My name is Loreto Byrne. I was a civil servant from 1975 until 1993. I was an Assistant Principal, a middle to senior management grade. Through my work in the civil service and my subsequent experiences of how the authorities behaved when I tried to get them to do something about the situation that I encountered, I can state with certainty that there has been a cover-up of how concerns about abuse in Finglas Children’s Centre were dealt with by the state. I came across the cover-up in 1988 but it began before then. Finglas is not the only institution that has been protected from scrutiny and thereby accountability and there are connections between a number of these places. I can testify that the cover-up for Finglas has compromised the system of government in Ireland so I believe that there needs to be an independent investigation.
PART ONE: HOW I CAME ACROSS THE COVER-UP
Finglas Children’s Centre opened in 1972 and was run by the de la Salles until 1994. It was closed in 2010. The state owned and funded the facility; when the de la Salles ran it, there was an agreement between the state and the order that gave the state control over how the centre was run. It comprised a remand and assessment centre, St. Michael’s, and an industrial school, St. Laurence’s, and catered for both boys in trouble with the courts and boys referred to it by the Health Boards, the state’s child protection service. I dealt with Finglas when I worked in the Department of Education (I was on loan from the Department of Finance) for six months from September 1987 until March 1988. I was told from the start that Finglas was a problem because it didn’t run at full capacity even though it was funded to do so. I represented the Department on the centre’s Board of Management, and that was how I became aware of a cover-up of allegations and concerns about physical and sexual abuse and financial mismanagement.
Before I became aware of the cover-up, I promised in December 1987, at a meeting with some of the lay staff in the Centre, to see to it that any concerns, allegations or complaints about abuse that were brought to my attention were investigated. I remember that the Director of the Centre, Br. Augustine Murphy of the de la Salles, went red and started twisting his hands, and the Chairman of the Board, Mr. Nick Rice, took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow. Rice was a retired inspector of special schools from the Department of Education and his brother had been an auxiliary provincial of the de la Salles.
The next day, my boss in Education, George Barry, told me that Rice had asked for responsibility for Finglas to be removed from me and returned to a woman on my staff, Margaret Farrell, who had dealt with Finglas for years before I arrived in Education and who had “protected the brothers” in some unspecified way, flouted the authority of her superiors when they tried to make her maintain a professional distance from the Centre and disobeyed orders not to visit the place at night (this is what I was told by the first person whom I met on my first day in Education, Mr. Jack O’Brien in Personnel Section).
The next time I was in Finglas, in January 1988, the Assistant Director and Principal of St. Laurence’s, a Br. Francis (there was another Br. Francis on the staff, he worked in St. Michael’s) said, when he met me in the corridor, “Have you not been moved yet? Oh well, I suppose it’ll take a while longer.”
The following month, February, the Director, Br. Murphy, told a Board meeting that the Wages and Accounts Clerk, Ms. Ita Rudden, was constantly complaining about how the Centre was run. The Board nominated three members, including me, to interview her. There was a general agreement that she should be threatened with dismissal. I said that I wanted to know the substance of her complaints and Br. Murphy put together a dossier of letters – he didn’t have it to hand, he fished letters out of a drawer in a cabinet where they were lying on top of each other, not in a file, so I may not have received each and every letter that Ms. Rudden had sent to Br. Murphy or his predecessors.
Rice gave me and Ms. Farrell (she had been invited to the meeting so that the Board could wish her well in her retirement) a lift back to work after the Board meeting. They both made disparaging remarks about Ms. Rudden on the journey, implying that she was mentally incompetent.
I started to deal with the dossier immediately. The first thing on it was something obscene that, according to Ms. Rudden, she had found waiting for her on her desk one morning, i.e. it hadn’t arrived in the post but came from within the Centre. Br. Murphy had done nothing about it. I was appalled: my attitude was that someone with a sick mind was involved with Finglas so the boys there needed to be protected from such an influence, and unless Ms. Rudden had faked the material to draw attention to herself in a perverted way, her work situation was intolerable. Whatever lay behind it, it was gross dereliction of duty for Br. Murphy simply to put the letter in a drawer and ignore the situation. I wrote a memo for George Barry in those terms and asked for and was given authority to investigate the dossier of complaints.
