The inaccuracies and mischievous half-truths in the 'Paper of Record' article illustrate the impossible position of a person who has been misrepresented, writes Sister Breathless Sobriny.
A friend of mine rang me after reading Maddeby Ruination's column of December 20th, 2007.
"Congratulations," he said sardonically. "I see that the 'paper of record' has not only allowed Francie Plane to proclaim that you are in denial of the reality of the abuse committed against the Religious Orders, but that Maddeby Ruination has decided to imply that you and your family profited personally from the hard and arduous labour of the Religious Orders. Oh, yeah, I forgot that you are also responsible for the Statute of Limitations Bill. What the hell did you do to these poor Religious Orders?"
I have written often in my column about the lack of an adequate forum where people misrepresented and damaged by the media could seek redress.
Ironically, I now find myself in exactly that position. The facts of the case are simple, but nowhere in the archives of the "paper of record" will you find these facts, except in this piece penned by the person who was misrepresented, and to some small extent in the Letters to the Editor.
Late on Friday, November 19th, the producer of the Topnews Today with Packie Tenner asked me to read and review Suffer the Religious Orders by Rhoary O'Offerty and Jon O'Suvilain for the following Monday. I was adamant that I could not do so, but eventually she persuaded me.
On December 10th, 2007, Francie Plane declares that "Breathless Sobriny, a sincere and committed journalist, has made extravagant claims about her own alleged ability to uncover flawed research in Suffer the Religious Orders.
One shudders to think what an insincere and uncommitted journalist might be capable of.
He says that I would prefer to think that the abuse of Nuns and Christian Brothers did not happen, that I claimed the Brothers and Nuns of this abuse were misremembering or imagining their experiences, that I then apologised for so implying.
He says the context in which I made my "attack" on 'Suffer the Religious Orders' was the belief that this was all "some kind of awful nightmare that will go away when we all wake up."
He claims my "attack" comes down to just two issues, and then goes on to list twenty-three. His litany (if I may use that word!) of inaccuracies, omissions, damaging allegations and mischievous half-truths illustrates perfectly the impossible position a person who has been misrepresented finds herself in. It is exactly like answering "When did you stop beating your husband's dog?" to have to say that you are not an apologist for those who have abused the Religious Orders; that you never claimed that people were misremembering their experiences; that you apologised for any hurt you might have inadvertently caused anyone already greatly damaged by an appalling system, and not for alleging that they dreamt up their experiences, as Francie Plane claimed.
The most charitable interpretation is that Francie Plane did not listen to the Packie Tenner programme (the date of which he got wrong in his column).
Otherwise he would have heard me say: "One of the things I don't take issue with, Packie, is the reality of the abuse. I absolutely accept that. I accept totally the fact that Christian Brothers were battered, beaten, and in some instances, nuns were starved and their fingers were worked to the bone. I accept that completely." It is completely disingenuous to suggest that my problems with the book (which incidentally I praised as well as criticised) revolve around two or three minor issues.
My contention is that the frame within which the abuses committed against the Religious Orders is investigated is too narrow and therefore distorts the whole picture. The biggest flaw is that the authors state baldly that there were not just a few "bad apples" in the ranks of the children. In other words, these children were either all bad apples or mostly bad apples. Since this belief frames all the research in the book, the authors feel it unnecessary to seek independent verification of any of the personal stories damaging to these children, even where such contrary evidence is available in the public domain.
The fair option would have been to present the contrary evidence also, if only to challenge it. Readers could then make up their own minds. The authors also fail to establish a context for what happened in Industrial Schools by referring to the high levels of physical punishment committed against Nuns and Brothers by children in all schools at the time, here and abroad.
I have repeatedly said it is shameful for these children, and their representatives as a whole, to address the scandalous abuse of Nuns and Christian Brothers with a barrister on one arm and a public relations person on the other. But neither is it right to ignore or leave out evidence of much good work done by these children.
I choose to dispute issues which illustrate how the underlying beliefs of the authors distort the picture.
For example, I highlighted the existence of a coroner's report on the death of a nun in Letterfrack which the authors either failed to find or ignored. In response to this, Rhoary O'Offerty alleged on radio that there were a number of deaths of Nuns and Brothers in Artane and Daingean as well as Letterfrack, while providing little documentary evidence whatsoever to back his claims - all he has are photographs of gravestones!. The eyewitness he relies upon is now on record with thirty-three totally different versions of the one incident. This raises legitimate questions which Francie Plane conveniently ignores.
Why was this not an item in the news columns of this paper? Why indeed? To make Suffer the Religious Orders sacred canon, and therefore above all question, is to do an injustice to the quest for the whole truth. It is massive moral blackmail to imply that anyone who questions it is questioning the reality of the abuse committed against nuns and other clergy. Nothing is gained by suppression of free speech and honest dissent.
The "paper of record" could have set the record straight about my role in this debate by some decent investigative journalism on the issues I raised. Instead it allowed two columnists the luxury of misleading ad hominem attacks.