Dáil debates

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Scouting Ireland: Statements (Resumed)


8:40 pm

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Fiona O'Loughlin was in possession but is not present. As Chairman of the Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Farrell has ten minutes.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Business Committee for agreeing to schedule the resumption of this debate.

The issues arising from the scouting movement are emblematic of Irish society's failure of our children in the distant and not so distant past. Similar issues in many sectors of society have too often come to light. The victims in each case have real experiences and have had to suffer in silence for far too long the scars inflicted upon them by those experiences. Failing our children is not, and never can be, acceptable. The victims deserve to have their voices and stories heard, while those responsible must be held to account. The protection of our children is of paramount importance. The legacy issues which have come to light in respect of scouting in Ireland have undermined public confidence in the scouting movement.

The report into historic abuses is expected to be completed in February. It will be important in terms of ensuring attention is drawn to all aspects of historic abuse and sending the message that the culture of silence which permeated the scouting movement in respect of these abuses will no longer be tolerated. Without acknowledging the evidence of cover-ups, we cannot fully address the abuses that took place. It is a sad indictment of our society that anyone would contemplate trying to cover up abuses which occurred. Such actions are wholly disrespectful to the victims.

Representatives of Scouting Ireland who appeared last week before the Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, which I chair, provided an update regarding the files held by the Scouting Ireland safeguarding team. As of March of this year, Scouting Ireland held 995 files, including historic files from the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland and the Scouting Association of Ireland, as well as Scouting Ireland files from 2003 until January of this year. I acknowledge that many of the files are not related to cases of sexual abuse, but the number of files held is significant. Some 457 of the 995 files are classified as containing abuse and, of them, 401 relate to sexual abuse involving 247 alleged perpetrators. Those figures were provided to the committee following its meeting last week. I note that Scouting Ireland stated the number of files is not equivalent to the number of abuse cases. Scouting Ireland stated all abuse cases have been reported to the relevant authorities, but the sheer volume of files relating to sexual abuse is astounding and shameful. It is shameful that abuse, particularly sexual abuse, could happen in one case, let alone the number identified in the files held by the Scouting Ireland safeguarding team.

The cases relating to abuse and sexual abuse of children have called the future of the scouting movement in Ireland into question. Many parents are concerned about allowing their children to become part of the scouting movement. Action must be taken by Scouting Ireland to fully address these concerns. As a parent, this conversation has taken place within my family, as is the case for many families throughout the country. Scouting Ireland has recognised the damage caused by these revelations, as well as the more recent evidence of a cover-up outlined by its consultant, Mr. Ian Elliott, at a meeting of the committee some weeks ago. Another report consisting of a barrister's opinion regarding certain aspects of the scouting operation in recent years is due to be published and may provide an opportunity to restore public confidence in the organisation and how it is currently operating. However, once confidence is lost, it is not easily rebuilt. The challenges facing Scouting Ireland in this regard are significant and the concerns parents and guardians may hold are fully understandable. Scouting groups are well embedded in local communities and those involved are well known and trusted. However, the safeguarding issues may be a cause of concern parents and guardians worried without it being a reflection on the great work of the many people working at grassroots within the organisation.

There has been discussion on the establishment of a statutory inquiry into allegations of historic child sexual abuse within legacy scouting organisations. Such an investigation would be warranted. However, it is important that we allow the internal investigation within Scouting Ireland to be completed and made available to the Minister and the committee for consideration, as Scouting Ireland has committed. I hope that in February or March we will collectively be in a position to make a recommendation to the Department on whether the committee believes a statutory inquiry would be appropriate, notwithstanding the position of any political party or Independent. That is the appropriate course of action for the committee, given the significant work it has put into the issue. I wish to acknowledge the Minister picking up on my statement at last week's committee meeting that, after Tusla, Scouting Ireland has consumed the largest portion of the committee's time over the past year or so. That has been acknowledged by other committee members. I commend and appreciate their support in getting through the business of the committee relating to Scouting Ireland.

Nothing can right the wrongs suffered by victims of child sexual abuse, but we must do all we can to ensure accountability and that victims are listened to as well as heard. I am aware that those who contact the Scouting Ireland helpline are offered counselling.

