The Irish president has criticised those who perpetuated and ignored state institutional abuse.
Welcoming survivors from the Christine Buckley Centre – a charity which supports those who suffered trauma while in industrial schools and other historical institutions – to the Aras, Michael D Higgins condemned those who turned a blind eye to the “trauma inflicted on children by the failures of the Irish state”, and the “distortion of religious ideology” that perpetuated the abuse.
The president reflected on the 10 years since the Ryan Report, which investigated all forms of child abuse in institutions for children across the country, the majority of which were reformatory and industrial schools operated by Catholic Church orders, funded and supervised by the Irish Department of Education.
The 2009 report said evidence proved beyond a doubt that children were treated like prison inmates and slaves rather than people with legal rights and human potential.
It found some religious officials encouraged physical abuse, operated through a culture of secrecy, and government inspectors failed to stop the abuse.
Reflecting on his own childhood in Limerick, the president referred to a family who had lost their parents in an accident, after which a number of neighbours adopted the children to prevent them being taken into the care of the state, such was the widespread knowledge of the abuse that took place there.
“It is very easy, in looking at the past, to place blame for institutional abuse solely on those who ran such institutions, ignoring the role of our state in allowing it and the many citizens who deliberately colluded or averted their gaze, who abdicated responsibility for the shape of society,” President Higgins said.
“Those who stayed silent also bear responsibility for what took place.
“In the words of the German philosopher Hannah Arendt, ‘Evil thrives on apathy and cannot survive without it’.
“Through your stories of people who had been entrusted to the care of the state, were instead mistreated, Irish society was forced to look at itself unflinchingly, to see clearly the flawed premises on which it was constructed.
“The flaws and weaknesses that had led to such a lack of shared humanity.”
President Higgins added: “It isn’t in anger I offer this, but with a sense of great betrayal of what might have been a great republic.”
There were a group of 50 survivors in the state residence to meet with the president, men and women from a range of age groups who have survived sexual, physical and psychological abuse while held in institutions.
Survivor Terri Harrison was kept in an institution in Dublin after she gave birth aged 18.
Her five-week-old baby was taken from her by an order of Catholic nuns, and she has never seen the child since.
She says she still does not feel Irish, and will not until the Church and state are completely separated.
“I dream of being Irish again, I want to be Irish again, as long as the Catholic Church holds power, I cannot be Irish,” she said.
“For the first time this year on Good Friday I held up a pint, I didn’t even want to drink but I couldn’t believe I lived to see it.
“It’s been a long journey, there are still people who don’t want us to talk about this.
“To be here, to hear the president acknowledge what happened, it’s been wonderful.”
Founder of the centre Carmel McDonnell Byrne, a survivor who was kept in a number of institutions throughout her childhood, said she was touched by the president’s empathy.
“To be here today, I was honoured to hear the president, he was so passionate and there is huge empathy there,” she said.
“I think for people to hear from the president of their country, the shame, and that society had such a big hand to play in this, I think it’s huge.”