Seanad debates

Thursday, 17 November 2005

Ferns Report: Statements (Resumed).


12:00 pm

Photo of Brian Lenihan JnrBrian Lenihan Jnr (Minister of State, Department of Education and Science; Minister of State, Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Dublin West, Fianna Fail)

This has been a long debate. I was very interested in Senator Brian Hayes's excellent contribution to which I would make just one correction or addition. It struck me when he was discussing the morality of forgiveness that one of the most shocking aspects of this report is that the concept of reparation does not seem to be part of the concept of repentance and forgiveness. I always understood that one was not forgiven until one had made reparation to the victim of the wrong. Grave wrongs were committed, yet there seems to be a complete mental incapacity on the part of those with institutional command in the church to realise that reparation is a fundamental aspect of repentance. I note the report stated that many of the cases were handled through spiritual remedy. True spiritual remedy requires reparation to the victim. It is not enough to be sorry and to promise to make amends in the future. One must undo, so far as is in one's power, the damage the victim may have suffered. For me, the lack of a concept of reparation is another shocking element of the report and that is why I pick up on the Senator's excellent contribution.

Senator Ryan mentioned the Taoiseach's comments last week. Those comments were made in a particular context. I made it very clear at the launch of this report and in this House that the Government condemned in the strongest possible terms the abuse of authority by those who perpetrated these acts in the diocese of Ferns and those who failed to prevent and deal with those who perpetrated these acts. This was a gross dereliction of duty with regard to the protection of children. The Government was very clear that this conduct had to be condemned and there was no question of equivocating on that issue.

This debate was very interesting and I thank Senators for their good wishes to me on the work upon which I have embarked and for the many practical suggestions they made. I will try to take as many suggestions into account as I can on the practical issues raised. The question of listening to children was raised by Senators Brian Hayes and Glynn. This is an area where we have made some progress in the past decade. The goal in the national children's strategy, that we must listen to the voice of the child, has been substantiated in many different ways. The National Children's Office is working hard on this goal with different State agencies and we have established the Office of the Ombudsman for Children. The Children First guidelines seek to create the culture of mandatory reporting we all wish to see and a culture where children will confide a difficulty and will not feel inhibited about disclosing to others any difficulty in which they may be. It is important to broaden and deepen this and to devise structures to do so.

The question of cross-Border co-operation was raised by a number of speakers. This is an important issue because of the freedom of movement that obtains within the European Union, not just within this island. We must have a wider international approach to this issue and within these islands.

The terms of reference of the commission examining the Dublin archdiocese and the other dioceses in the State refer to the phrase "in the State". I have been asked what the position is with regard to dioceses in Northern Ireland. In accordance with the Good Friday Agreement, we cannot exercise jurisdiction there. Therefore, the terms of reference apply within the State. The arrangements which will be put in place by the HSE to monitor the adequacy and protection procedures in each diocese are being examined in conjunction with the Department. Issues concerning dioceses that straddle the Border will be considered in that context. An initial meeting between officials at the Department of Health and Children and officials from the Department of Health and Social Services and Public Safety in Northern Ireland took place on 8 November. Child protection was also discussed at the meeting between the Tánaiste and the UK Minister, Mr. Woodward, in Belfast on Tuesday last. Consideration of that issue is well under way.

Issues relating to the educational system were raised by many Senators. It is important to bear in mind that a legislative framework is now in place, which was not the case for a substantial duration of the period of time to which the Ferns Report relates. Many of the various matters described in the Ferns Report took place before we had a clear statutory framework in respect of primary education. The Education Act 1998 carefully delineates the respective positions of patrons, parents, students and the State.

Of course there is scope for debate about what the respective provinces of the various interests should be. Much of the debate in this House and the other House revolved around this issue. The Ferns Report did not make any recommendations on this specific issue, other than to say that great care must be taken in the selection of a chair of a board of management. The rules for boards of management of national schools, which are drawn up under legislation, are to be revised. The four-year terms of office of the current boards will expire on 30 November 2007. The departmental procedure relating to the drawing up of boards of management, their constitutions and their rules of procedures was drawn up following discussions between the Department and representatives of the relevant interests — parents, teachers and the relevant management bodies. I felt that the characterisation of the current primary education system during this debate belonged, to some extent, to a past that no longer exists. I do not claim that what exists now is not capable of improvement. There is statutory scope to do so within the framework prescribed in legislation. There are also some wider constitutional considerations in this regard.

I welcome the fact that we are debating this issue. As I said at the outset, I am glad the recommendations in the Ferns Report have received a broad welcome. I assure Senators that I do not intend merely to write letters to people to seek reassurance that the report's recommendations are being implemented. It is important to ensure that the recommendations are implemented on the ground and that the necessary structures which need to exist if we are to ensure that the civil authority has full access to relevant information are available. When people are arguing about the position of the church as school patron that was investigated in the Ferns Inquiry, they should bear in mind that other churches, denominations and bodies are involved in the management and patronage of schools. The State, in recognising that the church in question can be involved in such matters, is also entitled to insist on certain standards when church personnel are getting involved in such bodies. That is an unavoidable conclusion when one considers that we have made statutory provisions in that regard.

It is natural and understandable that Senators spoke at length about relations between the church and the State. I would like to give the House my views on the church — I was fascinated by the contributions of Senators on that subject — but I am not sure if it is my place to do so as part of this debate. The Government is establishing an interfaith dialogue with all of the religions and faith groups in this State. That is an important and welcome step because we need to have a dialogue between civil society and the various churches, especially in light of the decline of the more conventional denominations which have always existed in this jurisdiction and the arrival of a substantial number of new faiths and religions which were not represented in significant numbers among the population of this State in the past. I do not doubt that every state needs the co-operation of the various faith groups within its borders. Faith groups assume a large importance for people from migrant communities, as organisers of a basic sense of community for such people in this State. Such groups played a huge part in the formation of the consciousness of the people who have lived here for generations. The Government's decision to engage in dialogue with such groups was a good one. Many of the issues which have been raised in this debate can be further teased out in the course of that dialogue.

There was a sense during this debate that many Senators spoke not only as Members of the Oireachtas but also as lay members of the church or other Christian churches which have close ecumenical relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Such people spoke about their concern about the state of the church. Those who have internal authority in the church, which is respected under the constitution, would do well to heed the opinions of those who have voiced their thoughts as part of this debate. I do not doubt that the church was a very important institution in Irish life — it still is for many people. The voices of those who have expressed their views on various issues should be heeded.

The position of the State has to be very clear. The Members of the Oireachtas operate as legislators on behalf of the people. If we enter into arrangements in education and other areas, we must be satisfied that the child protection standards which apply in such institutions are unassailable. The Government is responsible for ensuring that all of the recommendations of the excellent Ferns Report are implemented. I am certainly determined to ensure they are, so that people can be assured that the terrible things we have read about in the Ferns Report and which we have to infer from the report will not happen again. I thank Senators for their contributions to this valuable debate. Many Senators mentioned the need to ensure that the Stay Safe programme is extended to every primary school. I will draw that issue to the attention of the Minister for Education and Science.


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