An organisation working with vulnerable young people "concealed" the sexual abuse of a teenager by one of its staff members from Tusla, the State's child protection authority has claimed.
Extern, an all-island charity that works with at-risk children, as well as running addiction, homelessness and mental health services, failed to notify Tusla of the serious child protection incident for more than a year.
The incident occurred in Northern Ireland in the second half of 2019, and while authorities in the North were informed, Tusla was not notified until September 2020. The perpetrator was later convicted.
Correspondence between Tusla and Extern, obtained by The Irish Times, reveals the agency raised serious concerns over the failure to report the matter.
Tusla chief executive Bernard Gloster told Extern he was "appalled" at the "major failure" in not notifying the agency.
Tusla refers significant numbers of young people to Extern’s services, and the charity receives about €7 million in funding a year from the agency.
Extern deemed 21 children “high-risk” of having been potentially affected by the former staff member, seven in the Republic, and 14 in Northern Ireland.
Tusla later said there was no indication any child it referred to Extern was affected by the incident. It stopped referring children to Extern’s services for several months following the controversy.
The case was only reported to Tusla following the appointment of Ciairín de Buis as Extern’s interim chief executive in August 2020. She informed the agency of the issue in a meeting the following month.
In a letter dated September 25th, Mr Gloster said it was clear there had been “a major governance breakdown” at the charity.
Despite children who had been referred to Extern being “accessible to the alleged perpetrator,” he noted, neither Tusla nor the Garda were notified.
Mr Gloster said Extern had “misled this agency and concealed matters of substantial and significant child protection concern”.
In a letter dated October 27th, Gerry Campbell, chair of Extern Group's board, said any sanction of the charity "must stand up to public scrutiny", and would carry significant "reputational risk for Tusla".
In response, Mr Gloster said he found the statements “astonishing” given what had occurred.
Governance expert Jillian van Turnhout completed an initial review of the situation last November, which found Extern’s approach to the incident “was one of containment rather than safeguarding and transparency”.
Safeguarding expert Marcella Leonard was later commissioned to conduct a full review, with her report expected imminently.
In a statement, Mr Campbell said Extern has “zero tolerance for any form of abuse”, and works with children to bring about positive changes in their lives.
Extern’s priority was to ensure “the mistakes made were corrected”, and it had worked closely with Tusla “to bring about assurances on our protocols, policies, and practices”, he said.