Church body warns of legal barriers to addressing abuse failings

Safeguarding board told Government it had no central database of priests facing allegations

Data protection concerns were preventing the National Board for Safeguarding Children from keeping a central database of priests who are facing child abuse allegations, the Department of Justice was told in April. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

Data protection concerns were preventing the National Board for Safeguarding Children from keeping a central database of priests who are facing child abuse allegations, the Department of Justice was told in April. Photograph: Christian Hartmann/Reuters

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The Catholic Church’s child protection watchdog has said legal barriers are preventing it from addressing “serious and widespread” failings in how some allegations of clerical sexual abuse are handled.

Data protection concerns are preventing the National Board for Safeguarding Children from keeping a central database of priests who are facing child abuse allegations, with potentially “devastating consequences for children”, the organisation’s board told the Department of Justice in April.

The problem was creating a “very serious deficiency” in the system set up to prevent clerical sex abuse, the board said, according to correspondence obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

Citing data protection concerns, some dioceses and orders are not sharing identifying information about alleged abusers with the board, or between each other, which creates a “significant obstacle” in ensuring safeguarding standards, the board told the department.

Over the last year the board has repeatedly asked the department to introduce regulations to allow it to record the personal details of priests facing allegations, to prevent the “otherwise inevitable risk” of members of the clergy moving to other dioceses, where authorities would be unaware of the allegations.

Abuse scandals

The board was set up by the bishops in 2006, in the wake of a series of major clerical sex abuse scandals, to independently audit child protection standards across the Catholic Church.

During audits of dioceses and religious orders, the board said it had come across “many instances where allegations of clerical child sexual abuse has not been notified to the statutory agencies” or to the relevant bishop.

Shortcomings in how clerical abuse allegations are handled, witnessed in the last 10 years “may continue to arise” if action is not taken, the board warned the department.

The board said the changes being sought would allow it to monitor if church authorities failed to pass allegations to An Garda Síochána or Tusla, the child and family agency.

The department rejected the proposals on April 10th, saying any current failures in reporting abuse allegations could be resolved through further “instruction, training, vetting,” and consultation between religious bodies and Tusla.

‘Marked misunderatanding’

The safeguarding board’s solicitors told the department on April 23rd that this suggestion showed a “marked misunderstanding of the serious nature” of the shortcomings.

Under current guidelines any priest moving between dioceses should get prior permission to celebrate Mass in another area, but this practice is sometimes “disregarded”, it said, adding that it had come across cases of “abusing priests” moving around the country.

The covering up of clerical abuse by moving priests who sexually abused children across the country was a feature of past Catholic Church abuse scandals.

The safeguarding board said that if it could maintain a list of current allegations against priests, it could alert local church authorities if suspect priests moved into their areas, “in cases where there is potential risk to children”.

A spokesman for the safeguarding board told The Irish Times it was not aware of any State body carrying out this oversight role currently.

Briefing notes prepared for Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said officials had “serious reservations” about approving the requested powers. The department notes said the board “has not advanced a compelling case” for the regulations it was seeking.

Extensive powers

If individual dioceses or religious orders were failing to follow child protection laws, this should be addressed by the internal governing bodies of the Catholic Church, the briefing notes from April advised.

Officials cautioned against giving “an unregulated non-governmental body” the extensive powers requested under data protection regulations, to hold “extremely sensitive personal data, including unproven criminal allegations”.

The department also had concerns that granting the board such powers could pose risks to Tusla or Garda investigations, a spokesman said.

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