Images of child abuse come to us through grey-tinted windows. In our mind’s eye, they happen in a black and white world, with a smell of cold and talc and warm breath in an Ireland where the rain is incessant, washing down the gutters and the windows, gathering up shreds of hope, carrying them along to a drain where they disappear. And through the glass, just before the net curtains swing back to obscure the view in this miserable world, there is just enough time left for those without voice to witness that washing away.
And those without voice realise their hoarseness when they try to speak, even to themselves. Knowing that every word will come out broken and sullied, and imperfect, and not the way they think it will be needed if they are to escape from their torment.
We would think that we now live in a country where the voiceless are a thing of the past, where the amplification of society would enable them to tell us and each other about all the ills. We tut tut tut at dinner parties about the supposedly past bleakness of an Ireland where children were raped and beaten and locked away for fear they would come out, find their voice, and expose the whole rotten thing for what it was. We have watchdogs, and then other watchdogs to watch the watchdogs; we have regulators and then other regulators to regulate the regulators, and if anyone falls down on the job, we have a culture of minding our own jobs that will allow greater due process for the minders than for those who they are supposed to be minding.
What we saw on our screens on Tuesday night was heartbreaking — Rachel Barry told of how so much had been taken from her, so much she can never get back. So much that will outlast the prison sentence handed down to the perpetrator of the horrible crimes carried out against her.
Is there anyone who watched that programme and didn’t shed a tear — for a young woman who had allowed her face and her identity to be shown to the full world so that the face and identity of her abuser could be shown too. She told us of how she had lost everything to the evilness of Keith Burke. He had taken away her virginity, her innocence, her childhood, her womanhood, her confidence, her ability to trust and make friends, her strength to even walk down the street without feeling some terror. And this when she was just a child.
And in six years time, maybe less, probably less, the person who did this to her will walk free.
Do I think that anyone will be held accountable for the lapses that allowed this to happen, that enabled other children to be left vulnerable? They were lambs to the slaughter, prey for a predator. Not a chance. Not a bloody chance. The system protects its own. There will be excuses, a lack of resources, inadequate training, blah blah blah. And if the going gets tough, then a lucrative early retirement. We have seen it all the way to the top in other organisations we thought we could trust.
Rachel Barry deserves all our friendship. She deserves to be helped construct her life again. What she did in coming forward to tell her story was an act of unbelievable bravery that will hopefully enable others to reveal abuses. But only if we show we are a society that will listen.
THis week, the media once again shone a light on an Ireland where incompetencies allow terrible abuses to continue, where those allocated responsibilities fail to stick to them. Good journalism brought this story out — and incredible bravery.
We hope that those who are in a position to spot the horrors such as those described by Rachel Barry are allocated that role because they are skilled in doing so. Every profession has a necessary skill set. Bakers know how to prepare the best mix; mechanics can tell a lot by the purring of an engine. Surely it is not expecting too much from professional care workers to be able to spot what is a genuine cry for help.
The ISPCA issued a statement in which it said it was essential that young people placed in foster care know that they can trust the system, that it will be there for them when they need it. However, instances like that revealed this week and over the past few years do little to instil this confidence.
Just listen to Rachel’s words again.
“In my eyes I was dirty, in my body I was dirty so how could I expect anyone to treat me any other way but dirty. I feel strong but at the same time I feel weak because I can’t even face normal things, everyday things.
“I don’t go out, I have no friends, I don’t do anything with my life, I can’t even go into town without feeling genuinely petrified, I’m nearly shaking like, it’s not a life, I’m doing the prison sentence.”
She’s doing the prison sentence. Every single day.