The recent publication of the report of the Ferns Inquiry brought to an end the work of Mr. Justice Francis Murphy, Dr. Helen Buckley and Dr. Laraine Joyce. This inquiry has brought to light a litany of child sexual abuse, failure on the part of the church authorities and inaction from the State.
Reading the report was sickening, disgusting and often horrifying, and that was before one concentrated one's mind on the fact that it happened in this country in relatively recent times and that the victims were disbelieved, afraid to tell what happened because of the power the abuser held over them or just too terrified to speak out. Those who did speak out were clearly often ignored or, in some instances, treated as if it was they who were in the wrong. What happened caused deep rifts and divisions in communities and, sadly, in families.
The Ferns Inquiry has confirmed that the response of the church to incidences of child sexual abuse was appallingly inappropriate. In transferring those responsible for the abuse of children from one role to another within the diocese or outside the diocese, the church prioritised its need to maintain secrecy with regard to what was happening to the child. Simply put, this amounted to an institutional disregard for the needs of children and young people by those in whom the public had placed the utmost trust. This must never be allowed to happen again.
The recently announced establishment of a new inquiry to focus on child sexual abuse in the Dublin diocese will also result in the publication of a shocking and disturbing litany of abuse, neglect and inaction. I welcome this inquiry, coming as it does seven and a half years after Andrew Madden, himself a victim of child sexual abuse, first wrote to the Taoiseach seeking such an inquiry. The response at the time from his private secretary was that it would not be appropriate, that difficulties lay in the impracticality of such a tribunal and that the Catholic Church was not a public body. I am glad to note we are a little more enlightened now and at least willing to look into these issues.
We cannot simply shake our heads, wring our hands and wait for the next damning report on this matter. What we must do, as well as ensuring that the response from the church authorities to incidences of abuse places the needs of the child first, is guarantee that the responsibility of the State to protect all children, young people and the vulnerable of any age is met.
It is clear that the primary responsibility for the protection of children lies with the State. The Ferns Report shows that the State, through its responsible agencies, has failed time and again to meet that responsibility and vindicate child safety. We all know that the child protection procedures are deeply inadequate and the Ferns Report confirms this knowledge in sad and shocking detail. If the report is to mean anything, there must be action and change. The report's recommendations are detailed, thoughtful and, if implemented, would considerably enhance the level of protection afforded to children and young people.
There are a number of key actions the Government should take to ensure that the type of abuse at Ferns can never happen again. The legislation to establish a register of persons considered unsafe to work with children should be prioritised. This has been promised since I entered the House and yet it has languished in section C of the legislative programme with no publication date indicated. This legislation should be published before the end of this Dáil session. All co-operation will be given by Fine Gael and, I am sure, by our colleagues to ensure the legislation is passed without delay.
While the vetting unit is to be expanded after much delay, this will not address the concerns of the Ferns Report unless all members of school boards of management are subject to vetting. The Ferns Report stated clearly that "some priests appear to have abused their position as managers of national schools in order to access children". The same checks should apply to board of management members as do to teachers and other staff at schools, irrespective of who is responsible for making these appointments.
The Minister for Education and Science appears to be equivocating on this issue. That is unacceptable. The Minister is linking boards of management with the voluntary sector and calling it a "wider issue". She appears to be completely unaware that the voluntary sector has been demanding access to vetting arrangements for many years. I met the National Youth Council this morning and it confirmed this. For the Government to suggest that expanding vetting arrangements will damage the voluntary sector, as the Minister for Education and Science did yesterday, is simply misinformed.
I cannot stress too much the importance of having all people working with children, whether in a paid or voluntary capacity, vetted for their suitability. Surely the Government is not suggesting that it is only those in paid employment who are likely to pose a risk to children? Any gap left in our vetting arrangements will be exploited by those seeking access to children for the purpose of abusing them. It is clear from the Ferns Report that priests used their positions on boards of management to access children. This is an issue the report highlighted as needing to be addressed. The proper implementation of the Ferns Report does not allow us the privilege of picking and choosing or implementing only the easy parts. It must be implemented in full.
The gathering of so-called soft information is critical in the fight against those who seek to abuse children. It is notoriously difficult to secure convictions in cases of child sexual abuse, with some agencies estimating that only one in 20 cases results in a prosecution. We must remember that Ian Huntley, the person responsible for the murder of schoolgirls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, was given a job at a school even though in the late 1990s he was repeatedly questioned on charges relating to sexual activity with minors, indecent assault, burglary and rape. In 1998 and 1999 alone he was questioned in four separate rape investigations. There is no way that such a person should have been able to get work at a school, and the gathering of soft, non-conviction information is vital to ensure that such a case does not arise in Ireland.
