Irish voters go to the polls this Saturday in a referendum on whether to enshrine the rights of children in the constitution, and extend the powers of the state to intervene in cases of child abuse.
Saturday's referendum on children's rights follows the publication of several official reports in the last three years which detailed a catalogue of child abuse in institutions run by the Catholic Church or Catholic orders in the past 70 years.
FRANCE 24 asked two victims of abuse for their views on the referendum. Their stories highlight the abuse of power by the Catholic Church in Ireland.
Colm O’Gorman was raped by a priest when he was a teenager. He will be voting “yes” because he believes that the referendum, which would lead to an amendment to the Irish constitution, is a “real step forward for particularly vulnerable groups of children in Ireland”.
‘One in four’ children abused
Now the director of Amnesty International in Ireland, and a father of two, O’Gorman became one of the first victims to speak out publicly against his aggressor. He has campaigned for the truth to be told about the cover-up of child abuse in Ireland, under the banner of the organisation he founded, One in Four.
It is argued that one child in four was abused in some way in Ireland in the past 70 years. One in Four played a key role in enabling survivors of abuse to tell their story, to take the perpetrators to court when possible, and in official inquiries to be set up by the government.
“It’s only 10 years since a serving prime minister - when he was asked to comment upon what was happening in my own case - said that’s not a matter for me, it’s a matter for the church and I am not going to cross religion and politics,” O’Gorman told FRANCE 24.
Indeed, it took 10 years for the Irish government to face up to its responsibility. “It’s not that people didn’t know, people always knew,” Colm O’Gorman says. “People didn’t name it out loud because a culture of secrecy and of silence permeated across society. That level of secrecy has been blow open, and I think that is the greatest level of protection that we have against these violations in the future”.
Yet many victims are still fighting for their rights. As a child, Maureen Sullivan was abused at home, so the local priest convinced her mother to send her to a disciplinary convent in County Wexford. When she became a resident at New Ross Magdalene laundry, Maureen was only 12.
‘I was robbed of my childhood’
She says she was made to work “all day, six days a week” at the laundry by the religious order that ran the convent, instead of going to school.
“I was robbed of my childhood; I was robbed of my education. They stripped me of everything,” Maureen Sullivan told FRANCE 24. “Even my name was taken from me, my name was Frances; they gave me a new name.”
At age 12, Maureen was the youngest of the Irish Magdalene laundry workers. She spent three years there. But some women spent decades working in the laundries. They fell victim to all sorts of abuse in these laundries, and their story still has not been told officially. Maureen kept silent about her youth for most of her life because she was ashamed of being a so-called Magdalene woman.
Maureen is demanding an apology from the Catholic order and from the government. She, too, will vote “yes” in a referendum she believes is “long overdue”.
Catholic bishops still have considerable influence on public opinion in Ireland, and they say that a “reasonable and balanced” approach had been taken by the government in framing the text voters are being asked to consider.
Tepid support of Catholic Church
The hierarchy of the Catholic Church is not enthusiastic, but they gave the constitutional amendment a green light. Those who are against - the more conservative Catholic groups - say the amendment dilutes the authority of parents to protect their children.
“This referendum is actually weakening the authority of all parents to care for their children”, Father Brian McKevitt, a Dominican priest, told FRANCE 24. “It is transferring that authority to the state, which has a desperate record in protecting children.”
But the Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny has promised to change things. And changing the constitution is a first step. It may not be bold enough for most human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International or One in Four, but they all accept that this is referendum a key step in dealing with this issue.