The following post first appeared as an article in the Amnesty International UK Magazine. It sets out the themes I will explore when I give the annual Amnesty International Lecture as part of the Belfast Festival 2010 on October 21st. More on the lecture here.


Ireland has struggled in recent years to come to terms with the horrific legacy of child abuse in institutional care. The harm done to many thousands of Irish children by those charged with their care has rocked our society to its core. The State abdicated responsibility for the welfare of its most marginalised children to almost entirely unaccountable agencies. Those children were abused and degraded on an unthinkable scale. It is made all the worse because those agencies were churches, institutions charged with providing moral guidance.

In the southern Irish context the Roman Catholic Church operated most institutions, but a number were also run by Church of Ireland agencies. After decades of silence and denial by all of us, once named, the simple stark horror of what happened in those institutions could no longer be ignored.

International law is clear about the obligations on any State to address such past human rights violations.

States have an obligation to respect, protect and fulfil the right of victims of human rights violations to an effective remedy.  In addressing past violations, states must ensure that the truth is told, that justice is done and that reparation is provided to all the victims. States obligations are the same even if non-state agencies such as churches are responsible for the abuse.

Addressing past violations has enormous value for wider society, by exposing the failures in law, social policy and attitudes, which allowed child abuse to occur on such a scale.

In this context responding to the past is not simply about addressing a historic hurt. It is also about acknowledging a source of ongoing trauma for victims of abuse by ending their enforced silence and the widespread, political and social denial of their hurt.

So this is not simply a matter of making real a past denied; it reveals the impact of that past today, on the lives of those who were abused and their families. In dealing with the past, as difficult and frightening as it is, we will find a way to name it, respond to it and learn from it.

Too often, we run from things we have done that we feel mark us as bad. I know that feeling; for so many years I ran from my own feelings of shame related to my own experiences of childhood abuse.

I believed that what I saw then as shameful, awful experiences named the truth of who I was. But they don’t.

The truth of who I am is to be found in the way I responded to the events that I have experienced. How I chose to deal with them, once I was free to do so.

In Ireland we have been forced to face up to the fact that thousands of Irish children were raped and abused by some of the most powerful members of our society, and that many of us turned a blind eye to the abuse, or refused to believe it was even possible. We can never again say, “I didn’t know”.

So what of that future? Can we move on with confidence, certain that we have faced what we needed to face and consign all of this to history?

I don’t think so.

As long as history has something to teach us about what it means to be human we must be open to hearing it again and again. We must learn that the terrible things we humans do to each other are only possible because we choose to tolerate them. We must learn that doing nothing in the face of great wrong is not passive neutrality. It is an act of violence – a violent refusal to act to prevent harm when we have both the capacity to understand the harm caused and the power to prevent it.

We have created the world we live in and we have the power to change it when change is needed. It may not always be easy to do so, but it is possible, even inevitable, if enough of us decide to demand change.

Be it ending the cover up of clerical sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic Church, or closing Guantánamo Bay and ending the use of torture, or outlawing the use of the death penalty, we can each be a powerful force for good, if we choose to be.

Too often, we are so frightened of acknowledging the awful things done to others by people close to us, and even by ourselves that we end up allowing such things to happen through our denial. In our silence we collude, in our denial we facilitate and in our softly spoken words of gossip we fail to take responsibility for what we know.

We are so frightened of seeing the darkness in our collective humanity that we fail to embrace the light that exists in at least equal measure there; the profound beauty in our own humanity that can respond with truth and courage to the things we see and do that are simply wrong.

What we have yet to understand is that we can only be enriched if we have the courage, compassion and integrity to name and confront injustice wherever we see it, especially when we are party to causing injustice ourselves.

Amnesty International has been working in recent weeks to highlight the impact of the planned withdrawl by the UN from Eastern Chad. Much more on this can be read at the Amnesty International Ireland site.

Amnesty International has a research mission on the ground in Chad at the moment and one of my colleagues, Alex Neve for Amnesty International Canada is a member of the team. Alex has blogged about the mission and I thought his perspective on this was compelling and so decided to add it here.

If you feel strongly about this, and I hope yo do, the please follow the link to the AI Ireland site and take action.

Abandoned Again?  Chad Forces the UN Out of the Country

Abeché, Eastern Chad

May 23, 2010

We have begun our work on the ground in eastern Chad and in early days much of our focus is on the impending decision of the UN Security Council about the future of the critical UN mission here.  Under pressure from the Chadian government, and with the conspicuous absence of the usual strong influence of Chad’s former colonial power, France, the Security Council is poised to agree to begin a pull out of UN troops from the east of the country, to be completed by mid-October.  It could very well prove disastrous for human rights protection, development projects and overall security.  And at this point in time it seems near irreversible.

