Second Opinion: The Catholic Church still does not get child abuse

Adults abuse children because they can. They believe their power over others means they will not be caught and punished. Photograph: Thinkstock

Adults abuse children because they can. They believe their power over others means they will not be caught and punished. Photograph: Thinkstock


The conviction of Rolf Harris is a reminder that child abuse is an abuse of power. The crime persists because perpetrators are not challenged and dealt with speedily by the criminal justice system. Children are still abused in Ireland every day.

The HSE Annual Report 2013 shows that 6,462 children were in care at the end of 2013 and 1,547 children were on the Child Protection Notification system.

The HSE expects to receive about 40,000 referrals to the Child and Family Agency in 2014. Between April 2013 and the end of March 2014, 164 allegations were made against priests and religious to the National Board for Safeguarding Children.

Many organisations that have contact with children, including sports organisations and the Catholic Church, don’t understand the relationship between the abuse of power and child abuse so their prevention strategies are inadequate.

The 2013 annual report of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland shows that the Catholic Church does not get it.

Several sections of the report are worrying. The new chief executive officer, Teresa Devlin, hopes “that through the work of the National Board, children will be empowered [and] will influence safe practice”.

This aspiration is nonsensical. It implies that children can prevent their own abuse. They cannot, any more than empowered householders can prevent burglaries or empowered women can prevent rape. Adults abuse children because they can.

They believe their power over others means they will not be caught and punished.

Children need to be empowered about many aspects of life but the crime of child abuse is not one of them. Among other things, children must be able to deal with bullying by their peers, to make and keep friends, and to refuse to start smoking.

Other decisions, such as what food to eat and how much time to spend on the computer, need to be made for them.


Power imbalance

There is a power imbalance between adults and children: that is the nature of childhood. Adults have responsibilities and one of those is to protect children from abuse. It is grossly unfair to expect any child, no matter how empowered, to be able to control an adult’s behaviour.


The definitive guide to child protection, Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children, published by the Department of Children and Youth Affairs in 2011, does not mention empowering children in order to prevent child abuse.

State policy is to support families, and to catch and punish perpetrators and prevent them reoffending.

Brighter Outcomes Better Futures: The national policy framework for children and young people 2014-2020, published by the department in April, wants to empower parents and families.

Why does the Catholic Church want to empower children? Using the language of empowerment is a subtle way of blaming children for what happens to them.


More training

The National Board for Safeguarding Children provides more training in child abuse than the HSE. The board’s 101 trainers provided courses to 4,453 people last year. Are these participants learning that child abuse can be prevented by empowering children?


If so, these programmes are perpetuating the myth that children have some responsibility for abuse.

The report from the National Board for Safeguarding Children notes that, “There is an opportunity now to reflect on why the risks were so great during the decades cited [1940s to 1990s, with a decline after 2000], and what lessons can be learned, particularly regarding formation programmes, prevention measures and empowering children.”




little Despite a plethora of reports, the Catholic Church seems to have learned very little.

The report shows that it is confused about the causes of child abuse: “For many priests and religious who admitted or were found guilty of child abuse, there were other addictive behaviours such as excessive alcohol consumption.

“Many suffered from isolation and feelings of being unfulfilled; others were narcissistic and displayed worrying needy behaviour.”

Although the report acknowledges that “it would be wrong to assess that any of these behaviours led someone to abuse a child . . . they must be considered”.Why?

Child abuse is not an addiction, nor is it caused by loneliness, neediness or any other personal circumstances.

The National Board for Safeguarding Children does not need to know “why people have committed acts of abuse”.

The Catholic Church just needs to understand that all acts of child abuse are abuses of power, and prevention means removing that power. Unfortunately, until they, and every other organisation that comes into contact with children, accept this simple fact, children will continue to be at risk.

Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion and a member of the Healthy Ireland Council.

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