Dáil debates

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Topical Issue Debate

Vatican Report on Child Abuse

4:00 pm

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Ceann Comhairle for ensuring this issue would be discussed today. It is entirely appropriate that, following on from the publication yesterday of the Vatican's report into the Catholic Church, the issue would get time on the floor of the Dáil. The publication of this report again brings to the fore the issue and the legacy in our country of child abuse in the relatively recent past.

The Vatican report does not add any new insight, as such, or bring much new to the table in regard to the perspective on child protection. It is, by and large, a report in regard to the future of the Catholic Church and how it is looking to rebuild in the country. The fact it does not bring new light from the perspective of the Vatican will be a source of disappointment to many of the victims of crimes of child abuse over the years. We can never apologise enough or be remorseful enough in regard to those people, and the church can never be remorseful enough to its victims of child abuse in the past.

Despite the fact the report does not bring new information to the table, it very much brings to the fore once again the issue of past child abuse and, in particular, how the State is dealing with child protection today. The Vatican report backs the work of its own National Board for Safeguarding Children and highlights the fact it is satisfied that all reports of child abuse have been reported to the civil authorities in the recent past. However, the responsibility for protecting children lies first and foremost with the State. The publication of the Vatican's report yesterday puts this once again on the agenda.

In that regard, I would like the Minster to update the Dáil on certain issues and also to take up the issue of how we, as a country, are dealing with some of the most important issues of the present. Will the Minister indicate when the report of the Health Service Executive's child protection audit of the Catholic Church will be published? When will the heads of the Bill to implement the Children First guidelines be brought before the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children? Will the Minister clarify when the referendum on children's rights will take place? Will she also clarify how many of the 62 social workers who were to be recruited last year are in post? The recruitment of these additional staff was initiated to ensure the remaining gaps in the child protection system would be filled. Unfortunately, there was too much foot dragging and lethargy in regard to the appointments. Moreover, the Minister announced on the floor of the Dáil during a recent Question Time that social workers taking early retirement would not automatically be replaced. That is a regrettable decision which flies in the face of the Government's stated intention to make progress in this important area.

In addressing the report of the Vatican, I ask the Minister to update Members on the action being taken by the Government in respect of the important issues to which I referred.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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I noted the publication yesterday of the Summary of the Findings of the Apostolic Visitation in Ireland. Like the Deputy, I have had some time to consider the report and its implications as they relate to child protection. There are several important points for us, as a Government and as legislators, to note in respect of the ongoing protection of children in this State. I am extremely aware of the ongoing pain and trauma for victims of abuse. The report states that innocent young people were abused by clerics and religious to whose care they were entrusted, while those who should have exercised vigilance often failed to do so effectively, not least various bishops and religious superiors. This wrong can never be put right. However, placing the protection of children above all other considerations is the most important demonstration step that can be taken.

I endorse the importance of what is in the report in regard to child protection. While much of the report is concerned with the renewal of the Catholic Church, there are important points to note in regard to child protection. In particular, I am pleased to note that the church intends to do further work with victims of sexual abuse. I have no doubt there is scope for such further work. The church can find new ways of engaging so that victims feel heard and have their issues dealt with. I also welcome the commitment in the report to support the work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, to undertake an audit of church personnel files, to ensure the prompt referral of complaints to the civil authorities and to introduce a new programme of training in seminaries on child protection issues. I look forward to hearing how the church intends to progress these issues.

The lessons of the past show us clearly that we can never assume that children are being protected. As such, it is essential that there be robust safeguarding arrangements within all organisations working with children, backed up by a strong statutory requirement to report concerns. From the State's perspective, we must ensure there is no doubt as to the responsibilities of every organisation and individual to protect children and report concerns regarding abuse. To that end, my Department is finalising legislation to place the Children First national guidelines on a statutory footing, legislation which was first promised in 1998. Heads of a Bill for this purpose are being finalised in association with the Office of the Attorney General and will be submitted shortly to the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children. The Government is determined that the law will unambiguously demand that the protection of children is the paramount concern for all organisations engaged with young people. The Children First guidance will apply to all church organisations, voluntary organisations and sporting and cultural organisations which have direct contact with children.

