Book review – McKay, Sophia’s Story (2004)

Alison CoyneAlison Coyne is a UCD Law with Politics student. The best book reviews written as part of the course requirements for POL30080 Irish Politics and Policy are posted here to let UCD students contribute to critical reflection on key issues in Irish political and social life.

Susan McKay, Sophia’s Story (2004). Dublin: Gill and Macmillan

Sophia’s Story is the autobiography of Sophia McColgan, a woman with a harrowing story of her childhood in a household full of abuse and horror. Sophia bravely tells the story of life as the daughter of Joseph McColgan, a brutal man who raped and abused his family. A book full of torment, tears, terror and turmoil, Sophia’s Story is a must-read; it will leave you questioning the Irish system for child abuse, and perplexed as to how such unspeakable events could occur in modern society.

The book begins with an account of the horrific rape of a 6-year-old child before her First Communion, while the words ‘honour thy father and thy mother’, as rigidly taught in Catholic schools, resound in the child’s ears. At the tender age of 9, Sophia and her brother Gerry were referred to Sligo General Hospital where Doctor Doreen Dunleavy described them as ‘battered children’. Her mother confirmed the abuse, but Sophia was returned home only to sustain further abuse. The litany of abuse continued; Gerry eventually ran away and was taken into care, where he disclosed the sexual abuse of both himself and Sophia. Once again, nothing was done by the authorities. Social workers were made aware of the situation but no action was taken. It was only when Joseph ran over Sophia’s younger sibling, Michelle, with a motorbike, that a friend brought her to Doctor Jane Dorman who reported it to the Gardaí and the father was charged with a veritable litany of abuse.

Joseph McColgan was sentenced to 238 years imprisonment and Sophia later took a case against the North Eastern Health Board (NWHB) and Doctor Moran. The NWHB and Dr Moran both denied all negligence on their part with Dr Moran stating that Sophia had failed to inform her mother or the Gardaí of the sexual abuse – a statement of undeniable fabrication. The case was settled in 1998, with no liability declared against either the NWHB or Dr. Moran. Sophia and her siblings each received six-figure settlements and all legal costs were paid. McColgan was released from Arbour Hill Prison in 2004 and now simply remains on the Sex Offenders Register.

Although not a read for the faint-hearted, this book gives an unnerving glimpse into the world of child abuse with a first-hand account of the emotions and reflections of a woman who grew up in a family that was abused by their own father. At times the reader may find it difficult to read, but this difficulty pales in comparison to the terror and fear experienced by the McColgan family. This book is an eye-opener about the world we are living in. It makes the reader question the failure of the Irish system to do anything for the terribly abused children over almost two decades, and highlights the failure of so many professionals to protect these children when the abuse they were enduring was so blatantly obvious to many. Its autobiographical nature renders this book a gut-wrenching read; if it was told in a factual style, many of the details would seem unbelievable and unrealistic. The authorities ignored their cries for so many years. We must now seek for an explanation from those who are to blame, primarily the North Western Health Board. We need answers, and we need to make sure that such events may never occur to another citizen of this nation. The reader must remember that this is the account of one side of the story and should be aware that the NWHB and the book does not offer us the views of the professionals who are referred to.

Legal scholar Vera Kutlesic commented that the McColgan case is a ‘humbling reminder of the work to be done to promote and protect children’s rights’. Sophia’s Story and the related court case highlighted the failure of the child care system in Ireland to protect children such as the McColgan children. The McColgan case led to the first landmark professional liability suit of its kind and highlighted the absence of mandating child abuse reporting law in Ireland. As a result of the McColgan case, the need for child abuse case procedure through legislation and the need for follow-through after reporting became apparent. Ireland’s lack of mandated reporting law in relation to cases of child abuse was brought to the forefront of public and political knowledge, resulting in the formation of a Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse and the subsequent Ryan Report in 2009.

Through the course of the events described in Sophia’s Story, at least seven reports were made to local agencies and child protection authorities, yet nothing was done. This is the first major policy issue area made apparent by the book: the absence of mandatory child abuse reporting law in Ireland resulted in the non-intervention of the authorities into the allegations made against Joseph McColgan. Furthermore, when the report was made, protection for the children in question was still not put in place.

The role of the courts is another important policy issue raised by Sophia’s Story: the courts play a large role in raising the profile and awareness of a policy issue to the general public. However, the courts also need to ensure that they do not prolong the pain for the victims by conducting a lengthy judicial process for the victim. The McColgan family endured a very long court case, an undesirable outcome of an already highly undesirable situation for the victims. The judicial system must ensure the protection of the victims in such cases.

After reading the harrowing details of the McColgan case as told in Sophia’s Story, one might also become aware of the great need for the incorporation of mental health law into professional training so that our professionals in all areas of work are better able to recognise and respond appropriately to signs of child abuse.

The McColgan case, along with many others, contributed to public support for the Children Referendum in 2012, which resulted in children’s rights being written into the Constitution of Ireland in the Thirty-first Amendment. But giving effect to these rights is a constant challenge to policy-makers and professionals alike. Sophia’s Story sets out the gut-wrenching consequences of what follows when vulnerable children are not given the protection they so desperately need.

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