Indeed, it has also been brought to my attention that individuals who were not subject to abuse at the hands of those in the scouting movement in the past have also been offered counselling and support from Scouting Ireland. That should be put into the public domain. We must ensure that victims know that supports are available to them and that they receive every assistance to help them address the trauma they experienced.

Our society has a shameful past when it comes to historical sexual abuse allegations, not just in legacy scouting organisations but also, unfortunately, across a number of sectors. In the past we have failed children and young people and today we must do everything we can to address that wrong. As legislators, we can never do anything to undo the wrongs of the past, but we must do all in our power to support victims. We cannot sweep those injustices under the rug. We must address them head on and work collectively in both Houses to ensure they are never repeated in the future.

I wish to record my appreciation of the willingness of not just the scouting movement to appear before us but also of the volunteers throughout the country who have been in touch with all Members, on multiple occasions in many instances. The hierarchy of Scouting Ireland has changed, but it has appeared before the committee on a number of occasions. I appreciate the structural changes it has made on foot of the recommendations and the Minister's announcement that the former Senator, Jillian van Turnhout, will return to assess Scouting Ireland in respect of the previous recommendations she made. That is warranted. Given the public awareness of this issue, it is something we must follow up.

It is a pity the Minister could not be present, but given the lateness of the hour and the fact that the debate was rescheduled, perhaps she thought it would be dealt with tomorrow. It is important that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs continues to press Scouting Ireland and Mr. Elliott to make this report on historical abuse cases available as quickly as possible so recommendations can flow from it in terms of what we can learn from it and what we can do to ensure such abuse does not recur in the future. If any supports are not being provided, we can identify them through that report. I hope it will be published well in advance of the next general election and certainly by the end of February, which is the commitment.

8:50 pm

Photo of Anne RabbitteAnne Rabbitte (Galway East, Fianna Fail)
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While I acknowledge that failures in previous decades were undoubtedly highlighted in RTÉ's "Scouts Dishonour" programme, the programme also outlined details of a case that involved an alleged abuser who was reported to the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s but was only removed from Scouting Ireland in 2018. That is not a historical failure but a current one. Scouting Ireland's full review conducted in August 2012 found that no volunteers active in the commissioning organisation in 2012 were found to be named in the legacy files. Based on the information aired on RTÉ, this is not the case. How is it that an alleged abuser was able to continue in his role with Scouting Ireland even though the accusations had been reported in previous decades? Was his file overlooked in 2012, and if so, why?

Scouting Ireland has provided a breakdown of 401 sexual abuse files it has in its possession. All of them have been reported to the appropriate authorities, which is reassuring. It is important to refer to Scouting Ireland's safeguarding file overview of 29 March 2019. Deputy Farrell, Chairman of the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, spoke about the 995 files. They were broken down as follows: 457 as abuse, 516 as not abuse, and ten other files. On the abuse classification, 401 were classified as sexual abuse, 13 were classified as emotional, five were classified as neglect, and 38 were classified as physical. The sexual abuse breakdown was 321 adult on youth, two were adult on adult, seven were unclassified, and 70 were youth on youth. Scouting Ireland talks continuously about the 321 from the breakdown. There are still another 70 to 80 files that we have not discussed. What is not clear to me - I put this question to Scouting Ireland last week and followed up with it today when its representatives were before the committee, but I am still awaiting a reply - is how many of the 401 files are historical files from the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland and the Scouting Association of Ireland and how many relate to Scouting Ireland files that have been created between its founding in 2003 and 2019. We must have clarity on this issue, but it does not appear to be forthcoming.

It is crucial that an independent, statutory inquiry is held into the child abuse allegations in the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland, the Scouting Association of Ireland and Scouting Ireland. Mr. Geoffrey Shannon, the former special rapporteur on child protection, has said any review must be independent, prompt, effective and transparent. While I do not doubt Ian Elliott's qualifications or professionalism in conducting this so-called learning review, it does not change the fact that Scouting Ireland previously employed Mr. Elliott as its interim safeguarding manager in 2018. The level of independence is questionable. It is clear there must be an independent inquiry to ensure wrongdoing is exposed and the structural failings in these organisations are documented. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, must immediately outline what her Department is doing to address these serious issues. I welcome her announcement last week in the Dáil regarding Jillian van Turnhout conducting another comprehensive review on what was recommended previously. Trust has been broken and we must remedy this urgently.

