report, Vol. IV:461). These included the provision of a memorial, the acceptance and admission that ‘abuse of children occurred because of failures in systems and policy, of management and administration, as well as of senior personnel’ (Ryan Report, Vol. IV:461). It also recommended that counselling and educational services should continue to be made available as well as the continuation of the family tracing service. The remaining sixteen recommendations centred on the prevention and reduction of the ‘incidence of abuse of children in institutions’ and the need to ‘protect children from such abuse’.

The publication of the report sparked off a two/three week period of intensive media coverage and debate on the findings of the Commission and the oral testimony documented in the report. In general the findings of the Commission and in particular the way in which those findings were included in the final report were welcomed by victim support groups and other non-government organisations involved in the provision of services for children and vulnerable adults. Given the silence surrounding the work of the Commission from 2004 onwards there was a general perception among the membership of some support groups and individual commentators that the final report of the Commission would not do justice to those who gave oral evidence at hearings. The response of individual religious congregations in the days and weeks following the publication of the report was mixed. Some religious congregations who were the subject of investigation by the Commission accepted the findings of the report, while others appeared to be much more cautious in the statements that they made. The Government initially responded to the publication by accepting all the recommendations of the Commission and restating the May 1999 apology made by the Taoiseach on behalf of the Government, the State and all the citizens of Ireland to the victims of institutional abuse.

The six months since the publication of the Ryan Report has seen the emergence of a number of detailed responses to the findings of the Commission. Of particular importance is the publication by the Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (OMCYA) of the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, 2009 Implementation Plan. The OMCYA (2009:11) acknowledges in the plan the continued presence of ‘common deficits in the delivery of services and arrangements for vulnerable children and families’. The allocation of adequate resources, flexible service delivery, performance indicators, measuring outcomes, quality insurance measures, interagency co-operation, outsourcing and service arrangements, targeting and audits of risk and need can be identified as central components of the action plan to implement the recommendations of the report. These components are very much in line with the language used in many of the current debates on the levels of Government spending on welfare and other public sector services.

The implementation plan states that resource issues will not interfere with the commitment given to act on the recommendations made by the Commission. For example, with regard to lack of adequate social workers, the plan states that the HSE will be exempt from the moratorium on recruitment in order to fill the current 270 vacant social worker posts. However, the plan goes on to state that the HSE can ‘front load’ the filling of these vacancies ‘…provided it can show that there will be sufficient normal course vacancies…[in the HSE]…to cover the costs involved…’ (OMCYA, 2009:63). A four year time frame of implementation of the recommendations of the Commission is identified in the OMCYC plan. Four years is a long time in the life of a child, particularly for those children currently in care settings without adequate social work and other supports. The recent publication of the National Children in Care Inspection Report 2009 estimated that 61 per cent of children (n.262) in residential care in 2008 were aged between 15 and 17 years (HIQA 2009:41). The four year time frame for implementation needs to be revisited to ensure that the needs of these young people due to leave the care system in the near future are given priority. A large proportion of the men and women who shared their experiences of their time in a range of institutional settings with the Commission were motivated by a concern to ensure the protection of children and vulnerable adults. We have a responsibility as a society to ensure that we do not lose sight of the recommendations of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse. This will be particularly challenging in the coming weeks as societal attention focuses on economic concerns, proposed budgetary cutbacks and the re-emergence of the issue of clerical abuse with the publication of the inquiry into the handling of clerical abuse by the Dublin Archdiocese. We need as a society to ensure that the actions we invoke in responding to institutional abuse are inclusive, appropriate and timely and in particular, that those actions do not cause further harm or abuse through a process of exclusion and indifference.

    References
  1. Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (2009) Commission toInquire into Child Abuse Report. Volumes I to V. Dublin: The Stationery Office (also available on line at www.childabusecommission.ie )
  2. Health Information and Quality Authority (2009) National Childrenin Care Inspection Report 2008. Cork: Health Information and Quality Authority. (available on line at www.hiqa.ie)
  3. Office of the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs (2009) Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, 2009 Implementation Plan. Dublin: The Stationery Office. (also available on line at www.omc.gov.ie )