The timing of this Bill is appropriate as public concern about child sexual abuse is at an all time high. There has been a series of cases which have been very shocking in the extent of the awfulness of the abuse and the period over which it took place. The Bill is a welcome measure as it provides an important step towards the protection of those who might be inclined to report cases of sexual abuse where they have reasonable suspicion that such abuse is taking place.
The reporting of abuse to the relevant authorities is obviously important as it allows those responsible agencies investigate valid suspicions that children are being sexually mistreated. While sexual abuse is exceptionally traumatic and painful for the children involved, it is fair to say that it is also a traumatic and disturbing experience for adults by virtue of their becoming aware of an occurrence of child sexual abuse. The Bill will at least remove one concern of adults who become aware that child sexual abuse may be taking place and who might hesitate because they are exposing themselves to legal risk by reporting such a case. It will remove a barrier which might act as a deterrent against reporting cases of abuse, and that in turn may be relevant to some sections of the public.
The Bill is an important statement of intent on the part of the Oireachtas to do what can reasonably be done to eliminate this menace from Irish society or at least reduce it to the lowest level possible. The Bill will also encourage a culture of openness, of being more frank about this dark and dismal part of Irish life. This problem was brushed under the carpet for far too long. It was an unmentionable which had to be avoided at almost any cost. It is good that it is now coming into the open because it will facilitate the public in confronting the problem and help them come to grips with the extent of it so that solutions can be found.
I sometimes wonder why so many people in Ireland are unaware of the extent of these problems and why they seem to have gone along with the brushing of this problem under the national carpet. If people had listened to some of the older folk they would have become well aware of the extent of the problem. Some of the older people I encountered in my youth left one in no doubt about the existence of such matters, even if they were not explicit in relation to the nature of them. Nobody was left in any doubt about the fact that it was imperative to avoid having anything to do with certain types of people. Indeed many of these older people, while remaining vague about the specifics of these matters, were well able to get the message across to young people that there was an element in society they should keep away from for reasons that related to sexual abuse.
In combating this problem it is extremely important that we become aware of its full extent and of the modus operandi of the people who engage in this practice. That is fundamental to addressing the problem and either eliminating it or reducing it to the lowest possible level that can be achieved.
The Law Reform Commission, in its 1990 report on this matter, indicated that the reported incidence of child sexual abuse in Ireland was low by international standards. It reached the conclusion that there was a significant level of under reporting of this problem. The commission indicated, with some reservations, that it favoured a proposal that reporting of child sexual abuse should be made mandatory.
On the Order of Business yesterday the Taoiseach assured the House that there was no conflict between the Tánaiste and the Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, Deputy Fahey, on this matter. To the extent that there is any difference between the Minister of State and the Tánaiste in regard to the emphasis they place on the best way to address this problem, I agree with the attitude adopted by the Minister of State in this regard. He is being responsible in that approach and in sounding a note of caution in relation to the resources needed which are in the order of £100 million. It is important that we provide the resources and there is little point in believing this problem can be solved without any cost. It is fundamental also that the appropriate professional back-up, which seems to be extensive, is put in place and that an undue burden is not put on health boards and various agencies which are not equipped to cope with the problem.
Resources must be provided as quickly as possible but we must not pretend that there is an instant solution to this problem. It will take some time to build up the levels of expertise and infrastructure needed to address it in the manner it deserves. I fully agree with the attitude of the Minister of State in that regard and I have no doubt about his good intentions in reaching a solution to this dreadful problem.
On the question of mandatory reporting, I sound a note of caution in relation to the enthusiasm with which this strategy appears to be embraced by some elements. It is worth pointing out that a majority of the professionals — nurses, psychologists, doctors, social workers and various other professionals engaged in dealing with child abuse — are opposed to mandatory reporting. That is something of which we must take note. I accept the Law Reform Commission is in favour of mandatory reporting but I would be slow to disregard the reservations of those professions who seem to be speaking with one voice on this matter.
It is worth mentioning the public position taken by some people in the medical profession and in particular by Professor Denis Gill, Professor of Paediatrics in the College of Surgeons, who must know a great deal about these matters. One presumes he deals with this type of problem in his daily practice. He has sounded a strong note of caution on the question of mandatory reporting. He pointed out, with some validity, that some of the worst cases were known to the agencies including the Kelly Fitzgerald, the Kilkenny and the McColgan cases. Mandatory reporting would not provide a solution to those problems as they were already known to the agencies.
In the course of a letter he wrote to The Irish Times last Friday, Professor Gill asked, where is the evidence that mandatory reporting prevents child abuse? That is a valid question. I do not know whether that evidence exists because I am not expert in that area, but it is an appropriate question to ask. Before we enshrine this in law, it is important that such evidence is presented and debated.