Professionals must take up key abuse role


Use of qualified people if someone approaches a voluntary group with an allegation would protect all concerned, writes BREDA O'BRIEN

THE VATICAN may have scored yet another own goal by publishing decrees on ordination of women on the same day as new laws on clerical sexual abuse of children.

Nonetheless, there are good things in the new church laws, such as specifying that the same penalties for the sexual abuse of minors also apply to abuse of developmentally disabled adults.

For the first time, lay people can be judges and lawyers on church tribunals in sex abuse cases. My suggestion about using lay professionals to deal with certain aspects of child safeguarding received a less than enthusiastic response from some. Dr Rosaleen McElvaney (Letters, July 13th), a lecturer in Developmental/Abnormal Psychology, expressed “interest and some frustration” regarding an article I wrote two weeks ago.

The article was written on foot of the decision to resign by a priest who was the designated officer for the Diocese of Cloyne. I suggested that professionals be recruited by the Roman Catholic Church to deal with allegations of child abuse reported to them.

Dr McElvaney reminds that “the statutory responsibility for investigating child abuse cases in this country rests with the Health Service Executive (HSE)”. However, the Ferns and Murphy reports suggest this is at best questionable when it comes to sexual abuse of children by clergy or other non-family members.

The Murphy report notes that under the Child Care Act 1991, the health boards, and now the HSE, have a duty to promote the welfare of children not receiving adequate care and protection.

It adds: “Notification to the health board of alleged abuse by priests does not seem to serve any useful purpose if the health boards do not have any power to do anything about it.”

Earlier, it stated “the health authorities have a very minor role in dealing with child sexual abuse by non-family members”. It called for legislation to clarify that role, and rather damningly said: “The HSE and the health boards have given the impression to church authorities and the gardaí that they can do more in the area than they actually have the power to do.”

I am sure Dr McElvaney would agree with me that this degree of lack of clarity regarding the statutory obligations of the HSE is deeply unsatisfactory. Later in the letter, Dr McElvaney appears to think I was suggesting a “parallel non-statutory system” be set up by the church for investigating child abuse. This was far from my intention.

Children First, the State guidelines for protection and welfare of children, state that in all community and voluntary organisations which have contact with children, a senior staff member should be designated to play a central role in child protection. There are two aspects to the role. One is helping to create the safest possible environment for children, and eliminating as far as possible any risks to children’s welfare.

The Catholic Church has an army of volunteers working to safeguard children, and it could not be done without them. They deserve huge credit.

There is another key role, which is when someone reports that harm has already occurred. To call it investigation is perhaps misleading. It might be better described as dealing with a first approach by someone alleging harm, and the issues that arise from that first contact.

Presumably, Dr McElvaney would prefer that all such allegations should be made directly to the HSE, although there is a strong case for making them directly to the Garda.

Reporting an allegation requires huge courage, and some may not be happy to go directly to the HSE. Imagine if someone in a voluntary group approached in this way were to metaphorically put their hands over their ears, and tell the person to save it for the HSE or gardaí?

This is not just an issue for the church. If someone approaches a voluntary group with an allegation, someone must receive them. There are issues about taking the person against whom the allegation was made out of contact with children, and about evaluating ongoing risk. It was my suggestion that this crucial role be handled by people with professional training.

This will protect all concerned. The church could pool resources, ie at inter-diocesan level, or between religious congregations, to employ professional people.

Dr McElvaney suggests that we should support the statutory services. If support means reform, I agree.

I would suggest such support and seeking improvements is compatible with promoting professionalism in voluntary and community bodies.

Dr McElvaney rightly says it is time to move beyond blame of church and State. As the largest voluntary group in the State, one with a shocking history of failure, the church has a responsibility to become an exemplar of best practice. There is even more of an obligation on the State to do the same.