I didn’t have time that afternoon to read everything in the dossier so I brought it home with me. That night, I realised there were mentions of physical and sexual abuse in two of Ms. Rudden’s letters. I rang someone who worked with me in Education (it was never entirely clear whether he answered to me or to my boss), Graham Granville, the statutory inspector of industrial and reformatory schools under the Children Act 1908. We agreed that I would go out to Finglas first thing in the morning and interview Ms. Rudden, and that I would summon Granville if I thought things needed to be taken further.
I went to Finglas in the morning, spoke to Ms. Rudden, satisfied myself that her concerns should be investigated, and summoned Granville. He too thought matters needed to be taken further so I rang the Department of Education. Barry wasn’t there so I spoke to his boss, Tomás Ó Gilín. He said that I should inform the Chairman of the Board and refer the dossier formally to the Director of the Centre for a formal response. He said that if needs be the Department would set up a tribunal to establish the truth.
I did as I was ordered. I also wrote a note of what had happened that day. I opened a file on which I placed the letters about Finglas and my letter to the Director seeking his formal response to the matters in the letters. Some days after that, I took two phone calls from a member of the lay staff in Finglas, one P. J. Leahy, and I made notes of the calls on the file copy of the letter to Br. Murphy.
Leahy said that he had heard that I was “dynamic” and could look forward to a bright future in the Department of Finance in the normal way but this wasn’t going to happen now because I was “paying attention to matters which people who’d had my job before me had chosen to ignore.” He said that he had a feeling that I was making notes of what he was saying. He said that all Ms. Rudden’s complaints could be substantiated to some degree.
Br. Murphy rang me and we arranged that he, Granville and I would meet in Finglas on Monday 21 March 1988 to discuss matters.
I was lucky to make it to that meeting. On Friday 11 March I was summoned to a meeting in Personnel Section in Education and told that I was unacceptable in Education so I was to return to Finance. The man whom I met was called Ó Broin and was O’Brien’s boss. When I told Granville about it, his take on it was that both Ó Broin and O’Brien had dealt with Finglas before me so they were moving to get rid of me and keep a lid on things. He advised me to contact Ms. Rudden and warn her of what was happening.
I did so the following morning, Saturday 12 March 1988. Her number was in the phone book so I was able to call her at home. I didn’t tell her about Leahy’s phone calls to me but she said that she knew something was afoot, he’d asked her for my work number and said he wanted to “warn” me because something terrible was going to happen to me. She said Leahy was involved in Fianna Fáil (FF), which was then in government on its own under Charles J. Haughey.
I contacted three public representatives (Michael McDowell, Mary Harney and Mary Flaherty) that weekend and alerted them to the fact that Education was moving to cover up matters amiss, including concerns about physical and sexual abuse, in the juvenile detention centres.
Monday morning, I got a phone call from Mary Butler in Personnel Section in Finance, telling me to attend a meeting there that day to discuss my return from Education. I’d been tipped off by a Garda Superintendent to a possible fraud in Trinity House reformatory school and had got permission from George Barry to investigate the matter by telling him that a serious allegation had been made to me by a confidential and trustworthy source, so I was alive to the possibility that Education was just as anxious to deter me from doing something about that as it was to protect Finglas from scrutiny – the Board of Management in Trinity House was chaired by a retired Education official, another member was a retired inspector who had previously chaired the Finglas board, and there were a few other people on the board who were longstanding cronies of the retired officials and hostile to any changes to their way of doing things. I told Finance that I had other plans for the day, I was going to Trinity House to do an audit, and that it would have to order me in writing to attend a meeting in Finance. I remember that Ms. Butler shouted at me, obviously I was being awkward by continuing to do my work regardless. In any event, Finance sent me a letter ordering me to go to a meeting there at 2.30pm the following day, Tuesday 15 March.
I did as I was ordered.
