Dáil debates

Tuesday, 27 March 2007

Adjournment Debate

Inquiry into Child Abuse.

11:00 am

Photo of Jan O'SullivanJan O'Sullivan (Limerick East, Labour)
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Like Deputy Deenihan, I am glad the Minister is in the Chamber to respond to the issue I have raised. The way the State is treating those abused in State primary schools is shameful. Anyone who saw the effect of the State's response to victims of abuse on the "Prime Time" programme last week will support a review of the issue. In some cases, the victims were concerned they would lose their houses due to legal costs. These were victims of abuse in State-run national schools by teachers who were paid for by the State, yet the Government has washed its hands of any responsibility.

The Government's position in this matter is inconsistent. On the one hand Fianna Fáil and the Progressive Democrats signed up to a deal with the religious communities under which they have picked up the majority of the cost of compensating victims who were sexually abused in institutions under the control of these orders. The cost to the taxpayer of this deal by the State — repeatedly defended by the Taoiseach and the Minister — will run to approximately €1.3 billion. On the other hand the State is denying all liability for the sexual abuse of children who were abused in State primary schools, by teachers whose salaries were paid by the State. Where is the consistency in these positions?

Last week, the Minister informed me on several occasions that as the State had the deepest pockets, it should take up the majority of costs in this regard. The State, however, has far deeper pockets than those of schools' boards of management which will be responsible for actions taken concerning child abuse in schools. Such abuse did not only occur in the past, but could well happen in the present. If a case of abuse occurs, as has occurred and as we saw portrayed in a recent "Prime Time" programme, against whom do the victims claim? If victims claim against members of a board of management, there is nothing for them to claim against as there are no assets. In effect, the State is saying people who were abused have no legal redress that is in any way meaningful. To make matters worse, the Department of Education and Science is now subjecting people who are contemplating legal action to a form of legal intimidation by warning that they will be pursued for the full legal costs of any unsuccessful legal action.

I refer in particular to Louise O'Keeffe, whose case I raised here and my party leader, Deputy Rabbitte, raised last year. She faces the prospect of losing her home as a result of being pursued by the State. I truly believe this marks a new low and makes a total nonsense of the Taoiseach's apology to victims of sexual abuse. Victims have suffered enough without being subjected to further trauma at the hands of the Department of Education and Science. What we have is a totally legalistic response to what is an enormous case of human suffering as a result of abuse. This response is totally inappropriate.

I call on the Government to review its decision to deny liability for the shocking sexual abuse of children in State primary schools. I also call on the Department of Education and Science and the Minister to stop sending threatening letters to those contemplating legal action against the State.

Photo of Mary HanafinMary Hanafin (Minister, Department of Education and Science; Dún Laoghaire, Fianna Fail)
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I wish to extend my sincere sympathy to those who were subjected to abuse in their schools, places where, as children, they should have felt safe and protected. Child abuse is devastating wherever it occurs and I know victims continue to carry a great deal of hurt and emotional pain. Abuse of a child is an abhorrent, inexcusable act. It brings suffering both to the victim and to his or her family.

There is no doubt that a terrible wrong was done to some young children in our primary schools in the past and criminal charges have been successfully brought against some perpetrators. However, the courts have found the State was not liable for this abuse.

The education system has long been structured on the basis that our schools are sponsored by religious and other patrons and run by local management on their behalf, in the form of the school manager or nowadays the board of management, in whom legal responsibility is vested. The Roman Catholic Church set up the vast majority of our primary schools and continues to act as their patron. Other patrons include those of Protestant, Jewish and Muslim faiths, and the patron bodies for Gaelscoileanna and Educate Together schools.

While the Department sets the curriculum and funds the running costs of schools, including teachers' salaries, it is the school management that recruits and employs teachers and other staff. They are assisted in this role by departmental guidelines and agreements reached with the education partners. Given the responsibility of local management for employing staff, they are also responsible for suspending or removing staff from their posts.

The courts have found in four separate cases that the Department of Education and Science was not liable for abuse that occurred in schools. I accept that the fact the State is not legally responsible for what happened does not make it any less awful for the people concerned. It just means the Department is not the correct party to bring a case against.

Our current system of school management has served us well. It means that communities have a strong role in how schools are run and that patrons can ensure their ethos is promoted in their schools. I know that such a locally-based system places a lot of responsibility on voluntary members of boards and I am anxious to ensure that members of boards are provided with the training and other supports they need to discharge their responsibilities. The Department has provided funding to the various school management bodies to enable them to provide training for their boards of management. Since last year, the Drumcondra Education Centre has had responsibility for offering training for boards of management to meet their identified needs. Areas covered by this training include legal issues, financial management, bullying and child protection.

While members of boards have a responsibility to ensure that procedures are in place within the school to keep their pupils safe and to investigate any allegations of abuse, they are not personally liable for claims against the school. The Education Act specifically protects individual members from being sued. It is important that there is local responsibility and vigilance in relation to child abuse but this does not mean volunteer members of boards being exposed to claims. I do not believe this issue will stop people from volunteering to participate on boards. The head of the Catholic Primary School Managers' Association has also publicly reassured board members that they are protected by insurance.

In regard to the civil proceedings which are being brought against the State, there is a responsibility to the taxpayer to defend cases where it is clear the State is not liable and where the courts have upheld this. However, when it comes to pursuing costs, naturally in cases involving child abuse, the State is anxious to balance the need to be responsible to the taxpayer with a strong desire to treat victims in a humane and sensitive manner.

As the House will be aware, the State Claims Agency is the body appointed by the Government to manage civil proceedings brought against the State, including those involving child abuse. The Department of Education and Science has specifically asked the agency to approach the issue of costs in such cases in a measured and understanding way. There is certainly no question of victims being forced to sell their family home. At the same time, however, it is important that solicitors representing victims are made aware of recent court judgments and the need to avoid incurring unnecessary legal costs in pursuing cases where the State is not liable. The purpose of the letters sent to solicitors by the Chief State Solicitor's office last year was to make them aware of the legal situation before their clients enter into a costly and stressful process arguing a case against the wrong party.

While the courts have found the State was not liable for cases of child abuse in schools, nonetheless the Government is determined to ensure that all schools have policies and procedures in place to protect their pupils. Over the past number years, a range of measures have been put in place to ensure this. The Department has provided a range of supports and guidance to schools in the implementation of child protection policy. Child protection guidelines and procedures, based on Children First, the Department of Health and Children's national guidelines, have been issued to all primary and post-primary schools. These guidelines make clear the reporting and investigation mechanisms to be followed in cases of suspected child abuse wherever they occur, and the lead role of the Health Service Executive in dealing with such cases. The Department has provided an extensive in-service training programme for school principals and teachers to assist them in dealing with child protection issues and in implementing these guidelines.

Procedures have also been introduced, based on Children First for departmental staff to assist them in dealing with any allegations or complaints of abuse which are made known to them. Under these procedures, the existence of allegations of abuse is notified directly to the HSE and all allegations of abuse received in the Department are treated with the utmost seriousness.

A range of other initiatives have been put in place, including the stay safe programme, social, personal and health education and Internet safety guidelines, all with a view to educating students in relation to issues of personal health, well being and safety.

In addition, from the beginning of the 2006-07 academic year, all new teachers and other ancillary staff who have unsupervised access to children are subject to Garda vetting. Vetting will be broadened to include all 55,000 serving teachers over the next few years.

The Government has also introduced strong criminal measures to ensure persons found guilty of child abuse are firmly dealt with. In addition, proposals have been published for a referendum to enable further legislation to be enacted to strengthen child welfare and protection supports.