The HSE, which has statutory responsibility for child welfare and protection, has been conducting a national audit of all Catholic dioceses and religious orders. It expects to be in a position in the spring of 2012 to furnish a report to me on the diocesan element of this audit. I have stated that the need for follow-up action will be informed by the findings of the national audit. It is my intention to publish the HSE's report when I receive it.
The HSE's national director for children and family services, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, is also at my request engaging directly with the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church on a programme of action designed to ensure that the Catholic Church is responding properly and comprehensively to all child protection concerns, and that it has in place the necessary safeguarding structures and practices to fully protect children who come into contact with the church.
As Deputies will be aware, as a Government, we are committed to strengthening the arrangements for the reporting of concerns of abuse by putting the Children First national guidance on a statutory basis. The necessary legislation is being worked on by my Department as a priority. This legislation will not only bring forward statutory requirements on organisations and individuals to report, but I believe it will also support all of civil society in understanding what to do when they have concerns about a child. The roll-out of Children First will require all sectors and organisations working with children, including the faith sector, to put in place and demonstrate that they have robust safeguarding arrangements. I very much welcome the work undertaken to date by the national board to strengthen child protection practices in the Catholic Church in line with this objective.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
We must also recognise that child abuse takes many forms and occurs in many settings. Anyone with child abuse concerns or information should not hesitate to come forward and assist the HSE and An Garda Síochána in their respective roles in carrying out their work to protect children.
Reports such as those published over the last number of years by various State-commissioned inquiries in respect of the dioceses of Ferns, Cloyne, Dublin and the report of the Ryan commission serve to remind us all that the abuse of a child is a crime which is to be abhorred and that those involved must be subject to the full rigour of the law. I fully recognise that these inquiries have provided an important opportunity for victims to have their voices heard and for the dreadful crimes committed against them to be exposed publicly.
Due to the number of clerics against whom complaints and allegations were made, in certain instances for practical purposes it has been necessary to investigate a representative sample of cases. In Dublin a representative sample of 46 priests were investigated out of a total number of 102 falling within the commission's remit. In addition, other priests or religious against whom allegations were made may have fallen outside the time period covered by a statutory inquiry or, while operating in the relevant geographic area, may not have been working on behalf of the diocese concerned. Therefore, while the investigations conducted to date have shed light on the abuse perpetrated on many victims, for practical purposes they cannot relate the individual suffering of all of those who were abused, even in the three dioceses already examined.
I want to acknowledge those victims of clerical abuse who have shown great courage in coming forward to the authorities and thereby helped to expose a culture of secrecy that was endemic within some church dioceses and religious orders. I recognise this has been a very painful experience for many individuals who have had to battle to have their experiences heard and believed, and to have their suffering recognised. We must ensure that victims are supported in these circumstances. In this context, the HSE's national counselling service provides services to adult victims of past abuse and their families. The national counselling service is a professional, confidential counselling and psychotherapy service available free of charge in all regions of the Health Service Executive. Since 2000, the national counselling service has received over 20,000 referrals. The client group of the national counselling service includes adults who have experienced trauma and abuse in childhood, with priority given to adult survivors of institutional abuse in Ireland.
The HSE's audit will provide a comprehensive picture of current practice across all dioceses and will provide an overview of the handling of allegations up to November 2011. Taken with the work already completed, it will provide a fuller basis on which to determine the most appropriate next steps and will inform the Government's decisions in regard to this matter.