My friend Celine Narmandji, a remarkably tenacious women’s human rights defender who I’ve worked with on missions here in the past, put it very well when we met for lunch right after my arrival in Chad.  She said: “We were abandoned before.  We’re going to be abandoned again.  The good news is that in between, for a short while, the world did care about the situation in eastern Chad.”

Right she is, but we need better news than that.

I have been going back in my own mind, repeatedly, to the many women, men and young people I met during my first Amnesty mission to eastern Chad, in late 2006.  They too talked about abandonment: in the face of a relentless wave of violence, much of it orchestrated from across the border in Darfur, hundreds of villages were razed, thousands of people killed, untold numbers of women and girls raped, and close to 200,000 Chadian chased from their homes.  They felt abandoned by their own government and the rest of the world.  And they were – there was no UN mission on the ground at that time.  And Chadian authorities, who have long neglected and played politics with the east of the country, did nothing to prevent or respond to the devastating human rights violations.  Abandonment was the right word.

Amnesty and others worked hard to end that abandonment. AI members – in Canada and worldwide – wrote letters, signed petitions and spoke out.  And in March 2008 a UN mission, complete with military troops, began to fan out across this isolated and troubled region with a strong Security Council mandate to protect civilians.  It was not easy.  The UN mission faced numerous challenges and shortcomings – many of which Amnesty publicized, including after a mission I was part of back to the east last year.  But now, just as the mission has begun to solidify and truly make a difference – the Chadian government has pulled the plug and the Security Council has meekly gone along for the ride.

The mandate of the current mission is set to expire on Wednesday of this week – May 26th; just 72 hours from when I’m recording this message.  The writing is on the wall – a draft of the new resolution is circulating widely now, laying out a timetable for the UN’s quick withdrawal and taking away from the reduced numbers of UN troops that will remain for the next several  months  their mandate to take action to protect  civilians.  It is expected to be adopted before Wednesday.

Even as the hours draw to a close we must continue to press key governments – particularly France – to step back from the brink and refuse to go ahead with a precipitous UN pull out from a country that is, at best, beginning to enjoy fragile and very tentative improvements in human rights protection and security on the ground.  I hope you will respond to AI’s email action targeting French president Nicolas Sarkozy.

It does appear that minds are made up. 

But we are activists. 

We certainly do not believe in abandonment. 

And we do not remain silent – whatever the odds.

I was moved to my core by the depth of isnight in the letter copied below from today’s Irish Times.

It is searing in its insight, but also in the hope central to the demand Christopher sets us all as individuals who make up our families, communities, institutions and societies.

the problem is best described as the abuse of power, in all its forms, from the personal to the institutional, for control or profit. Resolving this will protect children, and much more, in the future. It is linked in essence to all struggles for liberty, and must be at the heart of and visibly resolved in any decent, healthy society that dares to call itself decent.

Donnacha O’Connell, former Dean of Law at NUIG speaking at an Amnesty International event a few months back described the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted in direct response to the horrors of Wordl War II as “wisdom distilled through trauma”.

His description of the UDHR rushed to my mind upon reading Corneilius Crowley’s words.

Madam, – I spent my childhood in Irish Catholic boarding schools, ranging from the very top schools to reformatories, from age five-and-a-half to 17, and as a ward of court, I was  during holidays, in custody of my relatives. Who were less than empathetic.

Thus, as a child there was no one for me to turn to talk to about my experiences. I grew up believing those experiences, and my shame, were normal.

I believed my low self-esteem was my own fault, that I was evil, a sinner and at heart a disgusting, filthy and ugly person, even though I could pass myself off as reasonably affable.

My life has been pretty much ruled by those experiences and how I “‘adapted” to them, how I internalised the values of those who abused me, and took on the image they projected on to me as my own identity.

Years and years of unhappiness, dysfunction, insecurity and a nameless rage (for which, for a long time I had  no target – and that meant I turned the rage upon myself and those close to me) have dogged my life.

I have struggled as best I can to heal this for myself, and to understand, to fully comprehend  the dynamics of abuse operating at such a huge scale, such that it might be classed a societal problem, if not the societal problem, simply because the problem is tractable, because the cycles can be broken, and because this should never happen to any child. I, and many others are living proof of this.

And the problem is best described as the abuse of power, in all its forms, from the personal to the institutional, for control or profit. Resolving this will protect children, and much more, in the future. It is linked in essence to all struggles for liberty, and must be at the heart of and visibly resolved in any decent, healthy society that dares to call itself decent.

And that is the only path which I as a survivor deem plausible if we as a society and as parents are to honour all children, for all time.

It is time, well past time actually, to clean up our collective and centralised acts. – Yours, etc,


London, England.

The article below is my response to an opinion piece in the Evening Herald a week or so ago, link to that here, and comments by Cardinal Sean Brady at the weekend, link to that story here.

I thought it might be worth posting here as well.

