Health Minister Mary Harney has ignored repeated requests since January of this year to meet with patient groups to discuss holding an independent inquiry into the serial sexual abuse of Drogheda surgeon Michael Shine, support group Dignity 4 Patients has claimed.  

More than 140 people have contacted Dignity 4 Patients to say they were abused by Mr Shine in the 30 years he worked at Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda, and former nurse Bernadette Sullivan, who 'blew the whistle' on Mr Shine and is now co-ordinator of Dignity 4 Patients, said she is aware of about 100 other victims.

More and more people have been coming forward since RTE’s 'Prime Time Investigates' revealed the extent of the reported abuse on last week’s programme, the group said.

Although Mr Shine was struck off by the Medical Council last year after an investigation into allegations that he had sexually abused young male patients, a 2003 court case acquitted him of 11 counts of indecent assault on six teenage boys.

Despite the claims made against him, Michael Shine, now in his late 70s, is enjoying a pension of almost €100,000 per year. Since his retirement in 1996 he has received almost €1 million of taxpayers’ money.

As Mr Shine has not been convicted in the courts, he does not appear on any sex offenders’ register. He is now a regular visitor to a remote orphanage in India, where he has sponsored a number of children.

According to Dignity 4 Patients, which was set up to defend and uphold the rights of patients abused by medical professionals, there are currently no effective measures in place to protect patients from sexual abuse by the medical profession.

At a press conference in Dublin last week, a number of organisations, including One in Four, the Rape Crisis Centre, the Children’s Rights Alliance and Barnardos, joined Dignity 4 Patients in calling for a public inquiry into the handling of complaints against Mr Shine. According to Bernadette Sullivan, listening to the victims and hearing their stories is the only way of ensuring that the abuse never happens again.

The organisations also called for a compensation scheme for victims of the surgeon and for the Medical Missionaries of Mary, who ran the hospital, to publicly apologise and acknowledge their wrongdoing. They have been asked to make a ‘meaningful contribution’ to assist the recovery of all victims.

Ms Sullivan said the 30 years of alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by Mr Shine would not have occurred were it not for many staff members and colleagues who turned a blind eye to it.

“People were bringing the abuse to the attention of the Medical Missionaries as early as 1970. It is our belief that staff in the hospital did know what was happening. No patient is ever safe if staff members rally around a perpetrator,” she said.

Ms Sullivan pointed out that while a review group was set up one month after Mr Shine retired in 1995, its remit was merely to examine how the hospital responded to abuse allegations, not to examine the complaints themselves, and it proved to be entirely inadequate.

According to that review group, just two complaints of inappropriate behaviour were made against Michael Shine in his career. Both complaints were said to have been handled in a manner that was regarded as adequate at that time, even though it was admitted that it would not be acceptable by today’s standards.

However, a number of victims have now come forward to say that they had made complaints of abuse both to staff and hospital management during the 1970s and 80s, but nothing was done.

This culture of protection and denial has persisted and prevented justice from being done, Dignity 4 Patients said. A petition was signed by the nurses in Lourdes hospital in support of Mr Shine and submitted to investigating Gardaí.

At his 2003 trial, up to 15 medical staff at Lourdes, including consultants and senior nurses, testified in the surgeon's favour, the group has pointed out.

“The professional duty of care of nurses and doctors is to the patient, not to their colleague. How were they looking after their patients if they were able to get up in court and say what they said about this man?” said Ms Sullivan.

Dignity 4 Patients stressed that the staff of Lourdes who perhaps believed they were being good friends and colleagues to Mr Shine by ignoring the blatant evidence and choosing to protect him not only failed in their duty to protect their innocent patients from a serial sexual abuser, but also prevented victims from getting the justice they deserved.

No witnesses were called to back up the victims’ statements, and Joan Clinton, a psychologist to the victims who says she had important evidence, was never called to testify as an expert witness. There was also criticism over the fact that Mr Shine's trial was held locally, the group has said.

Emotional and angry statements were made at last week’s press conference by a number of victims of Mr Shine who reiterated the need for a fair independent inquiry into the allegations made against the surgeon. Many expressed their disgust at how the 2003 trial was handled and the way they have been treated. Ms Sullivan described the lack of justice they have received and the support Mr Shine’s colleagues showed him as a form of re-abuse of the victims.

“It is now 15 years since the first official complaint was made to Gardaí. Complaints were made to the hospital itself long before that. We wouldn’t still be here if he didn’t have support,” she said. 

Health spokespersons from the Labour Party and Fine Gael, Jan O’Sullivan TD and Dr James Reilly TD, who were also present at the meeting, pledged their full support to Dignity 4 Patients’ call for an inquiry.

Dr Reilly became emotional as he described his disgust and shame, and apologised on behalf of the medical profession for Mr Shine's actions and how they were handled.

The support groups feel that only a thorough independent inquiry will bring to light the extent of the culture of collusion and conspiracy that pervaded the hospital to the detriment of its young vulnerable patients. Through the testimony of the victims, it is now becoming increasingly clear that so many of those to whom we have entrusted our care, be they doctors, nurses or members of religious orders, chose to protect and defend Michael Shine over the rights of their patients, they said.

According to Maeve Lewis of One in Four, the recent apologies by the State and the religious orders for the decades of institutional abuse this country has been shamed by will mean absolutely nothing until the victims of Michael Shine get the justice they deserve and the inquiry they are owed.

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