Law to allow agencies to share files in suspected abuse cases

 

PROPOSALS TO change the law so State and civic agencies, including the churches, can exchange “soft information” on child sex abuse allegations are expected to be published today by Minister of State for Children Barry Andrews.

They will form part of the legislative programme to be addressed by the new Dáil session. So-called “soft information” in the context has to do with suspicions and concerns that child sex abuse may be taking place rather than there being concrete proof.

A spokesman for Mr Andrews said last night preparation of heads of Bills on the issue had been brought forward by the Government due to its importance. It was necessary to act in a speedy fashion, he said.

On Saturday, Mr Andrews met the Catholic primate of All-Ireland, Cardinal Seán Brady, and the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, and their officials “to discuss the issue of safeguarding children and the whole of society’s responsibility to this critically important issue”, as a joint statement said later. Officials from the Minister’s office also attended what was later described as “a cordial meeting with a determination to move forward”.

Mr Andrews welcomed the outcome of the bishops’ special meeting on Safeguarding Children which took place in Maynooth last Friday.

He welcomed in particular “the bishops’ renewed commitment to providing all of the information in section five of the HSE audit; the bishops’ statement to sign a written commitment to implement the new safeguarding and guidance materials of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church; and, their review of current practice and risk in the safeguarding of children within their dioceses”.

In October 2006, as part of a national audit of child protection practices in the Republic’s Catholic dioceses, the HSE sent a questionnaire to each bishop. Each in turn said that they could not fill in section five of the questionnaire as it might expose them to defamation actions by those against whom allegations of abuse had been made. The section sought statistical information on child sex abuse allegations.

The bishops’ position was based on the requested provision of soft information. Section five of the questionnaire, in the main, sought statistical information on child sex abuse allegations. The bishops also felt that, where figures in some dioceses were low, alleged perpetrators might be identifiable locally.

At Saturday’s meeting in the Department of Health, it was agreed by both sides “to separate the completion of section five of the HSE audit, from issues of ‘soft information’ which all accepted present legal difficulties. It was agreed that a fresh mechanism would be found to enable bishops to provide the information that had been requested in the HSE audit, section five.’’

It was also agreed that when the new HSE audit, including a filled-in section five, is completed, the results would be published.

The meeting discussed the potential for statutory and voluntary authorities to strengthen co-operation, within the State and at an all-Ireland level, in the best interest of child protection. It was agreed that further meetings between church and State representatives would be convened to process issues concerning the safeguarding of children.

It is understood that the invitations to Cardinal Brady and Archbishop Martin to meet was extended by Mr Andrews two weeks ago and were accepted within days. Arrangements to hold the meeting last Saturday may have influenced Cardinal Brady’s decision to invite fellow bishops to attend last Friday’s meeting of the Irish Episcopal Conference in Maynooth.