by JEROME REILLY in The Sunday Independent
State 'highly culpable' for abuse suffered by children in institutions
THE Progressive Democrats are seriously concerned that the indemnity deal protecting the Catholic Church's money and land was too generous and will leave the taxpayer with a possible E2bn bill.
The Sunday Independent has learned that before the indemnity was agreed by Cabinet, and signed on June 5 last year, there were fears expressed by senior figures in Government that the State and taxpayers had been short-changed.
However, reservations that the Church had achieved a sweet deal during the negotiations were allayed by legal advice that suggested the State was "highly culpable" for the abuse suffered by children in institutions and was, therefore, more liable than the religious orders for the crimes of priests, brothers and nuns who terrorised children.
The Cabinet was also aware that there was substantial documentation which proved that the State was aware of the abuse that was occurring in many of Ireland's residential institutions at the time it happened, but did not take action.
Ministers were also informed that the various religious congregations were running the institutions at the behest of the governments of the day and for the State's benefit, and this added another element of culpability.
However, senior politicians from both Government parties but especially the Progressive Democrats now believe the legal indemnity given to the Church is too extensive and leaves the State exposed.
Original Department of Finance warnings that the Exchequer would have to find between E300m and E500m to fund the generous indemnity deal given to 21 Catholic congregations seriously underestimates the State's potential liability.
A note of a conversation between an official in the Department of Finance and Sandra Hogan, Clerk to the Committee on Finance and the Public Service, seen by the Sunday Independent, reveals that the Government had no idea of the level of exposure the indemnity deal would bring. According to Labour Finance spokeswoman Joan Burton, the potential cost is now so great that special provision will have to be made in budgets over the next number of years.
The memorandum states: "The likely exposure of the State cannot be positively assessed until the average level of award and the number of qualifying claimants become clear eg, estimate 2,000 claimants @ E100,000 each = total E200m; @ E150,000 = total of E300m."
With many thousands of application forms already sent out and the terms of the redress scheme covering everything from serious sexual abuse to emotional and physical neglect, the estimate of just 2,000 claimants appears low given that 50,000 boys and girls were sent to institutions.
A figure of more than 20,000 claimants may be more realistic.
The memorandum also states how the final negotiations were concluded.
"The initial negotiations with the religious institutions were conducted by a group consisting of officials from the Departments of Education and Science (Chair), Finance and the Office of the Attorney General; however, the final negotiations and agreement in principle were concluded by the then Minister for Education and Science Michael Woods," the note states.
Claims by Education Minister Noel Dempsey and senior Church figures that last week's E300,000 to E400,000 High Court award to abuse victim Mervyn Rundle was not an indicator for future cases involving the institutions are simply wrong, senior legal sources told the Sunday Independent last week.
The legal deed of indemnity signed by Minister Woods on behalf of the Government not only covers awards made by the Residential Institutions Redress Board (RIRB) the State's fast-track compensation scheme but also existing and future actions taken in every court in the land that relate to the institutions.
Since the Rundle judgment, there has been heavy TV and radio advertising of the compensation scheme offered by the RIRB.
Under the scheme, those former residents who accept the award made by the Board, or by the Review Committee on review, must agree in writing to give up any right to bring a claim for damages in the courts for the abuse and injuries covered by the award.
However, if they not accept the award made by the Board, their right to bring a claim for damages in the courts is not affected in any way.
Under the terms of the indemnity, the 18 religious congregations provide E128m and everything else is paid for by the taxpayer.
So far about E41m has been handed over, with the rest promised in land transfers and other assets.
Posted by Colm at February 02, 2003 09:14 PM
The problem for the Government following last week's judgment is that people may now go through the redress board process and if they believe they have not been awarded enough will then gamble on a court action attracted by the huge sum awarded to Mr Rundle following his abuse by Fr Thomas Naughton.