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Column: Are Irish children safe now? I don't believe so

Maeve Lewis of abuse survivors’ support group One in Four says new childhood protection legislation is welcome – but of little use without support services to back it up.

Maeve Lewis

LAST WEEK THE Catholic Church’s National Board for Safeguarding Children (NBSC) published audits of child protection practices in six dioceses. While the audits attracted strong criticism for not exploring past failures, they did show that current practices in these dioceses have markedly improved, and that children in these dioceses will be safer from sexual harm.

So have we come to the end of the long saga of revelations of clerical sexual abuse and the way in which the church purposefully kept these atrocities secret? I am afraid not.

Firstly the demands for a full investigation into the Diocese of Raphoe continue to grow, and the level of cover-up there certainly warrants this. Secondly, there are 20 other dioceses to be audited and not all of them welcome the attentions of the NBSC.

Thirdly, and most seriously, on the day the audits were published a case was settled on the steps of the High Court between Cardinal Brady and a man who had been abused by the notorious Brendan Smyth and was sworn to secrecy on the matter in 1975 by the Cardinal.

All the survivor wanted was a public apology from the Cardinal; this the Cardinal refused to do. The Cardinal defended the civil action to the last possible moment, causing enormous distress to the survivor. Are these the actions of a repentant cleric? Does this case perhaps give us an accurate insight into the real feelings of the Catholic hierarchy towards child protection that lie behind the public rhetoric of transparency and repentance?

At One in Four we work with men and women who have experienced sexual abuse in childhood. Most of our clients were abused in their families and neighbourhoods; fewer than thirty per cent were abused within the Catholic Church. We offer professional counselling and advocacy services to victims and their families, and also provide a treatment programme for sex offenders.

The impact of sexual abuse reverberates throughout a person’s life

Through our clients we have learned a great deal about sexual abuse. We know the suffering that lies behind the statistics and understand that the impact of sexual abuse reverberates throughout a person’s life. We are also beginning to comprehend the behaviour of sex offenders: the way they manipulate and groom children, their ability to totally distance themselves from the harm they cause. That is why we advocate so strongly for proper laws and structures to keep children safe.

The SAVI Report (2002) tells us that one in four Irish girls and one in six Irish boys experience some form of sexual abuse in childhood. This is a phenomenal statistic if we really let it in. Yet we still do not have an effective child protection system in Ireland. HSE child protection teams are completely under-resourced and many allegations are never investigated; the conviction rate for sexual offences is abysmal. Most sex
offenders operate with impunity, leaving a trail of destroyed lives in their wake. The Ferns, Ryan, Dublin and Cloyne Reports detailed hundreds of criminal acts but very few of these perpetrators will ever be prosecuted. Ironically, the Catholic Church, on paper at least, has a better child protection structure than has the State.

The new Government seems to be seriously committed to changing the child protection system in ways that will have a genuine impact. Two important pieces of legislation will be enacted in 2012: the Children First Guidance will be placed on a statutory footing creating an obligation to pass on all allegations of child abuse to the HSE and a new Criminal Justice Act will make it a crime to withhold information from the gardai about crimes against children and vulnerable adults. Hopefully this will help foster a cultural shift where every adult feels responsible for the safety of all children.

However legislation on its own will contribute very little towards child protection unless the services are put in place to support victims who are often very frightened of the consequences of disclosure to come forward and unless the HSE and the gardai have adequate staffing levels to meet increased levels of reporting. In these straitened times resources are scarce but it surely is imperative that the safety of our children is prioritised?

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It is the responsibility of any civilised State to ensure that children are safe

The various Reports of the past decade have shown us that private organisations cannot be trusted to place the safety of children above the needs of the organisation. Therefore no private organisation, be it faith-based, sporting, educational or otherwise, should be free from supervision and monitoring of their child protection practices by State agencies.

It is the responsibility of any civilised State to ensure that children are safe. There is some scant evidence that today’s children are safer from sexual harm than previous generations. The combined impact of safety programmes in schools, greater public discourse and media scrutiny, higher levels of awareness among parents and the work of organisations such as One in Four have helped make this so.

But too many children are still abused and too many lives are compromised by this experience. We still have a lot of work to do to make Ireland a place where all our children will grow up free from the scourge of sexual violence.

Maeve Lewis is Executive Director of One in Four which professionally supports men and women who have experienced sexual violence, many of them during childhood. They give help to survivors through psychotherapy, advocacy and prevention services.

About the author:

Maeve Lewis

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