Thursday, December 28, 2023

School abuse: Religious orders asked whether they will co-operate with an inquiry that identifies individual members


The scoping inquiry into historical sexual abuse at day and boarding schools has asked religious orders whether they are likely to legally challenge any future inquiry that identifies those responsible for handling abuse allegations.

The inquiry was established earlier this year following a series of abuse allegations at schools run mainly by religious congregations with the aim of informing the Government’s response to the scandal.

In correspondence with religious congregations earlier this month, the scoping inquiry set out three key areas which might be addressed by a future inquiry.

They include identifying whether historical sexual abuse took place in schools run by religious orders; establishing how sexual abuse allegations were handled and who was in a position of responsibility at the time; and identifying individuals responsible for historical sexual abuse in schools, including deceased or incapacitated members of religious orders.

In a letter to the congregations, senior counsel Mary O’Toole has asked whether they would be likely to challenge the entitlement of the inquiry to make findings related to any of those areas. A response to the questions has been sought by February 2nd.

She noted that these issues have been the subject of challenge and controversy in previous inquiries

The scoping inquiry is due to produce a report, including recommendations for next steps, to the Minister for Education next June.

It was promoted by fresh abuse disclosures, which mostly date from the 1960s and 1970s, following the airing of an RTÉ radio documentary into the story of two brothers, Mark and David Ryan, who were sexually abused by priests at Blackrock College in the 1970s.

In addition, the scoping inquiry has asked whether orders would rely on all rights available to them to contest any allegations concerning individual schools, alleged perpetrators or people in positions of responsibility for handling abuse allegations.

Orders were also asked to state whether they would defend or seek separate legal representation in the case of deceased members or former members who may be incapacitated or otherwise unavailable are subject to abuse allegations.

The scoping inquiry letter is understood to state that, to date, it has been encouraged to note that “most” religious orders have given a positive response in relation to the extent of their likely co-operation with a proposed inquiry

It also notes that “some” orders have also taken a conciliatory approach when confronted with allegations of historical sexual abuse, such as restorative justice processes, financial redress, settling civil claims by survivors and entering into mediation.

In relation to their future co-operation, the inquiry letter notes that it is aware that religious orders may need to balance their duty of care to deceased or elderly members and their families while acting sincerely in dealing with past pupils who allege sexual abuse when they were children in their schools.

It also acknowledged that, as a matter of law, individuals whose good name and reputation may be adversely affected by findings of a public inquiry have legal entitlements to defend that good name and reputation.

In light of this, it says the response of orders will be treated as a response “in principle” to the questions raised. Their responses will be referred to the Minister for Education in a report, which advises on the next steps.

It is understood that the inquiry has received information from schools on historical abuse allegations.

It has also asked congregations to furnish the inquiry with any recent allegations from 2012 onwards when audits were carried out into safeguarding arrangements in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

The scoping inquiry was due to produce a report by November last but sought an extension due to the volume and nature of the information it has gathered.

In a letter to survivors last October, inquiry lead Mary O’Toole said it was “clear to us that we cannot do justice to the information we have sought and gathered without the need for additional time to collect material, analyse and process what we have been told.”