It is important to acknowledge the volunteers and scout troops throughout the country. They have been rocked by what has been happening for the past 18 months in Scouting Ireland. "Prime Time" programmes and Oireachtas debates do nothing to instil confidence in parents, volunteers and children. It is a fabulous organisation at grassroots level. It is supported and embedded in most communities in Ireland and I wish to see that continue. However, governance is required, and stability and reassurance must come down from the top.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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I echo the words of the contributors this evening, not least those of my colleague, Deputy Rabbitte, who has been vigilant on this matter. In particular, I echo her concluding comments. There is not a Deputy in the country who does not have multiple numbers of scout troops in their constituency. In my 20 years' experience as a public representative, it is an organisation that seeks the help of its public representatives least often and is the least likely group to impose on its Deputies and councillors. It does its work quietly, and that might have led to some of its problems at the start of this. Public representatives, unless they were deeply involved with the organisation as volunteers, tended not to know much about the structures of the organisation, and perhaps that left it vulnerable.

One of the most famous scouting centres in Ireland, Larch Hill, is in my constituency. It is an amazing facility that is run by great volunteers. Up to 40,000 children are under the care of Scouting Ireland across the island of Ireland, and we are thinking of them. We also think of the adults who volunteer their time and have done so for years. They give up a huge amount of time. On some occasions there are up to 5,000 scouts at Larch Hill. It is something the local population is not aware of in terms of traffic because it moves quietly and seamlessly. The volunteers do great work and equip young children with amazing skills. They are skills one would not necessarily acquire in sports. Sports do not always suit every child, nor does being a boy or girl scout suit every child, but those who opt for it learn amazing skills. That cannot be left unsaid.

I was in the Chamber last week when the Minister, Deputy Zappone, spoke on this. As Minister, she has responsibility, so her words carry a great deal of weight.

Her words were broadly positive and cautious in regard to the work that has been done. She rightly identified the fact there are many in this House who have been vigilant in respect of Scouting Ireland and its response, particularly its initial poor response, to the accusations and findings of that famous "RTÉ Investigates" programme. She also acknowledged the fact this type of public scrutiny, and the type of scrutiny that has gone on in this House, is appropriate. The reason people elect us to represent them in their communities is that we keep them safe, we bring in laws and scrutinise those organisations that ought to be scrutinised, and we do not let up on that and we remain vigilant in that regard, as Deputy Rabbitte has been vigilant.

The Minister made many positive comments in regard to the progress Scouting Ireland has made and which must be acknowledged. It is a very difficult time for the organisation and for the executives of the organisation in having to trawl through the many hundreds of files that have been identified in regard to the perpetrating of sexual abuse on young, innocent children. Their parents set them off on what ought to have been a journey of liberation and joy to enjoy with their friends and their peers, yet it was to turn so sour for them and then to be buried for so long. It is not the first time in our history this has happened, as the Minister said.

The Minister acknowledged there are Members on different sides of the House who, for reasons outlined by Deputy Rabbitte, are looking for a statutory inquiry, and the Minister also acknowledged she is open to consideration of that. With the greatest of respect to everybody who has been involved, and notwithstanding the reputations of those who have been involved, anybody knows that when an organisation, or even a tiny part of it, has come into disrepute, the recovery of that organisation cannot be contaminated in any way by any individual, or by the fact they may have operated in a previous capacity with that organisation. It is for that compelling reason and so the parents of this country, the parents in our constituencies, who are the greatest protectors of their children, can know that when this torrid story is finally complete, they will know that the steps that are being taken are being taken with the greatest efficacy and independence and without any contamination in terms of motive, although I am not ascribing any motive to anybody. The clear implication is that only such a statutory inquiry, carried out by somebody who has never had anything to do any of the organisations involved, is one that will satisfy the public. Let us remember the public purse also has to be protected in regard to Scouting Ireland.

