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DIB marks twenty-year anniversary of Mary Raftery’s ‘States of fear’

25 April 2019

To commemorate the twenty-year anniversary of the documentary States of fear, which exposed endemic sexual, physical and psychological abuse in Ireland's industrial schools system, the Dictionary publishes an abridged version of its new entry for producer Mary Raftery (1957–2012) by Liz Evers. 

Mary Frances Thérèse Raftery (1957–2012), campaigning journalist and documentary maker, was born on 21 December 1957 in Dublin to Adrian Raftery, an Irish diplomat, and Ita Raftery (née Elmes). Raftery went to UCD to study engineering in 1975 and soon became involved in student activism. She was elected education officer of the students’ union, becoming its first female full-time officer. While at UCD she also studied music at the Dublin College of Music and was considered a fine cellist, playing for a time with the National Youth Orchestra.

Raftery did not complete her engineering degree but instead moved into journalism, starting her career in the late 1970s with the then newly established In Dublin before moving on to Magill in 1983. It was likely at Magill that her interest in church-run residential institutions began. During her research for an in-depth feature about the Dunne crime family she learned of the brutality and abuse the younger Dunnes had experienced in industrial schools and young offender institutions run by religious orders.

From 1984 she worked as a producer at RTÉ on Today tonight (later Prime time) and the health series Check up. While working on Today tonight she uncovered direct evidence of something journalists had long known of but never committed to reportage – Charles Haughey’s corruption – in the form of a receiver’s report referencing a payment made to him by property mogul Patrick Gallagher. However, the information was cut from the final programme at RTÉ management’s request due to fear of legal action.

In 1999 Raftery managed to successfully assuage the legal concerns of RTÉ management over the incendiary content of her audacious three-part documentary series States of fear, which aired largely intact between April and May of that year. The series, which detailed the shocking abuse suffered by children in reformatory and industrial schools between the 1930s and 1970s, was not the first to address such abuse at church-administered, state-funded institutions, but it was by far the most effective in shaping the public discourse. (The independent documentary Our boys about the experience of former pupils of the Christian Brothers was produced in 1980, and Dear daughter a drama documentary exposing the cruelty at Goldenbridge orphanage in Dublin broadcast in 1996.) 

Drawing on available Department of Education files up to the 1970s and interviews with more than 100 people who had passed through the industrial school system, the series engendered an overwhelming public disgust at both the government and catholic church for abuses perpetrated with seeming impunity in their institutions. Even before the final instalment of the series had broadcast the government announced a package of measures to address this issue, with Taoiseach Bertie Ahern issuing an apology on behalf of the state and its citizens to those who had suffered abuse as children. 

Later in 1999, Raftery released Suffer the little children: the inside story of Ireland's industrial schools, a book she co-authored with social policy academic Eoin O'Sullivan. It provided a granular account of the widespread abuse in the Irish industrial school system between the 1930s and 1970s. Again, this was not the first book-length exposé of the abuse of children at such institutions, but it was the most comprehensive. Suffer the little children revealed decades of complicity by the state in suppressing evidence of the abuse of children in its institutions. Furthermore, it illustrated how religious orders profited from running these institutions – in terms of payments received from the government (which could be maximised by spending less on food, clothes, heat and other necessities for residents) and money earned from businesses using residents as an unpaid labour force. Raftery and O'Sullivan illustrated how orders of nuns, for example, ran 'large complexes' of 'institutions that helped sustain each other' (18). From mother and baby homes to reformatory and industrial schools through to Magdalen laundries, the orders could effectively control and monetise an individual woman's life from birth to death.

