Ireland has been stunned by the details of a horrific case of child abuse in which a 40-year-old alcoholic mother-of-six has been jailed for seven years, the maximum penalty available to the judge, for a catalogue of neglect over several years, including forcing her then 13-year-old son to have sex with her. The woman confessed to cops that she was "the worst mother in the world." Health Minister Mary Harney said, "It is probably the most horrific case any of us has ever read about. That abuse could have gone on for so long. Clearly so many people must have been aware of it and yet nobody seemed to have the capacity to act. "My own hunch, at the outset, not knowing the facts yet, is that if we acted more thoroughly and more robustly and more speedily, these children should have been taken into care an awful lot sooner." An independent inquiry has been set up to investigate the background to the outrage. The role of an elderly woman, Mena Bean ui Chroibin, 81, who heads up an extreme right-wing Catholic organization Ograchas Naoimh Papain, is certain to be targeted by the investigation. Her intervention is believed to have prolonged the children's suffering. Bean ui Chroibin is believed to have helped the mother apply for, and receive, a High Court order preventing social workers from placing the children in care. A childcare manager testified that Bean ui Chroibin told him that the family needed support, not intrusive action. Bean ui Chroibin, who runs a Post Office in Santry, near Dublin Airport, had a high public profile up to the 1990s and was synonymous with campaigns against sex education, abortion and contraception. When confronted last weekend by the Irish Independent she said she wasn't confirming or denying anything about her links to the neglectful mother. The mother, who cannot be named to protect the identity of her children, pleaded guilty at her trial in Roscommon to 10 charges, including two of incest, two of sexual abuse and six of neglect and willful ill-treatment of the children between 1998 and 2004. The Garda (police officer) Sergeant John Hynes, who led the criminal investigation, paid tribute to the courage of the children, who he described as "the only heroes" in the appalling scandal. He said it was their bravery that ended the cycle of abuse, neglect and trauma. Only when one of the children made a serious complaint in October 2004 did the local health board seek an emergency care order and remove all six from the squalor. Only then, in the safety of foster homes, did their heart-breaking stories emerge. The children, who are now aged from 10 to 19, are living in three separate foster homes. Their mother's trial heard how the family lived in a squalid, freezing, filthy bungalow home overrun with mice and rats. The children were bullied at school because they were covered with lice and fleas. Judge Miriam Reynolds said the mother was the first woman in the history of the state to be convicted of incest. A man on the same charge would face life imprisonment, but legislation dating back to 1908 meant a woman could only be jailed for a maximum seven years. "These children had no chance from the moment they were born," Reynolds said. "Any chance of a normal and happy life was stolen from them by the woman who calls herself their mother." The judge said she did not know how the children would be able to cope in the future after what they had endured. "Six lives have been destroyed. There is no other way of putting it," she said. One of the teenage daughters told social workers that she has considered suicide, while another boy has displayed signs of self-harm. Reynolds said a major area of concern she had during the hearing was the fact that the children were only taken into care eight years after health authorities first came into contact with the family. She pointed out that during this time the children had gone to school with head lice "crawling down their faces," while some were admitted to hospital for nutrition problems. "Why did nobody do anything?" she asked. "All it takes is for one person to stand idly by. These children were failed by everyone around them."

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