Fri, May 22, 2009
OPINION: RESERVING TO itself vast resources of power, the State tends towards evil. It cannot really be “good”, and even with eternal watchfulness and openness does well to avoid outright corruption, writes JOHN WATERS
The Ryan report describes a wholesale State-driven system of child abuse. The Catholic Church was up to its dog-collar in it, but with the collusion of the Department of Education, An Garda Síochána and the courts. State-run systems operate on a reflex impulse of denial, at the heart of which is a knot of ideological rationalisation called upon by each component to justify its own role. In the case of the horrors set forth in the Ryan report, the dominant ideological proposition was that troublesome children were a threat to public order, so any means were justifiable in their subjugation. Such children were beyond the human embrace.
Once the State closes ranks around any breaking of the law, the illegality creates a new dispensation, a new constitution that nullifies the old. The wider society knew that decency had been abandoned, but the corruption of State power unleashed a deadly concoction of fear, contrived scepticism, powerlessness and impatience with anyone insisting that something evil was happening. It takes great courage to challenge people with powers to snatch children and incarcerate them in state gulags, and so the popular perspective on these by-no-means-secret obscenities was expressed in lame and guilty jokes.
Some people talk about “the culture of the time”, as though there must have existed some radically less civilised understanding than is available now. But it is not necessary to contort our imagination in an attempt to comprehend the light and shade of an earlier era. There never has been a “culture” when it was possible for a whole society to forget that abusing children is evil.
The past is not over. Similar things happen today, but in different guises, and it will again take a generation before society acquires the distance necessary to acknowledge the wrongs being done now.
This week, I received an e-mail from a man whose children have been taken into care in circumstances defying comprehension or justification. In a system said to allow only for light-touch intervention, the HSE has found a way to trample all over the rights of this man and his children on a pretext that, widely replicated, would result in every child in the country being taken into care.
This case indicates that individual elements within the system can acquire extraordinary powers by virtue of the unwillingness of other elements – judges, for example – to insist that the letter of the Constitution and the law be applied. The vindictive whim of a social worker is sufficient to unleash the most draconian response.
This father has not seen his children for almost three months because they have been moved to new schools and foster homes and the HSE has summarily and illegally terminated his minimal access and refused even to give him his children’s addresses. Why? Because he dared to speculatively telephone a foster mother in an attempt to discover his children’s whereabouts. Unbelievable? So, in the same sense, is the stuff of the Ryan report.
This man, I beg you to believe, is guilty of nothing except that, struggling to cope in extraordinary circumstances, he was naive enough to ask the HSE for help. If the citizens of Ireland were to read a full account of his story, there would be a national outcry. However, I cannot tell you much about it because the rules of secrecy which supposedly exist for the protection of families are being used to conceal forms of brutalisation that would not read out of place in the Ryan report.
Ostensibly, there are legal remedies for such matters, but in practice wherever this man goes he encounters a solid wall of implacability and denial. His lawyers seem utterly helpless. This week, there was a chink of light when a new senior counsel was persuaded to meet him to discuss the possibility of a judicial review. The father went to the meeting in a spirit of hopefulness, but came away in even deeper despair.
The barrister made little of the issue, barely looking at the father and speaking with his eyes closed. It was clear he had not read the brief. He told this distraught father that he should be glad that he was giving him time free of charge because normally people have to pay a lot of money for this privilege. He told him, too, that his only route was to return to the District Court – where he has already spent €30,000 in failed attempts to penetrate the closed system – and apply to have his access restored. In other words, he should get on his knees and beg the State to allow him to spend perhaps an hour a month in the company of his children.
When the father pointed out that the HSE had broken the law, the barrister shrugged and said that no High Court judge would be interested. The father later discovered that this barrister gets a lot of business from the HSE.
Welcome to the “culture of our time”.
© 2009 The Irish Times