Fixating on the past while ignoring the present

Fixating on the past while ignoring the present Photo: CNS
“It is vital that the past is excavated and that past abuses are exposed and those who were abused listened to”, writes Michael Kelly

This week saw yet another damning report on the failure to protect vulnerable Irish children. Amongst the findings was the fact that children were left in foster homes despite credible evidence that they had been sexually abused in those same foster homes.

In other instances, children who were removed from their homes by gardaí over serious concerns for their safety were returned a short time later by the child and family agency Tusla. Gardaí were never informed.

The author of the report, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, described what he uncovered as “shocking beyond belief”.

Dr Shannon describes how children were “treated as human trash”.

It’s a depressingly familiar picture. But, what’s remarkable about this week’s report is the fact that it deals not with 50 or 60 years ago, or even 20 years ago – the appalling cases dealt with in the report were from 2014 and 2015.


You’d be forgiven for being unaware of the findings of the report. It did receive some media coverage on the day it was released and RTÉ Investigations Unit has been like a dog with a bone on the issue. But, by the following morning, the report had been relegated to page eight of the country’s biggest-selling daily newspaper The Irish Independent.

Contrast this, for example, with the wall-to-wall coverage over the Religious Sisters of Charity and the proposed new National Maternity Hospital. Or the rush to judgement over the Tuam Mother and Baby home.


No society can truly be healed unless in faces the past with courage. This is as true in Ireland as elsewhere, and it is vital that the past is excavated and that past abuses are exposed and those who were abused listened to. Victims and survivors deserve to have their voices heard, and their suffering acknowledged and commemorated.

But, in investigating the past, we must be careful not to fall in to the trap of missing what is going on today under our noses.

There’s a danger that the same petty snobbery that saw Irish society turn a blind eye to those institutionalised in a past age is still present today and leads to a certain indifference to children in care today because we don’t see them as part of us.

There’s a real question too for people who take to the streets at the drop of a hat to protest against appalling abuses in the past but barely bat an eyelid when current abuses are exposed. It risks setting a double standard.

One must also be aware of the fact that some of the excessive focusing on the past is motivated by a belief or desire to paint the Catholic Church in as bad a light as possible. In some quarters, there’s a push to embed a narrative that the Church’s influence in Ireland has been entirely malevolent. In reality, the history of the Church in Ireland hasn’t been always covered in glory, but it has also been far from all bad.

But, of course, fixating on the sins of some nuns and priests in the past is much easier than facing the reality that child protection is just not the priority for Irish society that we claim it is. If it was, the so-called ‘people power’ that commentators are hailing for forcing the nuns out of St Vincent’s Hospital would be mobilised to advocate for the abused children of today.