In saying that, I also welcome that the Minister has taken the weighty decision, and it is a burdensome decision for any Minister, to continue funding for Scouting Ireland until April 2020. Therefore, it is a step-by-step recovery of the organisation's reputation and it is a tribute to those who are managing it and involved in it. There is just this last little step that has to be taken to ensure the organisation knows it has the absolute confidence of all of those stakeholders it engages with.

9:00 pm

Photo of Ciarán CannonCiarán Cannon (Galway East, Fine Gael)
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On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Zappone, I thank the Deputies for their contributions. The Minister regrets she is not available to be here in person. I take the opportunity to respond to a number of issues that have been raised, both last week by Deputy Rabbitte and again today by her and many others.

With regard to Ian Elliott's review of historical abuse, Mr. Elliott is a very highly respected expert in the area of child protection and safeguarding and he has a reputation for rigour and plain speaking. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, will give Mr. Elliott's analysis of historical abuse in legacy scouting organisations very careful consideration when it is shared with her in February next year. It will also be shared with the joint Oireachtas committee. If the joint Oireachtas committee comes to the conclusion that Mr. Elliott's report might itself benefit from being independently reviewed, then the Minister will, of course, consider this.

Regarding the call for a statutory inquiry, the Minister, Deputy Zappone, is giving very careful thought to the suggestion of establishing a statutory inquiry to investigate historical abuse within legacy scouting organisations and the Government will make a decision on the best way to proceed as soon as possible. It will be important to ensure that any inquiry is an appropriate tool which will lead to the outcomes that are envisaged and the Minister, Deputy Zappone, is very mindful of the remarks made by Mr. Justice Charleton in the third interim report of the disclosures tribunal to the effect that a tribunal is a final resort. Justice Charleton further stated: "when a public controversy arises, the first option should be always to ask whether there are structures in place within the administration of public life which can enable facts to be found with such degree of certainty as to enable satisfaction at a reasonable level that the truth has been discovered." We must also ensure that any inquiry does not interfere with or prejudice any other ongoing processes, such as civil or criminal proceedings.

The Minister was happy to hear in a recent written progress report from Scouting Ireland that it had implemented all of Ms Jillian van Turnhout's recommendations that were laid out in her report of June 2018. The Minister was pleased to report that Ms van Turnhout has agreed to meet again with Scouting Ireland in the new year to further discuss its implementation of her recommendations. As Scouting Ireland said yesterday, it is open to scrutiny and the Minister welcomes this openness and transparency as we move to improve confidence further in the organisation's governance and safeguarding.

It is important to have access to accurate figures when it comes to the numbers of case files held, the general nature of the content of these files and the further reporting that has taken place. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, notes that Scouting Ireland agreed to provide further clarity to the joint Oireachtas committee regarding this and she understands that it wrote last week to the Chairman and committee members to this end.

With regard to disciplinary proceedings following the independent barrister's report, the Minister is aware that the disciplinary proceedings that followed Lorna Lynch's independent report have taken some time to progress. While this can be frustrating, it is important to ensure that due process is followed and all parties have access to appropriate right of reply, as per the principles of natural justice. The Minister understands that a timeframe is difficult to be certain about but, from last week's committee discussion, it looks like we might expect a conclusion to these proceedings early in the new year.

In her statement on Thursday last week, Deputy Rabbitte raised the issue of the adult volunteer who was suspended in 2018, the same person raised in the "RTÉ Investigates" programme as having had complaints made against them in the 1980s and 1990s. The Minister has sought clarity from Scouting Ireland regarding this issue. Scouting Ireland has this week reported to her officials that it cannot provide any detail on this case as it could potentially prejudice the ongoing legal process and-or the ongoing investigations being conducted by Tusla or An Garda Síochána. Scouting Ireland has confirmed, however, that all disclosures made to the child protection and safeguarding personnel in Scouting Ireland were indeed reported to State agencies, as required, and any advice or recommendations received from these agencies relating to these reported disclosures were absolutely followed. Additionally, Scouting Ireland confirmed that all reportable cases identified in the 2012 review were confirmed as reported to the appropriate authorities.