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Pat Raftery: Journalist who exposed child abuse

Mary Raftery was one of the crusading greats of Irish journalism exposing the horrifying treatment over decades of children in the care of the Catholic Church.

Her TV documentaries shocked the Irish people, revealing a scarcely believable system in which children were routinely subjected to sexual, physical and psychological abuse.

They also indicated that many senior churchmen, though aware of the torments of the young, had systematically covered up the crimes of sadistic and paedophile priests and other clerics. Although the Church contested her allegations, which first aired in 1999, a series of official inquiries completely confirmed her findings. Last year, in response to the most recent report, Cardinal Sean Brady admitted it was "another dark day in the history of the response of church leaders to the cry of children abused by church personnel."

This was a vindication of Raftery's work. She was no ordinary journalist, but rather a figure who brought about a sea-change in attitudes, shattering the age-old tradition of deference to the Catholic Church. As such, she was probably the most influential campaigning Irish journalist of the last half-century. Her death, at the age of 54, was followed by tributes from many quarters.

One victim Andrew Madden, author of Altar Boy: A story of life after abuse, said: "Without Mary's determination so much of what we know about our collective past would still remain hidden." Another victim, Colm O'Gorman, who now heads Amnesty International in Ireland, said: "Where others might have been intimidated by the barriers of a system and a society determined to keep the truth hidden, Mary seemed to know no fear."

The daughter of a diplomat, she was born in Dublin, where she attended university. But, tiring of engineering, she turned instead to journalism and activism, becoming noted for her determination and self-confidence. She recalled: "I spent my time writing and agitating and didn't complete the course." After working on various publications she joined RTE, producing programmes on topics such as health, the arts and the media.

Her documentary series States of Fear was broadcast in 1999. There had been earlier revelations of ill-treatment and abuse in church-run industrial schools, which were essentially orphanages, but her programmes had an immediate and profound impact. This was partly because of the huge research which had gone into them – she spoke in detail to well over a hundred victims – and because she established that abuse was so widespread. But most of all her programmes carried such force because survivors agreed to be interviewed on camera describing their experiences in harrowing and convincing detail.

She won the confidence of interviewees by departing from the broadcasting norm and allowing them to approve their testimonies. She thus provided a rare combination of meticulous research and personal empathy.

Three years later she produced a follow-up, Cardinal Secrets. Although the instinct of some in government was to delve no deeper, the effect was to provide a tidal wave of public anger. The authorities issued a formal apology and set up a commission to inquire into the abuse. This led on to a series of reports, each of which led to fresh shockwaves as more and more appalling details were unearthed. They exposed how priests and others misbehaved, how they were protected by their superiors, and how the civil authorities had been largely indifferent to the welfare of chidlren.

The fact that bishops and cardinals had covered up rather than caring for vulnerable young people, caused major damage to the church. The scale can be seen by the fact that around 14,000 people have received compensation.

Raftery's programmes brought her under fierce attack and she was accused of being anti-Catholic. "It was like being in the middle of a maelstrom," she recalled. "There was a sustained assault from a small cohort of conservative Catholics. They stated that my entire determination was to attack the Catholic Church in every possible way, shape or form. It just wasn't true."

Following Raftery's death the Minister for Children, Frances Fitzgerald described her work as "bringing home the squalid prevalence of child sexual abuse while emphasising the life-long damage it could inflict on those abused."

Over the years she turned to other subjects, last September broadcasting her last documentary, which dealt with the conditions in psychiatric hospitals. But she remained closely involved in the abuse issue, writing a play on the topic and co-authoring a book on the industrial schools. She also highlighted the cause of girls and women who had suffered in the involuntary servitude of the Magdalene Laundries.

She contributed regular articles which chronicled how the religious and political authorities were reacting to the continuing stream of revelations. The articles projected indignation but also dissected, in courteous but clinically remorseless detail, the changing and sometimes evasive reactions of the Irish hierarchy. As a result she built up great personal authority at the same time as the authority of the Catholic church steadily withered.

In death she had the distinction of being commended both by victims and by the institution responsible for the injustice. Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Dublin, said of her: "Bringing the truth out is always a positive thing even though it may be a painful truth. I believe that, through her exposition of sins of the past and of the moment, the church is a better place for children."

Women who had been confined in the laundries recalled that she had once said: "The most important thing you can do is to give a voice to people who have been silenced. And what else would I be doing?" Her words, they said, "will resonate with us."

Mary Raftery, investigative journalist and campaigner: born Dublin 21 December 1957; married David Waddell (one son); died 10 January 2012.