Interview

Maeve Lewis: the Tipperary woman dealing with Ireland's legacy of abuse

One in Four director says abuse 'destroyed lives'

Tipperary Star reporter

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Tipperary Star reporter

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Maeve Lewis: the Tipperary woman dealing with Ireland's legacy of abuse

Maeve Lewis: the abuse 'destroyed lives'

Over the past two decades there has been an explosion in the number of people coming forward to tell their stories of abuse whether by individuals within their own families, friends or institutions and organisations.

This has happened at a time when Irish society has become more open about dealing with issues, which, in turn, has seen the edifices of respectability and many pillars of society come tumbling down.

But the fallout has meant the need for more and more groups dealing with survivors of abuse. A greater understanding of the complexities of the horrific consequences on its long term effects has been required. Some of that has come through established channels such as the health services, but more has been done through specific organisations set up as a response to abuse scandals and their aftermath.

One of these is One in Four, the group set up by Colm O’Gorman in 2003 specifically to deal with childhood sexual abuse.

When he stepped aside in 2008, his role was filled by Tipperary woman Maeve Lewis from Ballyartella outside Nenagh.

Maeve went to the local national school at Carrick before finishing her secondary education at St Mary’s Girls’ Secondary School in Nenagh.

Sr Helena O'Donoghue was principal at the time and Maeve describes her as a very forward looking woman.

"One I thing I really appreciate is that at a time when a lot of people didn't go to college, or there wasn't a great emphasis on education for girls, both at home and at school, there was always huge encouragement to do what ever you wanted to do so five out of six of us all ended up going to college, which was quite unusual at the end of the Seventies and into the Eighties," she says.

She did a degree in what was then NIHE, now UL, in European Studies covering language, politics, sociology, economics and history.

“It just gave a very solid grounding in the world and how the world works. It was quite challenging, I suppose, in terms of growing up in quite a conservative environment and beginning to realise that it didn’t have to be the way it was. Those were very enjoyable years,” says Maeve.

After college, she worked in France for a couple of years teaching English and then came back and did a HDip in Trinity and taught for a number of years in City of Dublin VEC.

Around that time, Maeve became involved with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre as a volunteer counsellor. In those days the profession of psychotherapy wasn’t really established at all in this country.

“I became really interested in the whole area of sexual violence and in psychotherapy and I ended up going back to college when I was about 30 and doing a psychology degree and then postgrad psychotherapy training. I took leave of absence from teaching and was offered the role of education officer with the Rape Crisis Centre and then went back and retrained as a pyschotherapist. That opened up a whole different area of work,” she says.

While with Dublin Rape Crisis Centre the war in Yugoslavia had started and they got funding from the Department of Education to set up a training programme in former Yugoslavia.

Maeve worked in Croatia and later in Bosnia training local nurses in trauma counselling, which she describes as “an absolute eyeopener”.

She left DRCC in 1995 and around the same time Trocaire approached her to go to Rwanda just after the genoicide, which she did, flying for five or six years to Rwanda a few times a year running a trauma counselling clinic.

After that, she did similar training in Sierra Leone and Tanzania with Burundi refugees.

"It deepened my understaning of sexual violence. I was approached by the International Criminal Court back in 2014 and asked to go to the Congo to meet four alleged rape victims who were about to give evidence to the court to do an assessment as to whether their symptoms matched their story. I ended up giving expert evidence in 2016 and since then I have been invited back five or six times to give training in sexual trauma to their barristers and investigators," says Maeve.

Then, in 2008, she joined One in Four, but two things happened - the economic crash with funding cut almost immediately by 50% and all the big church reports came out - Ferns before that, Cloyne, Dublin and the Ryan report.

“Our numbers trebled in 2009, so that was a huge struggle for the organisation to survive and huge numbers of clerical abuse survivors came through the service,” she says.

“Back in those years, the numbers had gone up to about 1,400. It was incredible,” says Maeve.

“It was incredibly fascinating to be at the centre of that and beginning to see the way the sexual abuse handling in the Catholic church actually changed everything.

“I think things were afoot anyway, in terms of power and authority of the church from the end of last century, but that just changed everything. Suddenly people were questioning everything about the church and its role and we were seeing an absolutely corrupt institution where the power of the church was sacrosanct as the expense of very vulnerable children,” she says.

Maeve does have great respect for Archbishop Dermot Martin, but says the resistance he has met within his own diocese and his own bishops, she would be afraid that, in many instances, they are just “going through the motions”.

To this day, her heart breaks at some of the stories that the survivors had and the impact that had - suicides, mental health issues.

“It destroyed lives,” she says simply.

In relation to fundraising, they, like all charity groups, face challenges.

“About 70% of our funding is coming from the Government. The rest is fundraising, and that is a huge challenge. This year, we will raise about €200,000 in fundraising and that will come from regular givers, from events like the local Ballycommon Ride. It does mean we are always under resourced and we will always have a waiting list,” she says.

Because of this, for the last three years, they have had had to close their waiting list every year for three or four months because the waiting period has gone over a year.

While she would like to think that in 10 years’ time, there would be no need for groups such as One in Four, Maeve knows that is not going to happen.

“I would hope that those services are properly resourced and that we have a fully functional child protection service, because we don’t at the moment - and that people begin to fully recognise the extent of sexual abuse in families.”

With her late father Frank, being a former North Tipperary county councillor, has she ever thought of politics or been approached for political office.

“I am not in the least interested, and I say that categorically. I would hate it to be honest,” is her reply.

Outside of work, Maeve has a variety of interests from cooking to hillwalking

“I think if you are doing the work I do you really have to a life that has nothing to do with trauma outside of work. I love having dinner parties. I love reading mainly politics and history and non-fiction. I love cinema and hillwalking. I'd love to do the Tipperary Way or Mount Melleray to Cashel,” she says.

Despite the nature of her work, Maeve says: “I have been very lucky. Lucky where I grew up. Lucky the way my career sort of evolved.”