The public response to States of fear and Suffer the little children is said to have triggered the establishment of the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse in 2000, more commonly known as the Ryan Commission after its chair Mr Justice Seán Ryan, to investigate the extent and effects of abuse on children from 1936 onward in institutions operated by religious orders and funded by the government. The commission looked at over 100 childcare institutions, with a focus on residential reformatory and industrial schools. The Residential Institutions Redress Act, 2002, established a redress board to make awards to people who were abused in these institutions as children. A highly contentious deal was struck between the government and religious orders in 2002 which indemnified the latter from legal action in return for a transfer of property and assets to the government worth €128 million, a figure wholly inadequate to cover the costs of the commission's work, let alone pay any compensation to survivors (who were not consulted in the negotiations). In 2010 religious orders pledged to pay an additional €352.6 million, which still fell far short of the desired fifty-fifty share of the total €1.5 billion costs of the inquiry and redress. The church was also very slow to pay the pledged moneys, having paid just over half to the state by the end of 2018.

When it was eventually published on 20 May 2009, the Ryan Report provided a damning confirmation of Raftery's findings: that serious physical and emotional abuse were commonplace in the institutions; that sexual abuse occurred in many of them, and was endemic in institutions where boys were held; that the way the institutions were run created an intense climate of fear; that children were often neglected, poorly fed and living in inhospitable and insanitary conditions; and that the supervision of the Department of Education was utterly ineffective in identifying problems and responding to complaints of abuse, and that it sought primarily to defend the religious orders and the institutions rather than the children living in them. 

Limitations were placed on the scope of the commission's recommendations, however. It was required only to make recommendations on how to alleviate the effects of the abuse on those who suffered it, and how to prevent contemporaneous and future abuse of children in state-run institutions. The commission had initially intended to publicly name abusers in its report, but was blocked from doing so by a legal challenge from the Christian Brothers. 

The day after the report's release Raftery penned a piece for the Irish Times describing it as 'simply a devastating report … a monument to the shameful nature of Irish society through most of the decades of the twentieth century, and arguably even today'. She further pointed out that the worst offending religious orders – the Christian Brothers and Sisters of Mercy – still remained the largest providers of schools for boys and girls in the country (21 May 2009). In a follow-up piece Raftery focused on the compensation issue, asking: 'Did you know that you and I, as taxpayers, have actually paid to keep secret the identities of the abusers referred to in the Ryan commission report?' She further highlighted that religious orders' ownership of key pieces of social infrastructure such as hospitals and schools put them in a powerful position when negotiating their initial 'abysmal' contribution of just €128 million (Ir. Times, 22 May 2009).

Raftery followed States of fear with Cardinal secrets in 2002, which she produced with journalist Mick Peelo. This time she brought to light the cover up of clerical child sex abuse by Dublin's catholic archdiocese. The programme's revelations led to the establishment of the Murphy Commission, chaired by Judge Yvonne Murphy, to examine how allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests over the period 1975 to 2004 were dealt with by Church and state authorities. The Murphy Commission reported on 26 November 2009, just six months after the Ryan Report was released. The remit of the Murphy Commission was extended to include the catholic diocese of Cloyne in January 2010, and published its report on the handling of abuse cases there in July 2011. The main November 2009 report concluded that avoidance of scandal and protection of the catholic church's reputation and its assets were systematically given precedence over the welfare of children or justice for those who had experienced abuse at the hands of its clerics. In the aftermath of the report, four bishops of Dublin resigned but remained within the church hierarchy and continued to be entitled to pensions, though they were removed from duties and pastoral care. 

Raftery left RTÉ in 2002 to work freelance and to dedicate her time to following up on the abuses she had exposed. She wrote a regular column for the Irish Times between 2003 and 2007, and occasionally thereafter. She taught and lectured extensively in journalism and documentary production at institutions in Ireland and the US. Her documentary theatre piece 'No escape', using testimony from the Ryan Report, was staged in Dublin's Peacock theatre in April 2010 as part of a season called 'The darkest corner'. The season also featured a piece written and performed by abuse survivor Gerard Mannix Flynn, and a production of a 1961 play 'The evidence I shall give' about a real-life thirteen year old girl's experiences within an orphanage and industrial school. 

Her final documentary Behind the walls was produced in 2011, a two-part programme considering the history of psychiatric hospitals in Ireland (whose population had reached 21,000 by the 1950s, the highest number of people per capita detained in such institutions in the world). With this programme, Raftery again highlighted the failings of the Irish government, this time through the Department of Health, in the care of its citizens, illustrating the appalling conditions and tragic stories of torture and abuse experienced by some inpatients, many incarcerated for years on spurious grounds.

