Truth in Transition: Lessons from Institutional Abuse Inquiries in Ireland

RightsNI is delighted to welcome this guest post by Dr Anne-Marie McAlinden, Reader in Law, at the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast. The comments are based on a recent article, ‘An Inconvenient Truth: Barriers to Truth Recovery in the Aftermath of Institutional Child Abuse in Ireland’ (2012), Legal Studies. You can contact her at

As the Assembly is considering the Inquiry into Historical Institutional Abuse Bill, it is opportune to reflect on the experiences of such inquiries elsewhere. The issue of historical institutional child abuse has resonated in a range of jurisdictions and organisational settings.  Within the context of the Republic of Ireland, it is the historical and deeply enmeshed relationship between the State and the Catholic Church which makes the Irish situation unique. The particular truth recovery discourses in Ireland, however, in the aftermath of clerical sexual abuse also have broader implications for other societies seeking to come to terms with the legacy of institutional abuse.

While other jurisdictions have used a mixture of apology, reparation, compensation and truth commission as responses to institutional abuse, Ireland has primarily opted for a form of truth commission. There have been a number of such inquiries into institutional child abuse: the ‘Ferns Report’ (2005), the Report of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse (the ‘Ryan Report’) (2009), and two Reports of the Commission of Investigation in the Archdioceses of Dublin (the ‘Murphy Report’) (2009), and Cloyne (the ‘Cloyne Report’) (2011). The Ryan report in particular highlighted the systemic nature of institutional child abuse in Ireland and the failure of Church and State authorities to adequately respond to the problem.

The framework of these inquiries, however, was not conducive to truth recovery or the search for justice in moving on from an abusive past.  The process of ‘truth seeking’ – often exposing facts and accounts previously hidden or ‘covered up’ by the authorities – requires the full collaboration and disclosure by relevant stakeholders – individuals, organisations as well as  government. Denial and minimisation by both church and state ‘communities’ in the wake of allegations of institutional child abuse has meant that there is often a narrow focus on accountability and apportioning blame for individual acts or omissions. The Catholic Church and child care institutions are especially self-protective, secretive and closed by nature and strongly discourage the drawing of attention to any broader deficiencies in organisational procedures.

The identification of institutional abuse by Church and State authorities as an aberrational rather than an institutional or systemic problem can also be explained by their desire to preserve their public persona and the stark contrast between how these factions saw themselves – as benevolent and righteous – and the legacy of an abusive past. These processes were also linked to a broader cultural and social denial about the existence of institutional abuse chiefly because of the power of the Catholic Church and the traditionally high degree of trust and respect placed in the clergy. Collectively, these factors help to explain impediments to fuller systemic investigation of the veracity of what actually happened as well as why such abuses were allowed to remain hidden, undisclosed and unchallenged in the first instance.

The appeal of the truth recovery process lies in moving from a conflicted or an authoritarian past. It usually seeks to go beyond establishing the ‘forensic truth’ of what actually happened, to a fuller institutional and structural understanding of the causes, context and consequences of abuses. The nature of the public inquiry process itself, however, also means that ‘truth’ may be socially and politically constructed. In common with transitional justice frameworks more broadly, the normative framework of the truth recovery processes in Ireland have been criticised as being state-centric and overly legalistic which limit their ability to ‘police the past.’ Such frameworks also underpin the deep-seated resistance of elite bodies to effect institutional change. In particular, the aspirations of providing an authoritative record of events, holding perpetrators to account, and delivering ‘justice’ for victims were not realised.

The inquiries tried to use individual truth narratives pertaining to particular survivors or perpetrators in order to map out an over-arching account of abuse. This focus on a limited number of exemplary narratives obscures a meaningful and effective review of institutionalised policies and practices and misses the opportunity to learn from the past. The focus on ‘truth’ at the micro-level of fact finding also masks the broader structural components and the complexities of the institutional and cultural factors that allowed abuses to continue. Partial anonymity afforded to perpetrators and the failure to publicly identify abusers, pending formal prosecution, also undermined official public recognition of wrongdoing and the suffering of victims.

Some of the conclusions of the inquiry reports, however, have been quite far-reaching and damning by denoting, for example, a culture of ‘secrecy’ or ‘silence’ within the institutional Church and the failure of the Church and the State to respond adequately to concerns about abuse. It is perhaps, therefore, the lack of tangible follow-up on the part of the State in implementing inquiry recommendations, at least until fairly recently, which has undermined the legitimacy of the inquiry process and ultimately missed the opportunity to become a catalyst for seismic and structural change.

Ireland, as a society that has witnessed gross abuses of power by the State and the Church, provides a number of important lessons for other jurisdictions who are currently grappling with the issue of historical institutional child abuse.

  • First, a residual issue is full official and public recognition of abuses of power and the injustice suffered by victims via the suppression of the truth by the institutional Church for decades as well as the extent of State involvement and its failure to intervene.
  • Secondly, there are fundamental weaknesses of public inquiries in eliciting a fuller truth which consequently emerges as only one element of the process of coming to terms with the past.
  • Thirdly, the language of change alone is insufficient to deliver systemic institutional change. The limitations of legalistic state-centric frameworks mean that it becomes vital to embed ‘bottom-up’ corrective mechanisms into reformative legal and policy agendas and give victims and civil society ownership of such processes.

In short, therefore, public inquiries into institutional child abuse represent the beginning rather than the end of the truth recovery process. Beyond establishing an inquiry framework which is acceptable to key stakeholders in the process, it is what happens in the aftermath of the inquiry process – through structural legal and policy reform and institutional change – which is of fundamental importance in helping survivors and society come to terms with the legacy of an abusive past.