A skewed view of the evidence
There is, however, one tribunal where this does not happen, where only one side is being presented in public.
The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse has decided not to allow us to hear those whose sworn evidence concerns allegations of abuse. All we are permitted to witness are those defending their own particular institutions and religious orders against charges which remain unspecified as far as we are concerned.
To be fair to Mr Justice Seán Ryan, who presides over the commission, he does of course have all the facts from both sides available to him. Furthermore, his decision to allow public hearings of even half the evidence is an advance on the previous system whereby everything was to be private. We had an example of the lopsided proceedings of the commission this week with the evidence of Fr Michael Hughes, representing the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. This order ran the State's only reformatory school for boys during much of the 20th century, St Conleth's at Daingean in Co Offaly.
So far it has been a matter for each religious order to nominate who speaks for it at the commission's public hearings. Most have selected their provincial leaders.
However, the Oblates broke with this pattern. Fr Hughes is their archivist and as such he made it clear that he was not in a position to make any concessions on behalf of the order. This set the tone for what was probably the most robust defence to date given by any of the religious orders before the commission at its public hearings.
Daingean is the subject of hundreds of complaints of physical and sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Oblates on boys incarcerated there. Fr Hughes rejected out of hand all of the allegations of sexual abuse. With regard to physical abuse, he laid much emphasis on the context of the times, when corporal punishment was acceptable within society. He did not agree that such punishment in Daingean constituted abuse and said it was administered "in good faith".
In this area Daingean is relatively unique in that a wealth of contemporary documents exist which give a remarkable insight into the Oblates' attitude to the beating of children.
Knowledge at senior government level of the abuses at Daingean were a critical factor in the establishment of the Kennedy committee in 1968 to investigate the industrial and reformatory school system in the country. The then minister for education, Donagh O'Malley, had received in 1967 a report from a Fr Ken McCabe which painted an appalling picture of conditions for the children in Daingean.
Fr McCabe reported Daingean as, "at best, punitive" and as "repressive". He stated that severe punishment was used frequently, and that rules governing it were being "widely and seriously abused". Fr McCabe wrote (somewhat prophetically) that a boy "will associate all that is inhuman and harsh with the church . . . He may even come to 'hate' all they stand for".
The Kennedy committee visited Daingean in 1968 where the manager, Fr McGonagle, told them "without embarrassment" about how the children were strapped on their bare buttocks. A Department of Justice official present reported that Fr McGonagle said "he considered punishment to be more humiliating" when children were "stripped naked" for it.
This account produced shock waves in the Department of Justice. Secretary Peter Berry, writing to his opposite number in the Department of Education, described such practice as "indefensible", adding that if it became known it would "cause a grave public scandal".
Needless to say, it did not become known, although, at the insistence of the Department of Justice, the Kennedy committee recommended the immediate closure of Daingean. It does, however, give a clear sense that such brutality towards children was no more acceptable then than it is now.
Last Monday Fr Hughes blamed the shortcomings at Daingean on the poor level of State funding. This has become a general defence put forward to cover many of the sins of the past. However, in the case of Daingean, the argument is a little thin when viewed in the context of contemporary documentation.
In 1955, after a visit to St Conleth's, the secretary of the Department of Education reported to the minister in the most forthright terms. Describing the school as "Dickensian", he wrote that the conditions in which its herd of cows was kept were considerably better than those for the boys. Crucially, he added: "I am of the opinion that very handsome profits are made on the farm, but I can see no evidence of any of the profits being ploughed back for the benefit of the boys."
Unfortunately, we may never know the Oblates' response to this, as Fr Hughes was not asked about it. It is perhaps just one example of the shortcomings involved in the approach which the commission has taken to processing the evidence before it.