Survivors of Ireland's notorious religious institutions feel they were re-traumatized as the Irish State attempted to construct a Redress scheme.

The Irish State has been accused of compounding the physical and sexual abuse experienced by survivors of religious institutions through a redress scheme which has traumatized thousands of people and blocked them from speaking out about what happened to them as children.

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A brilliant two-part documentary series which aired on Irish national television this week has exposed how survivors were forced to sign waivers before receiving financial compensation, imposing “gagging orders” on them which compounded their abuse with the threat of imprisonment and financial penalties.

The “Redress: Breaking the Silence” documentary, aired by RTE television over consecutive nights, exposed how survivors have been prevented from naming their abusers, or even where the abuse took place, and how much compensation they received from the Redress Board.

The program revealed how a deal agreed by an outgoing Fianna Fáil-led Government on their last day in office in 2002 indemnified 18 religious congregations against any future legal actions taken by survivors, in return for a €128 million contribution to the redress scheme.

The moving documentary has led campaigners to call on the next Irish Government to amend the law after current Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, a member of that 2002 Cabinet, admitted that it was a mistake to indemnify the religious orders.

“In retrospect, in my view, that was, that was a mistake at the time,” Mr. Martin told the program. “You’re talking about the last cabinet meeting. This is something that has been negotiated. It’s in the best interests of everybody, bring it to closure, and that’s how it got through.”

Survivors, some of whom emigrated after childhoods spent in Irish institutions, told the RTE documentary that the Redress Board hearings traumatized them. The threat of jail or financial penalties prevented them from speaking out or sharing their stories until now.

"And I knew then now or never...", Michael O'Brien explains why he spoke out on Questions & Answers in 2009.#Redress - Breaking the Silence, part 2, tonight, 9.35pm

— RTÉ One (@RTEOne) March 3, 2020

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Seven brave survivors, among the 15,572 who received awards from the Redress Board following its establishment in 2002, spoke about harrowing abuse and how they felt the abuse they experienced as children had been compounded into adulthood.

It cost the State in excess of €1.5 billion to investigate institutional abuse, to compensate and make amends to survivors, and to provide them with counseling through the Health Service Executive (HSE) and an organization known as Caranua.

It was only this week that Irish people heard for the first time about the traumatic impact the Redress Board hearings and gagging orders had on survivors. They spoke of feeling traumatized, as though they were on trial for reporting childhood abuse, and feeling humiliated and undermined by the process.

Some of the survivors agreed that the system set up to compensate them only compounded the abuse they had already experienced as children. They felt they were being abused by the Irish State all over again.

Human rights lawyer Dr. Maeve O’Rourke said the “gagging order” had such an enormous impact that some survivors felt they had no right to speak to the Gardai (Irish police) about the physical and sexual abuse they had experienced while locked up in religious institutions.

She has been told by other lawyers that people were too terrified to go to the Gardai because they had agreed to the terms imposed on them by the Redress Board.

"Accountability is absolutely central to justice " @maeveorourke#Redress - Breaking the Silence, part 2 tonight at 9.35pm

See part one now on

— RTÉ One (@RTEOne) March 3, 2020

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According to Section 28.6 of the Residential Institutions Redress Act 2002, no survivor can speak about going to the board, how much money they received, or even what institution the abuse occurred in.

This means, for example, that a survivor could not even name the institution she was incarcerated in if she decided to write a memoir about her time in a Magdalene Laundry or industrial school.

“If a State does something that makes people feel they can’t speak, this is a very real interference with their right to freedom of expression,” she said. “You have to question what are the constitutional rights of institutions and why do they outweigh the rights of freedom of expression.”

Many survivors spoke for the first time this week about how traumatized they were by the Redress Board experience and how they felt they had been silenced again, just as they had been as children when they could not speak out about abuse.

They spoke about their fear of speaking up for themselves, as they had been poorly educated during their time in the religious institutions. They described the terrible impact childhood abuse had on their adult lives. Some had moved to the United Kingdom to start new lives.

“I think survivors were in a very vulnerable position when these mechanisms were set up,” said Dr. O’Rourke. “They were totally powerless and the State was setting the terms. They didn’t have a choice. Who were they to disagree?

“They badly needed the most basic forms of comfort, like paying for a roof over their heads, or electricity bills, or education. I think the amounts were not that great. I think the program said the average award was about €65,000. That’s not very much.”

Dr. O’Rourke said survivors were fully entitled to confidentiality, but they should have a right to access their own records.

She pointed out that the Ryan Commission, set up to investigate all forms of child abuse in Irish institutions, gathered a huge amount of evidence between 1999 and 2009 and yet none of this evidence was handed over to the Gardai.

The Ryan Report found that the system treated children more like prison inmates and slaves than young Irish citizens with human rights and potential and that State officials failed to stop abuse by religious orders.

While Dr. O’Rourke praised the bravery of those who took part in the RTE documentary, she pointed out that many, many more were not in a position to speak out about the abuse they experienced and how it has impacted on their adult lives.

“I think also there are a lot of survivors who are in very dire straits.  We probably didn’t see this week the extreme impact on many people, where they are really suffering and in extreme poverty and trauma,” she told Irish Central.

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“I think we also need to think about those who are still silent and marginalized. There is an absolute need for greater support. A Department of Education report last August spoke of how survivors are really worried about being re-institutionalized in nursing homes in their old age. They are really worried about homelessness. We also have to address their immediate welfare needs.”

Although the Irish Government issued an official apology to the victims of institutional abuse in 1999, it is clear that the State and the Church have colluded to protect both religious institutions and individual abusers.

Perhaps that was the most shocking thing about the powerful RTE documentary series. Survivors still feel they are being abused. They showed this week that Irish State still has a long way to go if it is to fully address the mistakes, hurt, and trauma of the past. 

--  *A digital journalist based in Galway, Ireland, Ciaran Tierney won the Irish Current Affairs and Politics Blog of the Year award. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, or on his website   

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