Thursday, 22 October 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Minister for being here this morning.
It is never an easy topic to talk about and I am aware that the Minister is probably well briefed on the issue that I am talking about this morning.
I will begin by saying that when I speak this morning to the subject, I am speaking about historic abuse in terms of St. John Ambulance. I am not speaking to any particular cases that are currently ongoing, any particular civil case or any other prosecution.A Tusla report, however, has indicated that the allegations are well founded, and an independent appeals panel upheld the findings of the report. The acknowledgement of the allegations of historical child abuse and rape within St. John Ambulance makes me very concerned that, over the decades, more people may have been sexually abused than those who have come forward or who are proceeding with a civil case against a perpetrator.
I have a request to make of the Department of Children and Youth Affairs. Before bringing the Minister in here today, we did our work to see who would be responsible for a scoping exercise. We looked at the Department of Justice and Equality. In the past, there was a reference to the Charities Regulator. We are quite confident that the Department of Children and Youth Affairs is responsible for holding a scoping inquiry given that it was child sexual abuse in St. John Ambulance over the last 30 to 40 years, which is the length of the career of an individual who has worked in the organisation. It is safe to assume there are more cases than the number currently known about. Usually with these matters, we are only ever scratching the surface in terms of knowing how many have been abused. We owe it to all the young people who signed up in good faith and wanted to volunteer with St. John Ambulance to uncover what was done to them. I refer not only to our being able to support victims of sexual abuse within St. John Ambulance but also to ensuring that we reach a point where we can hold people to account for the abuse the young teenagers endured.
Since allegations of the kind in question have come to light, St. John Ambulance has implemented child protection measures. I have been told there was some resistance in the beginning to measures such as Garda vetting. All these issues have been sorted but, regardless of child protection measures within an organisation, the law still applies to any organisation in which there is child sexual abuse. The law should protect individuals, including young people, who have been victims of child sexual abuse.
I hope the Minister can determine the capacity of his Department to carry out a scoping inquiry so we can create the necessary space, facilitate a conversation and encourage others who are affected by abuse carried out within St. John Ambulance while they volunteered there as teenagers. I hope we can work together to establish an inquiry.
I thank the Senator for raising this matter, which is incredibly important and sensitive. I am aware of the specific issue she alluded to, and I have been in correspondence with an individual in that regard. As the Senator knows, our country has in the past failed to protect its children, and that failure weighs heavily on all of us. Abuse is not consigned to the past, though, and it is my role, in collaboration with Tusla and An Garda Síochána, to protect children where there is a clear existing threat. Tusla's role in considering historical abuse allegations is to try to establish if the person against whom an allegation has been made could currently pose a risk to children. The role of An Garda Síochána is to investigate a crime and, where appropriate, instigate a prosecution.
Let me refer to Tusla's role in protection first. The Children First Act 2015 commenced in December 2017 and it defines relevant organisations and mandated persons and what is required of them. Relevant organisations must have a child safeguarding statement. The following is the definition of some of the categories of relevant organisations covered under the 2015 Act:
1. Any work or activity which is carried out by a person, a necessary and regular part of which consists mainly of the person having access to, or contact with, children in—
4. Any work or activity which consists of treatment (including assessment which may lead to treatment), therapy or counselling provided to a child.
5. Any work or activity which consists of the provision of— (a) educational, research, training, cultural, recreational, leisure, social or physical activities to children,
Both of these definitions apply to St. John Ambulance. I commend the bravery and fortitude of the individuals who have come forward and shared their experiences that led to correspondence with my Department. I can only imagine how recounting their stories and reliving that difficult time in their lives must be incredibly traumatic for them. It was that bravery that led to Tusla's child safeguarding statement compliance unit engaging with St. John Ambulance Ireland. The unit has reviewed the child safeguarding statement of St. John Ambulance and is satisfied that it meets current criteria. Safeguarding statements are an important tool to clarify the potential risks to children in any organisation, and to inform the volunteers, staff and service users of the actions taken to mitigate those risks.
In order to inform my response to the Senator's specific request, I am liaising with the Departments of Justice and Equality and of Health to see if they have knowledge of any further pertinent information. Following concerns that had previously been made known to my Department, Tusla conducted a review in the region in question of available records and indicated it did not find any concerns. Today, my Department has requested Tusla to perform a similar review of St. John Ambulance in all regions of the country. This review will cover cases that may relate to the matter and any retrospective cases that have come to the attention of Tusla. On foot of findings from this review and the engagement with the Departments of Health and of Justice and Equality, all due consideration will be given to the Senator's request.
Where abuse happened in the past, Tusla and An Garda Síochána can only rely on and make assessments on the information available. I strongly urge anyone who at any time has information related to the endangerment or abuse of children, now or in the past, to immediately bring it to the attention of An Garda Síochána and Tusla. It can be extremely difficult to take such action but I say to anyone who has been the victim of abuse that they are not alone. I fully appreciate that while instances may be historic and may be in the past, the impact is felt every day by these individuals.
I thank the Senator for bringing this matter to my attention. I have outlined steps the Department is taking. We will continue to work on this.
I appreciate the Minister's response. It is comforting to know that conversations are happening in the background on how we can move forward and pursue this, even in terms of answering my request about an inquiry. I would like to put on the record why I mentioned a scoping inquiry. I looked at the Scally report, which I know related to CervicalCheck and which is a different issue, and it was a really good way to take a transparent and victim-led approach to reporting. As the Minister said, the incident is historical but the effects are lifelong. Over the past few months, in looking at how we can move forward in terms of an inquiry, I have had many conversations. This was much wider than the people who have been most impacted, such as those who contacted the Minister. It would seem abuse within St. John Ambulance was tolerated at the highest level of that organisation. Therefore, even though a particular individual is not there any more, we need to look at the structures which supported and facilitated that individual for such a long period of time. According to one account, which was given to me, it was an open secret. It was like everybody knew, but nobody knew. That was a very strong statement to hear from somebody. That is why, even with the current risk being mitigated with the particular individual being gone, we need to look at why it was allowed persist for so many generations and at how many others have, I am sure, been impacted.
I spent some time speaking about what Tusla is doing to mitigate current risk because that is Tusla's primary role. I am not taking away from anything the Senator said but that is the job of Tusla, namely, to deal with current risk.The role of dealing with historic abuse - "past abuse" is probably a better term in many ways - lies with An Garda Síochána through prosecution.
We are aware of the concerns that have been raised. As to the degree of significance the Senator outlined, I had not heard that expression regarding prevalence before. We are taking steps. We are not just examining the region where the initial issue was flagged and the victim, whom we both have been in contact with, was from. Rather, we are examining the organisation nationally. That will help us to establish whether there are more causes for concern and further action.
I am happy to continue engaging with the Senator. My colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, has done a great deal of work on this matter.