Thursday, November 26, 2009

Response to Murphy Report

Today I would like to welcome the publication of the Commission of Investigation’s Report into the handling of allegations of child sexual abuse against priests operating in or under the aegis of the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin.

It is worthy of note that it is almost 14 years since I first moved information into the public domain to the effect that the Catholic Church in Dublin had a practice of moving priests with a record of child sexual abuse into other parishes in the Diocese, a practice which clearly put other children at great risk. It is almost 11 years since I first wrote to then Taoiseach Ahern requesting an inquiry into this practice and only now is the State ready to publish a report detailing how such allegations of child sexual abuse by priests were handled. This inability to respond more efficiently does not say much for the State’s attitude to the protection, welfare and rights of children. Those who turn a blind eye to these offences are as much a part of the problem as those who actually commit them. Looking the other way causes more children to be sexually abused.

With regard to the report itself I would like to start by thanking Judge Yvonne Murphy and her team for their very hard work in conducting this investigation and producing this report.

No matter how much I may have already known or anticipated I was nonetheless shocked by the content of this report. This report details consistent practices by the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin to cover up child sexual abuse and cause children to be sexually abused by priests that should never have been allowed to continue in ministry.

Many times in the past the Archdiocese has claimed that such priests were only reappointed following medical advice to the effect that it was safe to do so. Repeatedly in recent years the Catholic Church has claimed that it felt very let down by that medical advice.

The truth, as spelled out in this report, shows that in many cases the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin misled the medical professionals it referred offending priests to and even when it received recommendations to send priests for residential rehabilitation or remove them from having access to children this medical advice was ignored.

Never again should the Catholic Church in Ireland attempt to blame others for its own decisions to reassign priests who were clearly a danger to children. Furthermore anyone who believes that what has been revealed in Ferns and Dublin has not happened elsewhere in the country is not living in reality, so vigilance at all times with an institution that has been so reckless with the welfare of children in the past is vital.

As a society we need to respond to the publication of this shocking report by working harder to raise standards of child protection. These are the measures that I believe are needed:

(It should be acknowledged that since the publication of the Ferns Report an offence of an act of reckless endangerment to children was incorporated into the Criminal Justice Bill, so much of the behaviour revealed in the Dublin Report would today attract criminal prosecution.)

The 99 point plan announced by Minister Barry Andrews in July of this year needs to be implemented in full and on time. The time frame given for some of the changes to be made go as far as December 2011 which is strangely generous and implementation must be monitored by all to ensure that the agenda doesn’t slip once media attention is focused elsewhere. I would have preferred if non compliance with Children First was a criminal offence instead of a breach of contract but in time we will see if the new arrangements are strong enough. There is also no mention of a duty to report by any member of the public who may have concerns or even knowledge about physical or sexual abuse of a child or child neglect. In short the Children First guidelines need to be put on a statutory basis and should include a statutory responsibility on every person to report knowledge, suspicion or reasonable grounds for concern of abuse or neglect of a child.

The rights of children have to be enshrined in the constitution so that their rights as individuals have its protection and it is time the government presented the wording and a date for that referendum. It should specifically reflect the following:

The inclusion of an express reference to the rights of children, and to the special and vulnerable nature of childhood, asserting that all children must be treated equally.

The right to have their voices heard and to be represented in any proceedings affecting their welfare.

The right to be protected from abuse and exploitation.

The right to appropriate alternative care outside the family where needed. Also included should be obligations on the State:

To supply that care, but always with due regard to the rights and welfare of the child.

To promote their welfare fairly.

To safeguard with special care the interests of children who are disadvantaged by economic, social or cultural exclusion, or by disability, and to support parents as far as practicable who cannot meet their children’s needs unaided.

The monitoring and support of convicted sex offenders in Ireland is almost non-existent. Some changes have been made to the current system but much more is needed:

The fact of being on the sex offenders register should involve more stringent signing on procedures with regular personal visits to Garda stations by released offenders.

Those responsible for monitoring sex offenders should make regular unannounced visits to the homes of people on the sex offenders register.

Parents and Guardians should be able to register a concern about an individual who they may be concerned about and in some cases it should be possible for them to be told if such an individual is a registered sex offender or not. This measure is already at an expanded pilot level in the UK.

Monitoring of sex offenders should include polygraph testing, electronic tagging, curfews and certain restrictions, for example an offender who only ever abuses children after he/she has taken alcohol should have it as a condition of their release that they don’t consume alcohol.

It is not appropriate to offer shorter sentences to offenders who participate in treatment programmes in prison – those who don’t participate voluntarily should be considered very high risk on release and should be monitored accordingly.

Vetting of adults working with children – there is need for Garda Vetting of people working with children to be extended to facilitate the passing on of soft information, this could possibly be done by amending the Protection for Persons Reporting Child Abuse Act, 1998.

In conclusion this Report is a shocking indictment on the Catholic Church in Dublin. Its publication may bring closure for some victims, it may also serve as the only justice some victims ever receive, but its publication if not acted upon will have been a wasted opportunity to raise standards of child protection in this country.

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