Munster abuse case: Planned review of State agencies’ actions dropped in 2018

AG agreed that inquiry into handling of child sexual abuse case could jeopardise trial

In early 2018, then minister for children Katherine Zappone announced she was to commission an independent review. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

In early 2018, then minister for children Katherine Zappone announced she was to commission an independent review. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

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A proposed inquiry into the sexual abuse and neglect of several children by family members in the Munster area, to examine the actions of State agencies in the case, was previously shelved.

The review, announced in 2018, was halted after a number of months due to concerns raised by those conducting the work and the government’s legal adviser over fears it could prejudice criminal investigations.

On Tuesday, five family members were sentenced and jailed over the abuse and neglect, after earlier being found guilty by a jury of a total of 77 counts against the children following a 10-week trial last summer.

The family members were the parents, aunt and uncles of the children, and cannot be named for legal reasons. They were all found guilty of sexually abusing the three eldest children between 2014 and 2016, while the parents were found guilty of wilfully neglecting five of the children, who ranged in age from one to nine during this period.

Following initial media reports in early 2018, then minister for children Katherine Zappone announced she was to commission an independent review into the serious case of abuse and neglect.

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The review was to include an examination of the actions of An Garda Síochána and Tusla, and how they responded to the case.

The children came to the attention of the State’s social services in 2011, and there was extensive engagement between social workers and the family over several years, the trial heard.

Following years of severe neglect, the children were removed from the family home by Tusla in 2016, and placed in foster care. Later that year the eldest child made a disclosure about sexual abuse to his foster parents, which Tusla referred to gardaí, who later opened an investigation.

Criminal case

The proposed independent review of the case was to be led by Dr Geoffrey Shannon, child law expert and former special rapporteur on child protection. A three-person review panel would also include child welfare consultant Suzanne Phelan and retired Garda chief superintendent Pádraig Kennedy.

Internal Department of Children records show officials were in regular contact with Dr Shannon about the proposed review over several months in 2018, before it was halted.

It is understood those involved in the review raised concerns about the work impacting on the criminal case, which were shared by then attorney general Séamus Woulfe, and led to the review being dropped.

A 2019 briefing note from Fergal Lynch, department secretary general, said it “did not prove possible to frame terms of reference that successfully guarded against the dangers of pre-empting the criminal cases that were in process”.

“After a number of months it had to be postponed, because the Attorney General was very concerned about the potential effect on criminal cases pending,” he wrote in the note, released under the Freedom of Information Act.

In a statement on Wednesday, Tulsa said it would review the Munster abuse case “when appropriate to identify any learnings or insights that can be gained from our involvement in the lives of the children and their families”. The agency said its main focus continued to be to “support the children who were the victims in this case”.