23Jan Religious Sisters and Redress Board – Tony Flannery

Having written two non-fiction books that were reasonably successful I decided, ten years ago or so, to try my hand at fiction, in other words at a novel. It is a very different style of writing, and was a challenging and interesting experience. When I eventually had it finished, and approved for publication I was really proud of myself, and felt a great sense of achievement. But my publisher burst my bubble somewhat by telling me not to expect big sales, because I lacked some of the basic ingredients for success. When I asked her to explain herself, she gently informed me that I was the wrong gender, neither young nor pretty, and most of all that I did not have an unhappy childhood!

We are living in an era when to have a story of hurt is something that can give a person distinction and significance, and there are no shortage of media outlets that specialise in giving people the opportunity to tell their stories. The term “radio whinge” is sometimes used about these programmes, but maybe that is a bit cynical. But there is one group of people who are deeply hurt, and whose stories have not been told at all. I am referring to some religious sisters who worked in various institutions of care down through the years, and who feel they were deeply maligned and vilified by the processes involved in the Ryan report and the Redress Board. They are now women mostly in their seventies or eighties, and after years of living religious obedience, have little or no experience of speaking out for themselves. One of the beliefs of this age is that hurt that does not get a chance to be spoken can become deep and lasting. Whatever the truth of this, many of these women are very deeply hurt. I am not saying that abuse did not happen in these institutions over the years. It certainly did, and we cannot deny it. But for many years now we have had a climate in this country where it was extremely difficult for a religious sister to defend herself against allegations, even if she was tough enough to attempt to do so.

One of these sisters tells about an allegation made against her by an inmate of the institution in which she worked for a short period of her early life, after she had completed her training in nursing. So here was a woman who had professional training. The allegation, made in writing, was that she had consistently beaten this person with various instruments, and stripped him naked while doing so. It was stated that there were clear sexual overtones to the beatings. She totally denied these allegations, strongly asserting that she had never beaten anyone during her years there, and that she was disgusted by the allegation of sexual abuse. She sought a hearing from the Redress Board, but was not given any.  So she had no opportunity to state her case. The final nail in her coffin was when her religious superior wrote a letter to the man who had made the complaint expressing sorrow for the hurt that had been caused to him. The maligned sister did not begrudge him the considerable financial sum he was awarded by the Redress Board, because she was full of sympathy for anyone who had no parents to rear them, and who had to spend their youth in an institution. But she does not think it is just that his monetary award came at the expense of her good name. Now in her old age she feels she has been badly let down both by the institution set up by the State, namely the Redress Board, and by her own Order. She wonders if anyone will listen to her story.

Another sister, against whom an obviously false allegation was made, was able to clear her name, but at a cost. At the time of the alleged incident she lived many miles away from the particular institution where she was alleged to have abused a minor. She mainly feels let down by her congregation, and by the legal advice that was procured by the congregation. She made a written statement categorically denying the allegations against her. But some time later, when the solicitor asked her to come and sign her statement, she found that he had made a very significant change of wording. Where she had stated clearly that she had not worked in that institution at any stage, he had changed it to read “to the best of my recollection”, thus greatly weakening her denial.  She told me that when she objected, he patted her on the knee and told her: “Sign it, and let it go to the Redress Board, and he will get some money.” To her great regret, she did sign.

These are only some of the many stories I have heard. Is there any possibility that we have now reached a stage of openness in our society where these women can be heard, and the record set straight, before they are all dead.