Child sex abuse on agenda of church and state since 1920s

Fri, May 4, 2012, 01:00

CHILD PROTECTION:ONE OF Cardinal Seán Brady’s explanations for his handling of clerical sex abuse cases in the mid-1970s is that priests and society were living in a much different era.

“You see, we were without any guidance at that stage from either church or State,” he said this week. “We were without training; it was a new situation.”

But how much latitude should we give to people who failed to act decisively at time when there was much less emphasis on child sexual abuse?

For most of those who worked in either child protection or social services during the mid-1970s, there is an acknowledgment that guidelines and procedures were not in place for dealing with sexual abuse. But the notion that sexual abuse was something “new” or unprecedented is given short shrift.

Helen Buckley, who started out as a social worker in the late 1970s in the old eastern health board, is now a professor and expert on child protection.

She recalls a major emphasis when she started out in her career on physical abuse. It took until 1987 before the Department of Health issued the first official guidelines on dealing with child sexual abuse.

“It’s true to say that from a procedural point of view there wasn’t anything on child sexual abuse at the time. But that doesn’t mean that we didn’t know about it as an issue,” Ms Buckley says.

“Child sexual abuse was always a crime. As a result, it should have been reported to authorities. In the church, perhaps even more was known about it than elsewhere.”

In fact, there are reports of an alarming rise in the number of child sexual abuse cases dating back to the 1920s and 30s.

Governments in the early years of the State were also aware of the abuse of children. The Carrigan committee, established by the government in June 1930 to investigate juvenile prostitution, heard evidence from Garda commissioner Eoin O’Duffy, who highlighted the prevalence of the “defilement of girls under 13” and suggested only 25 per cent of cases were being reported.

“There is endless evidence of child sexual abuse and it was largely dealt with in the criminal justice system,” says Eoin O’Sullivan, a senior lecturer in social policy at Trinity College Dublin.

Even the religious orders were well aware of sexual abuse dating back to the early years of the State. In 1920, the superior general of the Christian Brothers in Ireland informed members of the order that “the fondling of boys, the laying of our hands upon them is contrary to the rules of modesty and decidedly dangerous”.

Andrew Logue worked as a social worker on both sides of the Border during the 1970s and later went on to become a director of Barnardos in Ireland.

He recalls that child protection services were haphazard and poorly organised in the State.

In contrast, there were much clearer procedures and lines of accountability in the North for dealing with these issues.

“I remember a director of childcare from Barnardos in the UK coming over in the mid-1970s and she was in shock at the lack of guidelines. I also remember her going around the north inner city Dublin and saying, ‘I haven’t smelled poverty like this since the 1940s’.”

In general, he says social workers were diligent in reporting and dealing with cases of sexual abuse, although he says there was a denial about the problem within the Department of Health.

Despite the lack of guidelines, he maintains there was little excuse for failing to act on child sexual abuse, even in the context of a much different era.

“Remember, it’s an all-island church and they should have been aware in the North of the very clear procedures that existed there,” he says.

“Things were much more piecemeal south of the Border. It seems to be there was a group-think approach to sexual abuse as far as the church was concerned.”