Children have a right to be protected from abuse. It does not matter where they are on our island, this simple truth applies. They have an undeniable right to be protected and they can legitimately hold an expectation that we, the adult population will respect that and ensure that it applies. We will enact laws and shape services to make this happen. Let us examine the evidence to establish if this is the case for us here in the Republic of Ireland.
For the last six years, I have been working within the Catholic Church to establish and develop its National Board for Safeguarding Children. The Irish Catholic Church has had a terrible history with regard to the abuse of children. It has been the subject of four statutory inquiries all of which have revealed horrendous errors of judgement by those in authority. Cover up, collusion, and protecting the reputation of the institution or those within it were common place. All this existed and the State failed to act until it was forced to.
What is striking in respect of the findings of all of the Safeguarding Reviews that the National Board have completed to date is the very low number of convictions of those accused of serious crimes against children. Having completed thirteen reviews to date, we find that of the 231 subjects accused of 542 allegations, only 20 have been convicted. This is less than 10%. This does not inspire confidence in the ability of the statutory system to deliver justice or to hold people accountable for their actions. It is not evidence that would support the view that enough is being done to deter those who seek to harm children.
If you commit a serious crime against a child the statistics would indicate that you stand more than a good chance of avoiding prosecution and not being held accountable for your actions by the criminal justice system. As a society we need to recognise that this represents a serious failure on our part that significantly devalues our right to be considered a protective and caring society in respect of our children.
Politically, children are the largest disenfranchised minority in our democratic system. They do not have a vote and I am conscious of that when I am speaking to elected politicians who are greatly influenced by such matters. Children cannot vote and if they find themselves to be the subject of poor treatment it is very difficult for them to assert their rights and remind us that they should be protected. We are only just reaching the point where we are prepared to accept that their voice should be heard when they find themselves involved in life changing situations.
Returning to my original premise the evidence is not convincing. When we consider legislation to protect the vulnerable child we also find difficulties. In this jurisdiction we introduced in 2006 the new offence of “Reckless Endangerment”. The intention was to strengthen the ability of the state to hold to account those who had acted badly and placed children at risk. To date no one has been found to have committed that offence. One can legitimately ask the question as to whether we have the right laws in place if they can only be used so infrequently.
A simple principle should underpin everything that we do in the field of safeguarding children. It is that those who have harmed a child or have allowed harm to happen to a child should be held accountable for their actions. This “principle led” approach leads you inevitably to challenge all that you meet that appears to get in the way of complying with it. Not surprisingly there are many occasions when we have to face such a challenge. It is particularly frustrating when you find that legislation appears to support the position taken by those who place obstacles in your way when trying to comply with the principle of accountability.
One example of this would be our understanding or and compliance with data protection legislation and the difficulties that it creates with regard to accessing and sharing relevant child protection information. If you are a voluntary body, you do not enjoy the privileges that apply to the statutory agencies in this regard. However, I would argue that the voluntary and community sectors have a valid contribution to make to the safeguarding of vulnerable children in our communities. It should be easier for us to talk to each other and there should be less vulnerability to litigation as a result.
The need to protect the communication with the Guards was recognised in the introduction of statutory protection for those making a complaint of alleged abuse to in 1998. When acting “in good faith” they were secure from any litigation from the subject of the complaint. However, nothing was done to support the necessary communication that should take place between those knowing of risk to a child and those who are in contact with that child. Many of these people are in voluntary roles and do not enjoy the same protection as those who are in a statutory agency.
Good safeguarding practice requires good communication between all the parties involved. We need the legislation that exists in this jurisdiction to take account of this and reflect it in its content. We need it to encourage rather than inhibit people from talking to each other for the sake of the vulnerable child.