Child protection guide launched

 

The privacy of the Confession box cannot be used as an excuse for failing to disclose child sexual abuse, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald said today.

This follows Government plans to make it mandatory to pass on details of suspected child sexual abuse to authorities.

Under the plans put forward by Minister for Justice Alan Shatter, priests could be jailed for up to five years for failing to disclose information on serious offences against a child even if this was obtained during Confession.

Ms Fitzgerald said child protection was a "non negotiable" issue and the sacrament of Confession could not be used as a defence to claim exemption from the new reporting rules.

“If there is a law in the land, it has to be followed by everybody. There are no exceptions, there are no exemptions,” Ms Fitzgerald said. “I’m not concerned, neither is the Government, about the internal laws or rules governing any body."

She said she hoped the new laws could be placed on the statute books by the end of this year. Failure to follow the mandatory reporting rules could result in sanctions such as fines or jail terms.

Catholic Church spokesmen have said they want to see the text of the planned legislation before making a definitive comment. However, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Armagh Dr Gerard Clifford has said the bond of secrecy attached to confessions must be respected.

A spokesman for the Catholic bishops said the “seal of Confession places an onerous responsibility on the confessor/priest, and a breach of it would be a serious offence to the rights of penitents”.

Ms Fitzgerald today provided more details of plans to place the State's child protection code - Children First - on a statutory footing.

This will make it mandatory for all groups who work with children to follow guidelines on how to respond to child abuse concerns.

"Let me declare again today that the days of voluntary compliance are over when it comes to child protection," Ms Fitzgerald said. "The new legislation I am bringing forward will provide for a strong system of inspection and oversight and the need to provide demonstrable evidence that the guidance is being implemented correctly across all sectors."

She also insisted that child protection services would be able to cope with an additional increase in reports of child welfare concerns. By following the Children First guidelines, she said social services would be able to respond in a more efficient manner.

Those who do not comply with the mandatory reporting guidelines face a range of sanctions, varying from retraining to fines, being banned from working with children and jail.

“We will have a range of sanctions if the reporting requirements and other requirements on the Children First legislation are not met,” she said. “This combined with the legislation which Minister Shatter has announced about

withholding information is a very powerful message about child protection and how central child protection is to the concern of this government and we are determined to have strong legislation to ensure that children are protected.

“There will be no ambivalence in it.”

The Minister said she hoped to have the legislation in place by the end of the year.

Assistant Garda Commissioner Derek Byrne said Children First will be incorporated into Garda training.

“The brutal and ugly reality is that there are people in the community who seek to hurt and abuse children,” he said. “Protecting vulnerable children must therefore be a priority for everyone and we in An Garda Siochana will continue to work with the HSE and other agencies to ensure children’s safety.”

One in Four welcomed the publication and said it was pleased the revised guidelines contain advice for personnel faced with a complaint from an adult about abuse suffered as a child.

“We look forward to the Children First guidance being placed on a statutory footing,” said executive director Maeve Lewis. “However, the best legislation in the world will not protect children unless the resources are put in place to implement the protocols in practice.”

A decision on whether to hold further inquiries into the handling of abuse complaints in other dioceses will be made in the autumn. Mr Shatter is awaiting the results of two audits of church compliance with child protection procedures, one being carried out by the HSE, the other by the church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children.

Additional reporting: PA