Sexual abuse - Government must ease anxiety

THE marked upsurge in demand for access to the confidential therapeutic files of children in therapy for sexual abuse is a worrying development that ought to be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Up to now requests for access to such files have been the exception rather than the rule, according to the CARI Foundation which offers counselling to victims of child abuse and has long campaigned for strong legal protection for children.

Generally speaking, demands for sight of highly sensitive documents have come mainly from lawyers acting for the defendant in criminal cases. But, according to Mary Flaherty, CARI’s chief executive, applications for the right to see personal therapeutic files are growing in frequency, a trend also reported by other therapy services.

Apparently, the Director of Public Prosecutions is increasingly asking for them at the earliest stages of court cases. The inherent danger of this development is that in the long term it may be virtually impossible to offer therapy while a judicial case is still ongoing. Effectively, a child might have to wait as long as two years before therapeutic work could begin, with all that that implies.

Ireland has a long history of not giving children the protection they need against abuse. As a result, thousands became victims of terrible abuse by priests, nuns and members of religious orders under the unseeing eyes of the state. What CARI wants is for the state to provide independent legal representation for victims of child sexual abuse. That would make a lot of sense. As Ms Flaherty argues, the issue is of great concern because the cornerstone of all good therapy is the safety and security given to clients by the promise of confidentiality.

At present, victims are merely witnesses in sex abuse trials. In rape cases, for instance, under Ireland’s adversarial legal system, women have been portrayed in the role of perpetrator rather than victim. As a result, many have been discouraged from pressing charges.

It is crucial that parents of children requiring therapy are not deterred from seeking support out of fear that if routine access to confidential records were the norm, then the child’s right to privacy would be seriously affected. Not only would such a development be counter-productive, it would deprive them of the support necessary to recover without suffering long-term negative impacts on their own lives and on society at large.

The fact that Minister Frances Fitzgerald will launch the CARI Report today should give encouragement to those at the coal-face of this problem.

There can be no justification for Government to delay the introduction of measures designed to ensure that children are protected in the courts through separate representation or some other legal remedy deemed appropriate. The Coalition should take positive steps to ease the anxieties of parents whose children are receiving therapy for sexual abuse by making certain that organisations can continue to ensure confidentiality.

It would be a travesty of justice if parents were put off from seeking timely therapy for abused children because they feared treatment would be delayed and that a child’s rights would not be adequately protected.

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