I brought with me some papers about Finglas and also the evidence I’d compiled – I’d gone out to the school and done a quick audit – of matters amiss financially in Trinity House. Even though I knew how Rice and Ms. Farrell had tried to tell me that Ms. Rudden was crazy, and even though Barry had boasted to me about how he’d dealt with a woman who complained about him and Trinity House (she was diagnosed as “a paranoid schizophrenic” and dismissed as incurably mentally ill), I genuinely thought I’d be given a fair hearing in Finance and would only have to produce the evidence to get Finance to do something about what was clearly an appalling state of affairs, the wholesale mismanagement of the juvenile justice system, indifference to the possible abuse of children in state custody and the harassment of people who voiced concerns.
I couldn’t have been more wrong: Finance went on the attack immediately, refused to listen to what I tried to tell them, and did its utmost to break me on the spot. I was told I had “considerable intellectual ability but was underachieving,” I was “aggressive” and “misperceived things,” “things happened around me for which I disclaimed responsibility,” nobody in Finance would have me on their staff, and that I was to suffer “disciplinary action up to and including dismissal” unless I could satisfy them that there was “a medical reason for my behaviour.” With this in mind they’d made an appointment for me to see the Chief Medical Officer (CMO) for the civil service immediately after the meeting and they urged me to keep the appointment because he was a very busy man who might not be able to fit me in again soon!
There were two of them against me, Ms. Butler and her boss, Stephen O’Neill. He did all the talking and she sat there and nodded. It was news to him that I’d gone to her the previous November looking for a transfer from Education because my health was suffering from my working conditions (the building where I worked was condemned in the 1920s and acknowledged to be a health hazard) but it made no difference, he said nothing I could say would change anything and that the decision to remove me from Education had been taken long before I came across the concerns about Finglas and Trinity House.
When O’Neill said the CMO was waiting to see me that day, I said, “you have no business making an appointment behind my back for me to see a doctor.” I told them that I needed time to consider the request and that I would inform them of my decision by 5.30pm the next day. I said somewhere along the way that I was going to submit the evidence of wrongdoing formally to the head of the Department of Education and was told to do that, but they wanted me to see the CMO anyway (a significant detail whose importance was not immediately apparent). By the time I left the room, I was shaken to my core. I’ve often wondered what would have happened if I’d broken down at that meeting – I mean, what would Finance have told my family? I know what would have happened if I’d met the CMO, he’d have certified me as incompetent and placed me on sick leave, I’d have had to go to the High Court to challenge it, and I wouldn’t have gone to the meeting in Finglas the following Monday.
I rang the Department of Finance at 5.25pm on Wednesday 16 March 1988 and told them I would see the CMO if I were ordered to do so and given the reason why in writing. The following day was St. Patrick’s Day, a public holiday, so I couldn’t be given an answer until Friday.
That meant that I couldn’t see the CMO until Monday at the earliest, but I had arranged to meet Br. Murphy in Finglas first thing on Monday 21 March 1988, so the way I handled things meant that Education and Finance had effectively failed to stop me from pursuing the concerns about Finglas.
I contacted a friend, a retired civil servant, who prevailed on the head of the Department of Education, Declan Brennan, to meet me on Friday 18 March. It was a very short meeting. I briefed Brennan about Finglas and Trinity House and other matters. He said that he’d been told nothing about any of those things but had been informed that I was returning to the Department of Finance at my own request, another significant detail.
Granville and I met Br. Augustine Murphy in Finglas on Monday 21 March 1988. Br. Murphy acknowledged that there was substance to each and every one of Ms. Rudden’s complaints and concerns. On the question of physical abuse he accepted that an incident involving a lay member of staff had occurred on the date alleged by Ms. Rudden but disputed its categorisation as abuse. As regards sexual abuse (Ms. Rudden alleged that there were rumours in the Centre about both a de la Salle brother and a lay member of staff). Br. Murphy said, “These things happened before my time but boys still ring up to complain. What am I to do? We could have another Kincora on our hands if we looked into these things.” I told him that allegations of criminal wrongdoing should be referred to An Garda Síochána for them to investigate, and that nothing, neither sympathy for the perpetrator nor fear of scandal, should interfere with that.
