In the many media comments, sometimes descending into hysteria, on the recent Roma children incidents, one - that of the Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald - stood out for its balance and common sense.
In ordering an inquiry into the actions of the institutions involved, and promising a review of the legislation if that should be necessary, she concluded that she hoped these incidents would not facilitate a return to the old culture of silence which prevailed in Ireland, in the past.
It was a culture that did facilitate such abuse of children that it brought a tsunami of shock to the national psyche, when the extent of it was retrospectively revealed, within the last few decades. While rumour and suspicion that abuse might be occurring in families and in institutions did exist, nobody was talking. That which was not officially revealed to us, did not trouble us. It was a chosen mindset, and was ‘none of our business.’
The family was sacrosanct, inviolable, an institution into which even the State feared to tread, and so were many of the institutions. And the law itself concurred in this, and reinforced the climate of secrecy. Cases of abuse, particularly sexual abuse, were held in camera when they came before our courts. Reporting in the media was prohibited.
At the end of the 1970s, this prohibition was marginally relaxed. Names of those found guilty could be published in newspapers, but always at the discretion of the Judge, and never if publication would identify the victim.
It was not until the 1980s, when court cases could be reported in more detail, that a sordid underbelly of Irish society was revealed. Some trusted adults, in families and institutions, had been guilty of a terrible betrayal of that trust. All accommodated by a national culture of silence - a public which neither heard nor heeded, and in truth did not want to do either.
Publication had two consequences. It increased public awareness, but it also encouraged victims to come forward and report the abuse. A common feature of their stories was that they had thought they were unique; that they themselves were responsible for the abuse and that there was no redress and no escape. The silence was fractured, and this resulted in a swarm of cases coming into the justice system. Many of the offences were of long-standing, but they had left terrible scars on the lives of the victims.
The story of the ‘before’ and the ‘after’ of the breaking of the silence, is illustrated by the sufferings of one family, where all the girls had been incestuously abused from a very young age. The abuser ‘moved on’ from one girl to another until the abuse was finally visited on the youngest. By this time, reports of such abuse featured in newspapers. The troubled child told her best friend. The best friend told her own mother, who immediately went to the Gardai.
It transpired that serious suspicions about this family were current amongst relatives and neighbours. It was a suspicion that dared not speak its name. Two children had been born to very young girls in the family. People whispered. Heads nodded but nobody took the necessary steps to report their concerns to the relevant authorities. And truth to tell, there was little these authorities could do in the absence of concrete evidence in the form of a complaint by the victims.
All of this has now changed. Under the new child protection legislation, it is the duty of every citizen to report their serious concerns, backed by reasonable evidence, to the authorities. This legislation is complex, and its powers extensive, and it is understandable if mistakes might be made as that complexity is explored.
This may have been the case in what appeared to be the precipitous action taken by the authorities in the recent incident, but if so it was certainly matched by the subsequent over-reaction by the media. At first, the unidentified complainant was presented as a responsible concerned citizen, doing his or her duty. But as we should know by now, the whistleblower’s lot is never a happy one.
When the apparently ham-fisted handling of the case was revealed, and just one side of the story was told, the tide turned. The motivation of the complainant was challenged and so was that of ordinary Irish people. We were immediately plunged into our now favourite occupation of beating-ourselves-up.
We were a nation of racists, we were told. A new concept came into our language that of racial profiling. Words like ‘vexatious’ punctuated discussions on the radio. Motivations were questioned.
No doubt, reports will eventually tell the full story - warts and all, but meanwhile Frances Fitzgerald saw the implications of the over-reaction to the Roma incident. If the recent legislation is to be effective in the protection of children, then it has to have public acceptance and public support. The integrity of people who feel impelled, in good faith, to report their concerns to the authorities, should not be held up to ridicule - even if these concerns should ultimately prove unfounded.
Mistakes will, inevitably, be made, but with experience, these should not be identified in the professional processing. But are these mistakes not more preferable to those which we have made in the past, when Irish children suffered terrible abuse, facilitated by the comfortable culture of silence, when we are all minding our own business?