Health warning put on reliability of Church abuse statistics

Small increase in historical abuse allegations reported to Church safeguarding board

Figures on reports of abuse in the Catholic Church have been placed “under reservation” due to concerns over the reliability of the statistics.

There was a slight increase in the number of reports of historical abuse made last year to the Catholic Church’s child protection watchdog.

Some 143 allegations were reported in 2018, an increase of six per cent on 135 reports made the year before, according to the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church’s 2018 annual report.

The board also received three reports of possible inappropriate behaviour from priests or religious workers, over incidents which took place last year.


One notification related to possible sexual abuse, and another to physical abuse. The board’s report described the issue as a “worrying situation and a strong reminder to everyone of the need for vigilance”.

Pope Francis' two-day visit to Ireland in August saw a spike in the number of survivors contacting the board's national office, with many expressing concern over the Church's inadequate response to them, and others reporting a "resurgence of heartache and pain", chief executive of the watchdog Teresa Devlin said.

The overall figures on abuse reports have been placed “under reservation” meaning they no longer meet the standard of official statistics.

Previously crime statistics from An Garda Síochána have been placed “under reservation” due to accuracy concerns related to reporting on the force’s PULSE data system.


The Church safeguarding board said a “particular deterioration” in the quality of reports was that almost half did not include the approximate date the alleged abuse occurred.

Reports of abuse which did not share the name of the accused meant the board may be “unable to establish” if the individual had been reported before, the annual report said.

“The absence of this key identifying information inevitably weakens the allegations database and unfortunately introduces the risk of double counting,” it said.

The introduction of strict General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) laws last April created significant obstacles for the board, as some religious bodies or dioceses were not sharing information due to privacy concerns.

The board has been lobbying the Data Protection Commissioner, and the Department of Justice, to grant it powers to maintain a central database of priests against whom abuse allegations have been made.

The board warned department officials in April 2018 that the problem was creating a “very serious deficiency” in the system set up to prevent clerical sex abuse.

However more than a year later, little progress has been made on the issue, with discussions “ongoing,” a spokesman for the board said.

One diocese made 10 disclosures of historic abuse last year, which had previously not been reported. The reports were made after a full review of all diocese case records, following media scrutiny in the spring of last year.

The annual report said “it seems that concerns not previously shared were then notified to the national office” last June.

Of the 143 reports of abuse allegations, 28 came from another diocese in a single batch, which, while reporting abuse to statutory authorities, had failed to report it to the Church watchdog.

The board saw a decrease in historic allegations related to child sex abuse, down from 108 to 88 last year. Physical abuse was specified in 17 of the allegations.

The national office responded to 260 requests for advice on child safeguarding matters over the year.

Jack Power

Jack Power

Jack Power is a reporter with The Irish Times