Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 November 2005

Ferns Report: Statements (Resumed).


12:00 pm

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)

I have been very impressed by this debate in the House over the past two weeks. I am also impressed that the Minister of State has taken the time to be present throughout the debate for which I thank him. Following publication of the report, some excellent contributions have been made. Before discussing the church, I wish to say that the State has an obligation to apologise, as the Taoiseach did when the scale of the problem first emerged. This is not just an issue for the church. It is an issue of failure on the part of the State and its agencies including the Department of Education and Science, the Garda, the health boards and the Oireachtas over many years to open our eyes to the scale of child sexual abuse in this country. We in the Oireachtas have a responsibility to apologise to the victims and use this opportunity to restate that.

It is very important that the inquiry undertaken by Mr. Justice Murphy and his team in the past two years put in place a structure whereby people wanting to keep their anonymity could choose to tell their stories. We should not forget that many victims who were traumatised 30 or 40 years ago are now fathers and mothers, and have their own lives. However difficult it has been for them, they have moved on. The report was structured in such a way that stories could be told anonymously without people compromising their families. We need to respect that people have moved on. The scale of this problem goes back to the 1960s.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to Colm O'Gorman, who through the programme, "Suing the Pope", had the courage to come forward as a representative of victims, and to the One in Four group. We also owe a debt of gratitude to Marie Collins from Firhouse. I know her very well and she is one of the most articulate and compassionate people I have come across despite the horrendous experience she had in Our Lady's Hospital for Sick Children, Crumlin, some years ago. We are blessed to have people with the courage to stand up so that politicians and everyone else could take a position on the matter. I understand that the One in Four group has seen a substantial increase in visitors to its website and in those seeking counselling services following publication of the report. Our first responsibility must be to ensure it has adequate financial resources to deal with people who come forward looking for help with psychotherapy etc.

The House should put on record its debt of gratitude to Bishop Eamonn Walsh who since his appointment as apostolic administrator to the diocese of Ferns has dealt with the issue in an exemplary way. In his pronouncements one can feel the genuine humility and sorrow of ordinary Catholics throughout the country. As Senator Hanafin said, the key issue is to set out exactly how we as a Legislature will deal with this issue in the future to ensure that first and foremost we create an environment where children can come forward and their views will be taken with a degree of importance that was not previously the case. The most important recommendation of the report was that cultural change must come about so that children's views are taken seriously. We must also set out a very clear radical programme of reform of our legislation and reform of best practice in the various State agencies and Departments that deal with the issue, a matter to which I will return shortly.

I agree with Senator Hanafin that it is not the time for anyone to engage in opportunistic debate. It does nothing for any of the victims of child sexual abuse in Ferns or any other part of the country for some politicians to feel they have a free rein to bring us back to a debate that took place in 1980s, most of which was not very useful. People will see through that kind of nonsense which does nothing for the victims. As a Legislature, we must on a cross-party basis deal with the issues and not deal with a debate that took place 25 years ago. People love to hark back on that debate because they get enormous publicity as a result. It is not fair to the importance of the report and to the story of victims that people should act in such a way as they did in the other place. This does nothing to advance the cause of child protection and the public can see through it.

We must deal with this issue over a period and through a number of Departments. I would like the Minister of State to outline how we will implement the recommendations. I understand that health care workers need legislative power to intervene. We have come across many cases in the past where a degree of publicity follows an intervention and people question the right of the health board, now the HSE, to intervene. We need to err on the side of the child and to use the legislation not as a stick to beat parents but as a precautionary device to help children.

The Garda has a particular role and responsibility here. The Garda is not attuned to this problem and its prevalence in society. The Garda will need to acquire expertise particularly through recruitment and training. At an operational level it needs to attune the force to the scale of the problem and get the kind of professional help from the outside to allow it to deal with such cases. The report outlines the scandalous way complaints were handled by some members of the force in the Ferns diocese.

We need to consider mandatory reporting. Up to now I took the position of the Minister of State in that I was not in favour of the introduction of mandatory reporting. Having read the report I have reconsidered the issue. We had a debate on the matter approximately 18 months ago and we need a further debate. The issue needs to be reconsidered to see whether it can be used as another defence for the protection and safety of children.

Two weeks ago we discussed the Stay Safe programme in the House. I understand that not every school offers this programme, which is an issue. It is basic common sense that children at a relatively young age would be informed of what is and is not appropriate behaviour. Much of this comes at home from fathers and mothers. However, sometimes that level of knowledge is best imparted in a classroom setting when children are with their peers. In discussions with the Department of Education and Science, the Minister of State should try to push this programme through, as it is very important. While parents have the right to remove their children from such classes, I question whether they do so. I question it because peers have a much greater influence in terms of the imparting of knowledge than any knowledge that can be honed at home. I urge the Government to examine this issue again.

The Fine Gael Party has considered the issue of the register of persons. When will the Government legislate for this? We must ensure we have a secure list in place of the names of people unfit to work with children.


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