The concept of the use of soft information is also highlighted in this report. It quotes examples from Irish case law in this area, when dealing with the limitations of current legislation, particularly as it relates to health boards. Two separate cases in 1997 deal extensively with this point. In MQ v. Robert Gleeson and Others, Mr. Justice Barr effectively allowed soft information to be passed on by the health board to the VEC to prevent a person working in a school. He made an interesting distinction between the role of the health board and the police, as he called them, and the DPP saying that the health boards’ emphasis is on “the protection of vulnerable children” while the latter’s emphasis is on “the detention and conviction of child abusers”. He then said, and it is worth quoting in full:
There are many circumstances which indicate that a particular person is likely to be (or have been) a child abuser, but there is insufficient evidence to establish such abuse in accordance with the standards of proof required in a criminal or civil trial. However, there may be sufficient evidence to create, after reasonable investigation, a significant doubt in the minds of competent experienced Health Board or related professional personnel that there has been abuse by a particular person. If such has been established then it follows that a Health Board cannot stand idly by but has an obligation to take appropriate action[.]
This is very much an implied right and duty to communicate, as the Ferns Report clearly points out, and it is our duty in this Chamber to make this an explicit piece of law. Any delay in doing so is the same as turning our backs yet again on people at risk.
The idea of non-conviction information was again mentioned by Mr. Justice Hamilton in re Article 26 in the Employment Equality Bill where he said that there was nothing in the Bill to require an employer to employ someone who had a criminal conviction for sexual behaviour or, and this is the key point, "anything that was considered on the basis of reliable information that he engages in or has a propensity to engage in unlawful sexual behaviour". He based this firmly on the need to protect children.
Unfortunately, this does not give a clear indication as to what one can rely on as reliable information and again points to our duty to act to ensure this type of information can be used to protect children. The report shows that in 1998 the assistant Garda commissioner had to seek the Attorney General's advice on whether it was the Garda or health boards who should inform employers or family members where rumour or innuendo exists. The response was that the principal avenue should be the health board. However, there is no legislative framework through which this can be done.
Other legislative changes recommended by the working group on vetting must be acted upon. The amendment of the Protections for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act 1998 and the Sex Offenders Act 2001 to include the reporting of abuse of vulnerable adults and offer a greater degree of protection to those with physical disabilities respectively should be brought forward now. The legislative changes recommended in the Ferns Report, namely, the creation of an offence of reckless endangerment with regard to the welfare of a child, should be prioritised. An audit of practices in all dioceses around the country should be commenced and concluded without delay.
The stay safe programme should be available in all schools. It is not acceptable that up to one in five primary schools do not offer this subject, which should be mandatory. If some parents wish to remove their children from this subject, so be it, but that must not mean that all other children in the school cannot benefit from the programme. The priority in this programme is the protection of children.
The Minister for Education and Science, in a reply to a question from me on this issue yesterday, said that she would strongly encourage all schools to use the stay safe programme. Unfortunately, it is clear that encouragement in the past has not been sufficient. If it is a priority for her Department, as she claims, surely she should make it mandatory on all schools to implement it. The programme is designed to give children the skills they need to recognise and resist abuse and teaches them how to tell an adult what is happening. Surely this must be available to every child in the country. The Minister needs to revisit this issue and demand its implementation in every school.
Fine Gael has already published detailed proposals on how information can be gathered and how our vetting procedures can be significantly improved. Vetting a prospective employee or volunteer through the system proposed by Fine Gael would show whether the prospective employee or volunteer had a criminal record and, if so, to what crime such a record related, any relevant non-conviction information, and whether a school principal, vice-principal or chairperson of a school board of management had made a recommendation to the central vetting unit that the prospective employee or volunteer should not be employed to work with children or vulnerable adults and the reasons for this recommendation. The same would apply to the HSE CEO, director of service or line manager and the chief executive officer or director of a charity, voluntary, sporting or youth organisation. Utilising this system a complete database of both criminal conviction information and soft information would exist for the most comprehensive vetting possible. We have outlined clear appeal procedures to ensure that natural justice is respected. An examination of the Ferns Report shows in horrifying detail the abuse suffered by so many children in that part of the country. Unfortunately there is no reason to suspect that this abuse was not replicated to a greater or lesser extent in other parts of the country.
If the Ferns Report is to mean anything it must result in immediate action and change. I call on the Minister of State present and the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to ensure the report is referred to a combined meeting of the Joint Committee on Health and Children and the Joint Committee on Education and Science. I would not like to see blame passed from one committee to the other. Joint hearings are imperative on this issue.