The Catholic Church must continue to discharge its safeguarding responsibilities, particularly through the important work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church. I am pleased to note the visitation report's finding that the norms of the church's Safeguarding Children child protection policy document are being followed. The National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church is engaged in the audit of the implementation of the Safeguarding Children guidelines within the Catholic Church. I strongly welcome the Vatican's endorsement of the work being undertaken by the board and the recommendation that this audit process be conducted in a prompt manner.

I also note the report's recommendation that the board must be adequately resourced and funded to do its work. That resourcing is a matter for the Catholic Church and I welcome the clarity the report has given on the essential need for the church in Ireland both to support and resource the board and to assist and co-operate with it fully in its important work. We have already received the board's audits of the six dioceses. This important visitation for the Catholic Church in Ireland should give a strong impetus to the work of auditing the remaining dioceses and the completion of the Health Service Executive's audit on child protection.

The executive, which has statutory responsibility for child welfare and protection, has conducted an audit into Catholic Church child protection policies and procedures and will present its report to me shortly. I had hoped to receive the report this month, but there has been a request for further time on the part of the church and the HSE due to the volume of work involved. I am happy to allow that time to ensure every opportunity to co-operate is afforded. I expect the finalised report to be delivered to me at the beginning of June. The chief executive officer of the National Board for Safeguarding Children, Mr. Ian Elliott, is working closely with the HSE's national director for children and family services, Mr. Gordon Jeyes, on church child protection matters.

I note the assurances of the archbishops of the visited archdioceses that all newly discovered cases of abuse are promptly brought before the civil authorities. This is in line with the Children First national child protection guidance, which applies to all organisations working with children in Ireland, including religious organisations. There is also an obligation under the Children First guidance to bring knowledge of previous abuse to the attention of the relevant authorities where there has been a failure to do so in the past. I thank the Deputy for raising this issue today and look forward to his contribution on the proposed legislation at the committee.

Photo of Charlie McConalogueCharlie McConalogue (Donegal North East, Fianna Fail)
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The Minister's indication that the heads of the Bill to implement the Children First guidelines are expected to come before the Oireachtas committee in the coming weeks is welcome. Unfortunately, on the other three issues I raised - the appointment of additional social workers, the referendum on children's rights and the HSE's audit of the church dioceses - we have thus far seen only procrastination, confusion and indecision. The Minister and her party promised there would be a referendum on children's rights within the Government's first year in office, with an initial undertaking to hold it at the same time as the presidential election. That did not happen. On 16 February 2012 the Minister embarked on a public relations push and announced it would take place this year. However, last week in this Chamber the Taoiseach would not stand by that commitment and instead said there was no timeframe for the holding of a referendum. Yet the Minister was telling the media earlier today that it will take place this year. There is a great deal of indecision and confusion surrounding the matter.

It was announced in December 2010 that the HSE's national child protection audit would be published in the spring of 2011. Following her appointment to office, the Minister announced in July last year that it would be published in September. When I questioned her in early December about the lack of progress, she said it would be published in the spring. Today she is saying it will be done in May or June. The Minister will forgive me if I do not hold my breath in anticipation of a referendum in 2012 or the publication of the HSE audit in May or early June.

I ask the Minister to bring clarity to the matters I have raised. The State must take its responsibilities seriously. It is not acceptable for the Government to continue pushing back dates unnecessarily and offering timelines to which it does not adhere.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The Children First legislation was first promised by the Deputy's own party in 1998 but was not delivered.

Photo of Ruairi QuinnRuairi Quinn (Minister, Department of Education and Skills; Dublin South East, Labour)
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Fourteen years ago.

Photo of Frances FitzgeraldFrances Fitzgerald (Minister, Department of Children; Dublin Mid West, Fine Gael)
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The referendum was first promised seven years ago and was not delivered. The commitment of the Government is to have a stand-alone children's referendum. There has been a Government decision to that effect and it is intended to hold such a referendum this year. As for the precise timing, the Government clearly has a decision to take in respect of a number of referendums. It is in this context that the decision on the precise timing will be taken. As I have explained with regard to the HSE audit, there was a request from the HSE and the church for further time due to the volume of material that was returned in the course of the audit. I agreed to the request from both bodies that this audit be published in June. I gave them the additional time because I considered that to be the best thing to do in the interest of co-operation and of getting a quality report that was able to deal with all of the material and provide an up-to-date position. I understand the intention was for the previous Government to publish it in October 2010. As it was not published then, it is better to wait and have an up-to-date report, which will be available in June.