Irish people want equality for everyone — gay or straight. It’s time Cardinal Seán Brady caught up

Originally appeared in The Evening Herald on Tuesday August 25 2009

Speaking on the proposed Civil Partnership Bill, Cardinal Sean Brady has stressed the importance of providing children with an “ideal environment” in which to grow.

But the real problem with the legislation as it stands is that it denies that environment to the children of same-sex couples. It undermines their right to a family.

Adoption is a children’s rights issue and not an issue of the human rights of the adults who parent them. Nobody has the ‘right’ to adopt. Adoption must only be considered from the perspective of the rights of children. Children are not objects to be acquired by adults.

Gay people can already adopt in Ireland and have done so. There is no restriction on adoption in this State based on sexual orientation. But a gay couple cannot jointly adopt a child. This is not because they are gay. It is because they are unmarried. An unmarried couple, gay or straight, cannot jointly adopt either. But a straight couple can choose to get married. They can then jointly adopt a child. This is a choice denied to gay couples here but not to couples in the North.

In Europe, joint or second parent adoption by same-sex partners currently exists in the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Britain.

For me, the whole issue raises a number of questions.

Why is it okay for a gay person to adopt a child by him or herself but not to jointly adopt a child as part of a couple in a loving relationship? Why is it acceptable that a gay couple can raise a child together and give that child a loving family home, but not for the child to have a legal, secure relationship with both parents?

And, perhaps most importantly, why should the children of gay couples have inferior rights to the children of a married, heterosexual couple? Is that truly in the best interests of the child? Will this create an “ideal environment” for those children? In all the speeches and arguments on this issue, I have never seen those who are arguing against equality answer any of these questions. I’ve never even seen them try.


How can we in conscience allow the denial of the rights of children cared for by same-sex parents to be deliberately written into Irish law?

The issue at the heart of Minister Ahern’s proposed legislation is not gay marriage or ‘gay’ adoption. It is discrimination. It is saying that the right to marry only applies to some people and not to others. But that’s not true.

The right to marry is contained in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Both treaties have very strong anti-discrimination clauses that make it crystal clear that the rights contained in them apply to all people, regardless of their status.

This was reiterated by the 1994 decision of the UN Human Rights Committee, charged with interpreting the ICCPR, in Toonen v Australia, which found that sexual orientation was a protected status in human rights law, the same as race or gender.

So let us be very clear on this. Refusing to allow a couple to marry because they are gay is a violation of their human rights.

Opponents of equality try to deny marriage rights to gay couples by arguing that marriage is about children, about creating and supporting secure families for children. But then these same people oppose extending the same security and care to children parented by same-sex couples as other children.

The argument is so illogical it seems to be based on denying the very existence of children parented by same-sex couples. Surely we have learned the cost of denying rights and protections to any particular group of children?

Some commentators, and Minister Ahern seems to agree with them, have made the argument that Ireland is not ready for equality. Thing is, the Irish people themselves seem to disagree.

According to a Lansdowne survey carried out for Marriage Equality earlier this year, 81pc of Irish people believe that everyone living in Ireland should receive equal treatment from the state regardless of whether they are lesbian, straight or gay.

Significantly, 75pc believed that the children of same-sex couples should have the same family rights as other children.

Six out of 10 believe that denying marriage to lesbians and gay men is an act of discrimination.

Marriage is a fundamental human right to which we are all, gay and straight, entitled. Those arguing against equality are profoundly out of touch with mainstream Irish opinion.

Maybe it’s now time that they caught up.


In 1948, in a global effort to ensure that the inhumanity of the Second World War would never happen again, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)was passed and adopted by the United Nations without a single dissenting voice. 

Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Irish Section, in association with RTE Radio 1’s Drivetime programme, broadcast a series of radio columns, one dedicated to each article of the Declaration, to bring this historical and foundational document to life, demonstrating how central and relevant it is to our everyday lives. 

Article 26: Everyone has the right to education and to free primary education
Our Constitution says that the state has a responsibility to provide for education. That is to provide for, but not to provide. After attending a local school fundraiser, Colm O’Gorman asks why we don’t demand that the state lives up to a higher responsibility and ensures that every child is entitled to, and receives, the highest possible standard of education.

Colm O'Gorman



In 1948, in a global effort to ensure that the inhumanity of the Second World War would never happen again, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)was passed and adopted by the United Nations without a single dissenting voice. 

Colm O’Gorman, Executive Director of Amnesty International Irish Section, in association with RTE Radio 1’s Drivetime programme, broadcast a series of radio columns, one dedicated to each article of the Declaration, to bring this historical and foundational document to life, demonstrating how central and relevant it is to our everyday lives.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said that human rights begin in ‘small places’. In the first of a series of Drivetime radio columns celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Colm O’Gorman introduces the UDHR and explains how our human rights begin in the home, the school, the hospital and our local community.

Colm O'Gorman