Back at the office, I wrote a report of the meeting. Granville and I both signed it and I put it on the file that I’d opened to deal with the Rudden dossier.
I did something else as well: I asked Margaret Farrell if she’d known that Ms. Rudden had expressed concerns about abuse. She said that she had, that the matter had been discussed at off the record meetings in the de la Salle quarters in Finglas and that it had been decided that nothing would be done. This was significant: as I mentioned earlier the agreement under which the de la Salles ran Finglas gave the state control so when somebody from Education went to a meeting and agreed to ignore concerns about abuse this was tantamount to Education ordering the de la Salles to turn a blind eye to abuse. I can’t remember whether I interviewed Farrell the day I went out to Finglas to satisfy myself as to whether the dossier of complaints needed to be taken seriously or whether I spoke to her on Monday 21 March after the meeting with Br. Murphy but it doesn’t matter, I made a note of what she said and put it on the file.
I reported for duty in Finance a day or so later. They told me that they couldn’t order me to see the CMO but would hold it against me if I wouldn’t do as they wanted and they gave me three reasons for the request: a complaint about me in Finance before I was sent to Education, my sick leave in Education (there was a high rate of sickness in the building where I worked in
Education, Finance knew that when it sent me there, and more than half my sick leave happened after Finance refused to pay heed to my doctor’s advice that my work situation in Education was unsuitable), and Education’s decision to send me back to Finance.
This vague statement of reasons (I was entitled to names, dates and precise details including copies of written statements and notes of discussions) was another significant detail whose importance did not become apparent until later. Finance told me that I was not acceptable to anyone there so they had no placement for me, I was to go home and ring them in a week’s time. I told them that I was submitting a formal statement to the head of the Department of Education about the mismanagement that I’d uncovered and that I was submitting it to him in his capacity as Accounting Officer to the Dáil (I was familiar with public financial procedures whereby the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) interviews Accounting Officers about audit reports and so on).
The stand-off between me and Finance went on for three and a half weeks. Over that period I submitted a statement as promised to Declan Brennan in Education, sent copies to Granville and to the person in Education responsible for disbursing money to Finglas and Trinity House, and tipped off the C- & A-G, the state auditor, to the financial mismanagement in Finglas and Trinity House. I also spoke to a Garda whom I knew. I didn’t get back in contact with any of the public representatives that I’d contacted before; I recognized that if they made inquiries they would be put off the trail by smears on my competence so I believed that I had to proceed by proving that Education was in the wrong and that the way to do that was to show the Department up through an independent audit report – I was confident that anyone of integrity who looked into the things that I had seen in Education would criticise them just like I had, the mismanagement was glaringly obvious. The person to whom I spoke in the audit office said that they wouldn’t take immediate action, they would make a note of the information and take account of it in the course of their regular programme of work.
Whilst the statement for the Accounting Officer in Education was calculated to tie in with the outcome of an official audit, that doesn’t mean that the statement was confined to the financial aspects of the Rudden dossier or to the evidence of possible fraud in Trinity House. I included the material about possible abuse in Finglas on the basis that managing the facility properly in the best interests of the taxpayer required the prompt investigation of concerns about abuse. I gave Brennan the evidence that Education had been told by both the Chief State Solicitor and the Department of Finance that the state was legally liable for the operations of the industrial and reformatory schools and I told him that allowing abuse to occur or delaying investigations was creating a financial burden on the state and that a cover-up would cause a worse scandal in the long run than would dealing with things promptly and efficiently. There was also material in the statement about corporal punishment in Clonmel industrial school: again, the Chief State Solicitor had told Education that it was contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights but Education hadn’t ended the practice and so was upping the bill for the taxpayer whenever claims were lodged against the state. Basically, what I tried to do was use the mechanisms of state audits and accountability to the Dáil to bring about scrutiny of Education and thus expose its collusion in the abuse of children in state custody.
To be continued…