Child protection - Major step in the right direction

Among vulnerable sections of Irish society, many people can justly claim to be victimised by the failure of politicians to legislate.

Nowhere is this more obvious than the plight of children whose lack of protection is a dark monument to the callous disregard of successive governments.

In its long shadow, generations of children have been neglected, abused, and deprived while the powers-that-be failed to give them either the protection of the Constitution or the law. As a result, both the State and the Church were blind to what was going on.

Amid the deafening silence, adults were free to inflict appalling cruelty and abuse on children cared for by institutions of the State, in religious orders and Catholic dioceses across the country. A tragic legacy deeply etched in the conscience of a nation.

Because child protection hardly existed, clerical abusers were conveniently moved from parish to parish by bishops who covered up their activities, thus enabling them to prey on more victims. Reflecting their warped sense of morality, members of the Catholic hierarchy had the temerity to feign ignorance regarding the dire repercussions of their own silence on the lives of thousands of children.

Now, in a landmark development, a major gap in child protection will finally be closed by two pieces of draft legislation unveiled yesterday. Once enacted, it will be a crime to withhold information from the gardaí about sexual offences against children or vulnerable adults. Separate legislation will oblige organisations, churches, and named professionals to report to the HSE information about abuse or significant neglect.

This goes to the heart of the debate about the silence of the confessional. It will not be easy to find common ground in view of the Church’s insistence on the sanctity of confession as against the resolve of Children’s Minister Frances Fitzgerald that there will be no exemptions or exceptions.

On the face of it, this legislation seems unlikely to satisfy public demands for greater transparency when a known paedophile is living or working in a neighbourhood. In the latest controversy, the laity of a Dublin parish were kept in the dark about a paedophile priest who had served there. As a result, a child safety officer resigned after she had learned of allegations of child sexual abuse against him.

Having been on restricted ministry for years as a result of abuse allegations, the priest was finally removed by Archbishop Dermot Martin when new information came to light. While sympathising with her, the archbishop said that in the absence of a conviction or a charge, non-statutory bodies were restricted in the information they could pass on. He said it had become more difficult for bishops to share sensitive information about abuse allegations with anybody except gardaí and the HSE.

Despite a plethora of reports, little or no action has so far been taken by the Oireachtas to give children the protection they need. By closing a loophole in the law and giving guidelines legal status, the Government has taken a major step in the right direction.

As recently as four years ago, the Diocese of Cloyne was not reporting child abuse to the State. Let us hope the new laws will give children better legal protection.

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