Throughout her career Raftery received numerous awards. Her first was in 1985 when she was named woman journalist of the year for 'Mysterious circumstances', a Today tonight documentary on psychiatric hospitals, her last was the 2012 Celtic Media Festival award for best factual series for Behind the walls in the same thematic area. In between she received Irish Film and Television Awards for both States of fear (1999) and Cardinal secrets (2003). In 1999 States of fear was also placed in the top ten of European documentaries by the Prix Europa and won the Justice Media Television Award among other accolades.

Raftery was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2010 but continued to work until she eventually succumbed to illness and died at St Vincent's University Hospital on 10 January 2012, aged 54. She was survived by her husband David Waddell and their son, Ben. Prior to her death she prepared her own humanist funeral ceremony which was held at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, followed by cremation at Mount Jerome cemetery in Harold's Cross, Dublin. Her funeral was attended by leading figures from the world of journalism, broadcasting and politics, as well as many survivors of abuse. The all-female pallbearers included Raftery's long-time documentary collaborator Sheila Ahern, her sister Iseult and niece Isolde. 

Abuse survivor Andrew Madden described how Raftery's work provided a critical outlet for survivors to voice their experiences after years of silence. ‘Mary had a desire to do something about injustice … And to shine a light when it wasn’t wanted. People like myself – we had something to say at that time, but we needed the help of other people.’ (The Journal, 10 January 2012)

Writing in the Irish Times, her friend and former colleague Fintan O'Toole praised her journalistic fearlessness in taking on the country's most powerful institutions as well as her deep empathy, which allowed her to gain the trust of so many survivors of abuse. O'Toole called her 'the most important journalist of the past 30 years', saying, 'Mary Raftery didn't just reflect society; she changed Ireland, significantly and for the better' (9 February 2013). 

The Mary Raftery Journalism Fund was established in September 2012 and chaired by her husband to promote investigative journalism on issues that were close to her heart. Prior to its closing in December 2018, the fund had supported investigative work in the areas of mental health, migrants and the refugee crisis, and, of course, children’s issues. The fund also collaborated with RTÉ and the Irish Times to offer training in investigative journalism, and hosted four investigative documentary filmmaking seminars in collaboration with the Irish Film Institute. In total it made over €230,000 available in funding to 47 projects.

DCU's School of Communications is now continuing the commemorative aspects of the fund's work. An exhibition coordinated by the School and DCU Library titled 'Fearless: the journalism of Mary Raftery', featuring material drawn from her papers, will be launched on Thursday 25 April 2019 in DCU Library by the University President, Professor Brian MacCraith, twenty years after the original broadcast of States of fear. It will run until autumn. A new annual journalism prize in Raftery's name is also being launched.

The full entry for Mary Raftery will be included in the DIB's next online supplement later in 2019.

Mary Raftery and Eoin O'Sullivan, Suffer the little children: the inside story of Ireland's industrial schools (1999); James S. Donnelly, Jr. 'A church in crisis: the Irish catholic church today', History Ireland, vol. 8, no. 3 (Autumn 2000); Ir. Times, passim, esp.: 21, 22 May, 27 Nov. 2009; 5 Sept. 2011; 11, 12, 13, 14 Jan. 2012; 9 Feb. 2013; 20 May 2014; Andrew Auge et al. ‘After the Ryan and Murphy reports: a roundtable on the Irish catholic church’ New Hibernia Review, vol. 14, no. 1 (Spring 2010); The Journal, 10 Jan. 2012; Ir. Independent, 11 Jan. 2012; Times (London), 25 Jan. 2012; Carol McKeogh and Diog O’Connell (eds), Documentary in a changing state: Ireland since the 1990s (2012), 151–156; Bryan Fanning and Tom Garvin, The books that define Ireland (2014); Ir. Examiner, 27 Sept. 2018; (accessed 11 March 2019)

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