Legal issues block review by watchdog


THE CATHOLIC Church’s child protection watchdog has been prevented from undertaking a review of protection practices in the church for legal reasons.

Church authorities, who themselves commissioned the review by the National Board for Safeguarding Children, indicated last June they had legal concerns about co-operating with it.

It also emerged yesterday that funding for the board’s training programmes in child protection, which the church authorities had asked it to undertake, was withdrawn by the church last October.

And more than 200 new allegations of clerical child abuse made to church authorities were withheld from the board until very recently, even though church authorities committed themselves to contacting the board immediately such allegations are made.

Further, board findings on child protection practices in dioceses and involving religious congregations may now only be published with permission of a relevant bishop or religious superior. It has completed a review of such practices in three dioceses.

These matters emerged yesterday with the publication of the board’s annual report for 2010, which covers the period of April 1st, 2010, to March 31st, 2011.

At a press conference in Dublin board chairman John Morgan said that in June 2010 its sponsoring bodies, the Catholic bishops, the Conference of Religious of Ireland and the Irish Missionary Union, expressed legal concerns about co-operating with their review.

Board chief executive Ian Elliott said it was informed last September by the sponsoring bodies that they had received legal advice they “should not co-operate with the review due to possible breaches of data protection legislation”. He said the board had “an approved and top-rate protection policy, to which it fully adheres in all its operations. It is confident it fully complies with data protection legislation.”

He said an agreement “only now reached . . . completely satisfies all of the concerns which had given rise to the suspension of the review”. However, this agreement will allow co-operation with the review only and not with the board’s other duties.

In 2008 the bishops felt unable to co-operate with a HSE audit on their child protection practices for similar legal reasons. Yet on January 23rd, 2009, at an emergency meeting in Maynooth, they commissioned the board for safeguarding children to undertake just such a review.

That followed board disclosures the previous month of “inadequate, and in some respects dangerous” child protection practices in Cloyne diocese. It led the Government to decide on January 7th, 2009, to extend the remit of the Murphy commission to investigate the handling of clerical child abuse allegations in Cloyne. Its report is expected shortly.

Yesterday’s report disclosed that 272 new allegations of clerical abuse were reported to the board, church and civil authorities in the year to March 31st. Most are believed to be of a historical nature. Just 53 of the new allegations were notified to the board prior to preparation of its annual report. On a final check, church authorities disclosed a further 219 such allegations. Mr Elliott said that “from a wider perspective, the board’s ability to track the national picture in safeguarding was adversely affected through the year by reporting deficits”.

He noted that “on the basis of what was reported to us, less than a quarter of the identified safeguarding cases that arose in the last year had been communicated when the diocese of religious congregation involved became aware of the complaint”.

The 272 new allegations reported represent an increase of 75 on the year ended March 31st, 2010.

A Catholic priest in Co Down has been suspended as police investigate an allegation of sexual abuse. Bishop of Dromore John McAreavey told parishioners in Donaghmore about the allegation at the weekend.

Safeguarding children: the board’s role

THE NATIONAL Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland was established in 2006 when the Irish Bishops’ Conference, the Conference of Religious of Ireland and the Irish Missionary Union set about developing a single approach to child protection in the church.

The board has three main aims: to offer advice on best practice in safeguarding children; to assist in the development of safeguarding policy, procedures and practice; and to monitor practice in relation to safeguarding children in the church. Chairman John Morgan, a corporate lawyer, served as chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Child Protection from 2002-2006. Chief executive Ian Elliott, a Dublin-born Presbyterian and Trinity graduate, worked for many years in child protection in Northern Ireland where he designed and implemented a child protection services programme.