A letter sent to Scouting Ireland flagging concerns about child safety was never meant to be made public, a committee has heard.
Tusla, the Child and Family Agency sent the letter in February raising serious concerns over child protection.
Minister for Children Katharine Zappone published the letter, describing the contents as “serious”, and said she had been consulting the chief social worker and other senior officials in her department.
Tusla representatives were invited to the Committee on Children and Youth Affairs on Wednesday.
Fine Gael’s Alan Farrell, chairman of the committee, asked them if the letter was intended to be published as there were concerns that individuals may have been identifiable in the examples provided.
“The letter sent to Scouting Ireland was addressed to them, and we expected they would’ve responded to Tusla, it was not our intention that the letter would make its way into the public domain,” said Jim Gibson, chief operations officer of Tusla.
“The detail in the letter was especially for Scouting Ireland’s benefit, the matters in the cases were about the seriousness of the concerns of those involved.”
Labour’s Sean Sherlock pressed the officials on whether they had considered the effect such a letter would have on volunteers with Scouting Ireland.
“The explosive line in the letter is to do with the overnight stays. Did Tusla have any sense of the hurt and shock that they would cause when that letter went into the public domain?” he asked.
“In respect of the thousands of volunteers and parents who went through vetting and children protection training, did you have sense of the magnitude of that statement? That could’ve potentially shut down the organisation.
“Do you feel any regret about your statement in your letter on 18 February?”
The letter that was sent by Tusla was sent to Scouting Ireland, it wasn't to the public
Tusla chief executive Pat Smyth acknowledged the work of volunteers but said the agency expected a response from Scouting Ireland, not for the letter to go public.
“We need to ensure the best standards are met across all organisations, to ensure all children are protected as best we can,” he said.
“Ultimately the response within the letter was about identifying practice issues, and improving those issues where children are involved.
“The letter that was sent by Tusla was sent to Scouting Ireland, it wasn’t to the public.”
He added that he did not ask the minister to publish the letter or read it in the Dail, which caused considerable media attention and public debate.
However, Mr Gibson admitted he was aware that it would be made public after the minister requested additional correspondence.
Senator Joan Freeman said that although the letter was serious and critical, the mood among Tusla was different now.
“We are duty-bound to lay out concerns, our tone needs to lay out key issues that arise, but we want to assist Scouting Ireland to be compliant and now we’re in a good space with them,” Mr Gibson added.
“There are differences of opinions but we’ve set out an action plan and we are on the right road. It demonstrates a collaborative approach and I am satisfied as COO that we will resolve any issues.”
Tusla also said it was “very surprised” that Scouting Ireland was shocked to get the letter.
As chair of Scouting Ireland, I would like to confirm Scouting Ireland is a safe organisation
Last week, Scouting Ireland agreed to an action plan with the child and family agency, including hiring a safeguarding manager, reviewing its child safeguarding statement and supporting the implementation of the statement throughout the organisation in co-operation with Tusla.
It has also agreed to review risk assessment of overnight trips, and an independent evaluation of its helpline.
Adrian Tennant, chairman of Scouting Ireland’s board of directors, said it is a safe organisation, and the letter “shocked them to the core”.
“I read this letter as a parent to three daughters, who all enjoy scouting, and the content of the letter concerned me greatly,” he said.
“Many of the issues raised in the letter had not been brought to our attention previously.
“We have had a productive meeting with Tusla to understand their concerns.
“Scouting Ireland has worked hard at developing the relationship with Minister Zappone, and we are pleased to say we will submit a final progress report later this month.
“As chair of Scouting Ireland, I would like to confirm Scouting Ireland is a safe organisation.”
The letter came amid a major investigation into past cases of alleged child sex abuse in Scouting Ireland.
Representatives have been meeting the Garda and Tusla officials regarding allegations.
An internal review has so far identified 313 alleged victims and 237 alleged abusers.
Scouting Ireland hailed its own team of professional staff who operate a helpline to victims of historical sexual abuse.
“At the time of this meeting, the most recent case that has come to our attention is 1998,” Mr Tennant added.
Earlier: Tusla receives 21 allegations of child abuse from Scouting Ireland
Tusla received 21 allegations of child abuse from Scouting Ireland last year.
The child and family agency is appearing before an Oireachtas Committee, following concerns about the safety of children at the organisation.
Scouting Ireland is expected to appear later this afternoon to allow both parties to share their progress on safeguarding policies.
Service Director with Tusla, Linda Creamer, outlines what stage the cases are currently at.
"At the moment, Tusla has six cases still opened. Many of the other cases are closed - [cases concerning] inappropriate behaviour.
"The six cases that are there throughout the country are working around more serious concerns and they're being worked with with Tusla, the families and Scouting Ireland."
Earlier: Children's Committee to hear from Tusla and Scouting Ireland representatives
Representatives from Tusla and Scouting Ireland will be before the Children's Committee later.
They will be questioned on matters of governance and the safeguarding practices that are in place for children at the scouting body.
It comes after a letter was sent from Tusla to Scouting Ireland last month raising 'serious concerns' over its child protection standards and calling for an immediate review of how children are supervised.
Fine Gael TD and Chair of the Committee Deputy Alan Farrell says it is important to understand why the letter was sent and what Scouting Ireland's response is.
"I certainly would be very hopeful that the scouting movement will go through the letter line-by-line at our committee in terms of how they wish to address these issues along with the recommendations made by Tusla in terms of how we propose to ask the questions of Tusla, who will appear first, as to how they came to those findings and how they have interacted then with Scouting Ireland since the letter was published at the end of February," he said.