Church archives—private or public records?

Published in Issue 2 (March/April 2018), Platform, Volume 26

Setting the record straight on institutional abuse.

By Catriona Crowe

Ireland has been convulsed over the last 30 years by revelations of the abuse of women and children in institutions allegedly dedicated to their welfare. These institutions existed in Ireland long after they had vanished elsewhere in Europe. They were run mainly, but not exclusively, by the Catholic Church, with the grateful blessing of the state. The institutions in question were industrial schools and reformatories, Magdalen refuges and mother and baby homes. On foot of initially disbelieved revelations of terrible abuse by brave survivors, three inquiries were established by the state.

  • The Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse, also known as the Ryan Commission, was charged with investigating the abuse of children in Irish institutions. The Commission was established in 1999 and reported in 2009.
  • The Inter-Departmental Committee to establish the facts of State involvement with the Magdalen Laundries, also known as the MacAleese Committee, was established 2011 and reported in 2013.
  • The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes and certain related matters was established in 2015 and is still sitting.

The Ryan Commission uncovered widespread physical, sexual and emotional abuse of children in industrial schools, as well as serious neglect. A redress scheme was established for survivors, and the commission had a remit to hear personal testimonies from them, which will be preserved as a unique archive. The MacAleese Committee uncovered direct links between the state and the various Magdalen laundries run by four congregations, and serious mistreatment of the women incarcerated in the institutions. A partial redress scheme was established for survivors, but the report has been criticised by them, by advocacy groups and by the UN. The archives of the various institutions under investigation are obviously crucial to any understanding, whether by survivors or scholars, of what happened in these places and why.

A recent limited survey of the archives of three of the major congregations investigated by the Ryan Commission and the MacAleese Committee revealed differing approaches to congregational archives: severe limits on access (Christian Brothers), fairly normal access (Sisters of Mercy) and no access at all (Sisters of Our Lady of Charity of Refuge). Is this really satisfactory, given all that we have learned from these commissions of inquiry and all that we have left to learn from the one still sitting? Has it not been more or less proven that the Catholic Church was operating as a quasi-state, with the full approval of the actual state, with its control over education, health and institutional care? Does that conclusion, in turn, not require the orders and the state to reconsider the status of the precious records, which should really be seen not as private records with which the orders can do as they wish but as public records which should be available to anyone who wishes to see them, as official records are?

The various religious orders investigated by both the Ryan Commission and the MacAleese Committee, as well as those being investigated by the Mother and Baby Homes Commission, hold the records of their congregations, and the institutions under their care, as private records which are not subject to preservation and access rules as laid down in the National Archives Act 1986, which decrees that official records may not be destroyed without the permission of the National Archives, and that all records with a few exceptions must be opened to the public 30 years after their creation. Data protection legislation insists on the closure of personal records until after death, except in the case of individuals seeking their own records, which may be accessed under Freedom of Information provision.

I would like to appeal to the religious orders, the diocesan authorities and the Irish state to consider establishing a religious records repository, under state control, with input from all stakeholders, including the churches themselves, in which all of the archives of the Catholic Church and other religious denominations can be deposited. The registers and case files relating to institutions should be digitised so that survivors, many of them now elderly, can see their records and be sure that everything that survives about them is in their possession. Those databases could be copied and anonymised so that scholars don’t have to wait for years before analysing patterns of entry, exit and treatment in these institutions. The fascinating records of the congregations themselves could be mined by academic researchers to uncover a huge part of the social history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Ireland. So many families had some member who was a nun or a priest until relatively recently. They are a big part of the story of the Irish family, as well as that of the church and the state.

Such a repository could be staffed by some of the professional archivists employed by the congregations and dioceses, many of whom have done extremely valuable work already but are hampered by the small scale and limited staffing of their archives. Economies of scale would really work in such a repository, with shared access to reading rooms, cataloguing, conservation, digitisation and outreach facilities. A comprehensive website could be established to give access to digitised records and using some of the already existing histories of the orders and the dioceses. Such a repository could be an international example of how to deal with church records in the aftermath of an abuse scandal.

It is clear that the religious orders are wounded by the exacting work of the commissions that have investigated them. Some of their members may feel that most of them did not behave in the way that the worst of them did. But they did nothing to stop the worst of them, and vulnerable children and women were severely damaged by that inaction. That must give pause for thought to people who have dedicated their lives to an ideal of helping others. Even if they feel wounded and badly treated, is what I’m proposing not the right thing to do? And could such a gesture not go some way towards restoring public trust in an institution that has suffered terrible reputational damage over the last 30 years? Could such a gesture be deemed part of the Church’s payment to the redress schemes that exist to compensate survivors?

At this stage, it is likely that most of those who require information regarding their stays in industrial schools have had their needs met. Those who remain deserve speedy help. Some of the Magdalen survivors are unhappy about their access to records regarding their time in the laundries. This needs to be addressed. It is likely that the Mother and Baby Homes Commission will lead to another large group of people seeking access to records of their past, and hopefully they will be facilitated.

Above: The nursery of the Sean Ross Abbey mother and baby home, Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, c. 1960s. (Brian Lockier/Adoption Rights Alliance)

The history of the Catholic Church in Ireland is intensely bound up with the social, economic and political history of the country. It needs to be integrated into that general history so that we have the fullest picture possible of what happened, in the dioceses, the religious congregations and the institutions that they oversaw and ran.

To finish, I quote one of the saddest conclusions in the executive summary of the Ryan Report, when commenting on the general treatment of children in the institutions:

‘Many witnesses who complained of abuse nevertheless expressed some positive memories: small gestures of kindness were vividly recalled. A word of consideration or encouragement, or an act of sympathy or understanding had a profound effect. Adults in their sixties and seventies recalled seemingly insignificant events that had remained with them all their lives. Often the act of kindness recalled in such a positive light arose from the simple fact that the staff member had not given a beating when one was expected. More kindness and humanity would have gone far to make up for poor standards of care.’

It would be wonderful if the Irish Catholic Church, as a united entity, could decide to demonstrate not just kindness and humanity but also civic-spiritedness and generosity of spirit by actively opening up their records to those who wish to see them.

Catriona Crowe is former head of Special Projects at the National Archives.

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