In May RTE broadcast a ‘Prime Time Investigates’ programme ‘Mission to Prey’ which identified a number of Catholic priests alleging they were abusers. Subsequently the state broadcaster apologised when it emerged that false accusations were made in the programme against Fr. Kevin Reynolds. It paid substantial damages to him.
Within days of the libel action being settled the Cabinet met, discussed the issue and ordered an inquiry by the Broadcasting Authority. A speedy response to a serious issue.
Less speedy has been the response by successive governments to the allegations of an appalling litany of sexual abuse against patients which occurred in Our Lady of Lourdes hospital over three decades beginning in the early 1970s. Bernadette Sullivan, a former nurse, exposed the scandal almost 20 years ago. She then established in 2008 the support and advocacy organisation, Dignity 4 Patients.
Dignity 4 Patients is patient-centred organisation, which delivers support and advocacy services to people “who have experienced sexually inappropriate behaviour whilst a patient. Our services are designed to help patients understand what has happened and to provide a safe place to talk and access support and information. We aim to assist those patient/victims and their families on a path to healing and recovery.”
It has also been campaigning for a Commission of Inquiry into the Drogheda allegations.
Two years ago Fine Gael and Labour brought forward a very good motion to the Dáil in support of the Lourdes victims. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny supported this motion. So did the Tánaiste, Eamon Gilmore and the Minister for Health James Reilly. Dr. Reilly was an outspoken critic of the then Health Minister Mary Harney’s refusal to hold an inquiry. The opposition motion was narrowly defeated 76 to 73 by Fianna Fáil and the Greens.
In April this year the now Health Minister James Reilly performed a political U-turn by ruling out an inquiry into the abuse allegations. It was suggested by a Health department spokesperson that this ‘may’ have been because the Smyth review last autumn had advised against an inquiry because it might affect possible criminal proceedings. However, Bernadette Sullivan pointed out that Minister Reilly was critical of the failure to hold an inquiry both before and after the Smyth review.
Four months later in July I received an email from a victim of the abuse in Lourdes Hospital. He was responding to Enda Kenny’s Dáil speech in which he criticised the Catholic Church for its failure to co-operate with inquiries into abuse by members of religious orders.
In it the victim included an email sent to him two years ago following the failure of that earlier motion in which Mr. Kenny said: “We did not wish to divide the Dáil on this issue but the government of Fianna Fáil and the Greens voted down our request ... I know they were wrong to do this.”
That same month Minister Reilly changed tack again and raised hopes among victims. On July 21st at a meeting with the Joint Committee on Health and Children he acknowledged that; “Many people have suffered as a consequence of not being able to have this issue aired in public and I have discussed it with the Attorney General. Notwithstanding the reports to date, I have the agreement of the Attorney General that we will, following the referendum on the Abbeylara judgment, have an Oireachtas committee inquiry to investigate fully this issue when the committees have restored their rights to compel witnesses to attend.”
Minister Reilly also said that he hoped the inquiry; “... will address the outstanding issue and give people the sense that justice will be done. Justice will be done in the courts in any event but this matter goes beyond that.”
The referendum was not passed but the issue of justice for those who have suffered abuse remains, and as he accepts, is a matter that goes beyond the courts.
As well as the hurt done to victims there is also the failure of the state thus far to reassure the public that the systemic flaws in the health service, that failed to prevent the abuse in Lourdes hospital, have been properly addressed.
Last Monday evening I attended a meeting in Drogheda of the Dignity 4 Patients group. The sense of anger and hurt and frustration among victims was obvious and distressing. On Wednesday I raised this issue in the Dáil and asked the Taoiseach if he would establish an independent Commission of Inquiry into these events as he promised in opposition, and announce this before the Christmas recess.
He refused, instead offering to meet with the leaders of the opposition to discuss this matter. This was a disappointing rejection of a request which the Taoiseach has a clear record of supporting.
It is also in stark contrast to the speed with which the Cabinet moved on the RTE case.
What is the delay? Why are the rights of these victims being ignored by the state? Whatever the reason it is not good enough.
An inquiry is needed. An Inquiry is long overdue. The victims have a right to the truth. The public has a right to know that the health system has put in place procedures to prevent a repeat of this.
There are also other related issues that need to be resolved. Dignity 4 Patients has had its core funding cut. The 200 plus patients who rely on it and many of whom do not trust the health system, are to be denied the support and advocacy service it provides. The Minister has to reverse this cruel decision.
Victims I have spoken to have also asked that the Minister authorise the release to the victims of the evidence they individually gave to the Drogheda Review held by retired High Court judge TC Smyth. The review itself was never published and thus far the individual evidence provided by victims has been withheld from them. That decision also needs reversed.
In the Programme for Government agreed by Fine Gael and Labour after the election the two government parties committed to building a new Ireland based on ‘fairness’ and in which government would protect the “vulnerable”.
The victims of abuse in Drogheda Hospital are ‘vulnerable’ citizens seeking justice. Two years ago Enda Kenny castigated Fianna Fail and the Greens for their stand.
He was right then. But he will be wrong now if he does exactly what they did.