THE urgency of ensuring that children in this country get more robust protection against abuse has been given fresh impetus by Archbishop Diarmuid Martin’s call for an independent international commission of inquiry into the crimes of the notorious paedophile priest Fr Brendan Smyth.
Not alone would this give his victims some solace, it would serve the public interest by bringing the sordid story of abuse and the Church’s role into the light of day.
It is crucial, however, to guard against the archbishop’s initiative being hijacked to deflect public concern from the controversy surrounding Cardinal Seán Brady. Undoubtedly, his failure to inform parents in 1975, when he was a priest, that Smyth was abusing their children enabled the predator to continue raping them.
There is now a real danger that children in primary and secondary schools could be abused because the policy of vetting teachers is starved of resources. Around 42,000 teachers have yet to be vetted by gardaí to assess their suitability to work with children.
This debacle is a direct result of Government restrictions on staff recruitment forcing the Teaching Council, the body established six years ago to administer the vetting process, to operate with only 28 personnel instead of the 48 full-time staff it requires. How the exodus of gardaí from the force will impact the vetting process remains unclear.
It is clear, however, that the children of Ireland would be safer today had politicians brought the same measure of urgency to the vetting of teachers as to calls for Cardinal Brady to consider his position. From the outset, the Irish Examiner has demanded his resignation.
The impact of the recruitment cap on the council’s resources takes on wider significance because it is also responsible for investigating the classroom performance or the conduct of teachers when complaints are made.
While the council is keeping up with the vetting of around 6,000 teachers who start their careers every year, it is mindboggling that more than half the 73,000 teachers already on its register are not subject to vetting. It beggars belief that most teachers who were working in primary and secondary school before the council was set up have yet to go under the microscope.
It is truly astonishing that by automatically registering and paying a €90 fee to the council when it was established, thousands of teachers were absolved from having to go through the vetting process provided they remain at their existing schools. This makes a mockery of the principle of child protection. It puts grave onus on the State not to drag its heels in framing legislation, now in the pipeline, to make Garda vetting a requirement for all teachers when renewing annual registration.
There is no doubt that the vast majority of teachers would never abuse a child entrusted to their care. The same can be said of the overwhelming majority of clergy in the Catholic church.
Schools must be made aware of any teacher with a record of conviction or prosecution, especially involving child protection. We have seen how easy it is for a predator to slip through the net when appropriate action is not taken.
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