Stalled by strife

The commission investigating child abuse in state and religious institutions was expected to have delivered by now but its sheer scale and several disputes have left it bogged down, says Terry Philpot.  

When the Laffoy Commission investigating abuse in state and religious-run institutions began work in its central Dublin headquarters in 1999, its report was expected in two years (“Sins of the fathers”, Community Care, 14 September 2000). But the investigation has been dogged by dispute and controversy, and has made slow progress.

The commission caused the government a headache before it even reported. Last December the workings and remit of the investigation committee came under review – a process still not completed – because the commission’s decision to name abusers resulted in legal arguments, causing delays and possible legal costs of a150-a200m (£105.5m-£140.7m).

Even the government’s request in 2000 for the commission to investigate allegations that between 1960 and 1973 children in the care of state and religious institutions had been used as guinea pigs in three vaccine trials was not uncontroversial. Victor Boyhan, who has been campaigning on the issue, claims that after a ministerial brush-off of allegations and a report in 1997 that did not appear for three years, the matter may get submerged in the commission’s massive workload.

The confidential committee’s task is formidable. By March, it had heard 600 witnesses, with another 452 to hear.

Allegations of cover-ups, secrecy and missing files have formed part of the story of the scandal. It is known that government files were destroyed in the 1980s. But earlier this year a senior police officer who had been questioned about the missing files died. It was alleged he had disposed of files to protect the reputation of the late Father Jim Grennan, one of the worst clerical offenders.

In June this year, the Department of Education handed over 1.5 million documents that the commission had been seeking for 18 months. The commission’s chairperson, Ms Justice Mary Laffoy, had said that she was “worn out” at expressions of contrition by the department that were not matched by action.

The Christian Brothers, the main religious order accused of involvement in abuse, has also excited the commission’s anger at its own failure to hand over files. But the order itself has sought a High Court ruling on the commission’s decision that it could name dead members of the order whom it deemed guilty of abuse.

And the way the government cannot please everybody is illustrated by two advertisements. One, from the independent Residential Institutions Redress Board, asked for those who claimed to have been abused to contact it to seek compensation. This, said critics, was an invitation to every gold-digger. The second, by the commission, asked people to come forward who had had “positive” experiences of the industrial schools where abuse took place. This invitation provoked claims of irrelevance and of seeking to paint a rosy picture.

Amid all of this, the government has established another commission to look at clerical abuse generally which, in its turn, has caused the Catholic Church to close its own inquiry under a high court judge.

Laffoy may have been a sign that victims were at last being heard. But the controversies that have come in the commission’s wake are in danger of drowning out the voices of these victims again.


  • The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, chaired by the Honourable Ms Justice Mary Laffoy of the High Court, was first established in May 1999.
  • The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse Act, 2000, was enacted on 26 April 2000. The legislation follows closely the recommendations in the reports of the non-statutory commission.

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