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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C
Alamy Stock Photo St Vincent's University Hospital

St Vincent's Hospital ordered to release former 'Catholic ethos' code of ethics

The code of ethics, dating from 2011, forbid various contraceptive measures and other forms of healthcare.

ST VINCENT’S UNIVERSITY Hospital had to be ordered to release a copy of its former code of ethics, which detailed a requirement that healthcare be “provided in the context of a Catholic ethos”.

The code, dating from 2011, forbid abortion and various contraceptive measures, outlining that assisting a “conception which cannot correct the condition of the couple’s infertility” would not be acceptable.

The former ethical code, which was devised by the Religious Sisters of Charity as a “philosophy” for workers operating in the health service, was directed to be released by the Information Commissioner in 2022 after the hospital refused to release it.

SVUH had claimed that releasing would be misleading as the code was “no longer relevant” and that its code of ethics had since been updated. 

However, the Commissioner did not accept that the possibility that the code could be misinterpreted by the public was a valid reason for refusing its release.

The Commissioner also pointed out that there was no provision in the FOI Act to exempt information from release on the ground that it was factually inaccurate.

It was one of a number of cases highlighted by Information Commissioner Ger Deering in the organisation’s annual report for 2022.

Across last year, there were over 35,000 requests made to public bodies under the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act.

This allows the release of information to the public on various public bodies, such as An Garda Siochána, the HSE and RTÉ.

Of the headline figure of 35,000, there were also 657 applications made to the Information Commissioner to review FOI decisions made by public bodies.

In many instances these were where a public body would withhold the information sought.

Deering said that usage of FOI remained high, with a 26% increase in the number of FOI requests made to public bodies since 2015.

‘Old code’

In its submissions to the commissioner, St Vincent’s argued that the release of the code would be misleading and could affect staff morale due to “unfair criticism” which may arise from releasing the code.

“It made this claim on the basis that the code was no longer relevant and no longer guided the operations, objectives and initiatives of the Hospital, or the new National Maternity Hospital,” the commissioner’s annual report said.

It said it was an “old and superseded” code, and further claimed that to release the information would be “potentially damaging to it as, taken out of context, it could result in the public at large incorrectly believing that both it and the new National Maternity Hospital” would operate on the basis of former ethos.

“We did not accept the Hospital’s arguments,” the commissioner said.

The commission did not accept the possibility that information once released could be misinterpreted by the public as a valid reason for refusing requests.

“We also pointed out that there was no provision in the FOI Act to exempt the release of information on the grounds that it was factually inaccurate. We noted that such an argument appears to be based on an assumption that public bodies are incapable of explaining their records to the public and are unable to present information to the public in a way that would allow any objective observer to draw accurate and balanced conclusions.”

It annulled the hospital’s decision and directed release of the code, noting that “there was nothing preventing the Hospital from releasing a statement alongside the code clarifying its current status”.

There have been years of debate about the ownership of the site of the new National Maternity Hospital (NMH) and its governance, which would fall under the St Vincent’s Hospital Group (SVHG).

Last year, the group announced that a shareholding in SVHG held by the Religious Sisters of Charity has been transferred to a new charity.

The charity is St. Vincent’s Holdings CLG, a not-for-profit company with charitable status that is governed by Irish Company Law.

The hospital is currently located at Holles Street in Dublin city centre, but is set to move to Elm Park, where it will be co-located with St Vincent’s Hospital.

The request was made by John Hamill who told The Journal that he was glad to see the commissioner rule in his favour.

Hamill said the hospital’s refusal to release the code was “pretty outrageous as the hospital receives public money so it should have been available”.

“The rationale by the hospital was that releasing it may cause confusion, which thankfully the commissioner said was not a valid reason.

“This influences the treatments available and when you see the code, it has appalling religious nonsense in it so I’d imagine they were embarrassed by the nature of it.”

Overall figures

There were 35,465 FOI requests made to public bodies, such as government departments, local authorities and voluntary hospitals, in 2022.

There were 11,233 FOI requests made to the HSE – an increase of 12% on 2021. The number of requests to the Department of Social Protection increased by 20% on 2021, while TUSLA reported a drop of 18% on the preceding year.

The Office of the Information Commissioner received 657 applications to review decisions made by public bodies under the FOI Act – mostly involving refusals of access to records.

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