Action urged on child protection

Wed, Nov 28, 2012, 00:00

The Government was last night urged to amend data protection legislation to make child protection frameworks in the Catholic Church and other organisations more effective.

The call came from Ian Elliott, chief executive of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, who said there was an urgent need for reform. Mr Elliott explained that data protection legislation prevents the sharing of information regarding child sexual abuse unless there is an imminent risk of harm to a child.

He instanced the case of a complainant going to the Garda about a named priest who then becomes the subject of a Garda investigation.

Gardaí are not entitled to share that information with the priest’s bishop, who is the person within the church responsible for the management of risk within his diocese.

Under the current data protection legislation, gardaí could only inform the bishop if they were convinced there was a child at “imminent risk of harm”, said Mr Elliott. The most common allegation received in the Catholic Church is that made by an adult that they were abused by a priest when they were a child, he said.

“The argument is that the threshold of imminent harm is not reached and therefore the information is not passed on,” said Mr Elliott. He fully accepted everyone has a right to their good name and he was not referring to reckless communication but rather wanted to show how the legislation can be inhibitive.

Pooling information

Speaking to child safeguarding representatives from the Diocese of Cork and Ross in Ballincollig last night, Mr Elliott said the sharing of such information was important.

“In simple terms, all those who are directly engaged in the task of safeguarding children in the church, or in other organisations, should be empowered by legislation to talk to each other.”

He said in any review of tragedies where children were hurt or died, the reviewers highlight a deficit of information on the part of the decision-makers who did not know the risk existed. “As we stand at present in the church in this country, we are at risk of repeating these mistakes. We need to be able to talk to each other and to do so without the fear of litigation.

“I would like to conclude by stating what to me has always seemed obvious. If you safeguard children, you will safeguard the church,” said Mr Elliott. “If you try to reverse this at any time, you will create serious harm not only to children but also to the church. The experience of the Irish church over the last decades is testimony to this fact.”