Not enough protection for children

Much has been made this week of the view of Maureen Lynott, chair of the Catholic Church's working group on child protection, that its new policy goes beyond the requirements of Children First, the State's child protection guidelines. Children First was also the result of a process chaired by Lynott so her view has been seen as particularly relevant. However, it should be noted that Children First, which has yet to be fully implemented, is in itself significantly flawed. The Ferns Report finds that current child protection legislation and practice is entirely powerless to prevent the abuse of children outside of the familial context. That existing State policy is flawed is clear but what of this new Church policy, how does it meet the expectations not only of organisations like One in Four but also of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and of both Maureen Lynott and the members of the working group that developed the drafts upon which it is somewhat loosely based?

On 25 October 2005 the Ferns Report was finally published and I appeared on RTÉ's Prime Time to discuss the report with Minister for Children, Brian Lenihan, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Maureen Lynott. The transcript of that discussion exposes that the final published policy which was launched on 20 December falls far short of what was promised and expected. In that discussion Maureen Lynott was asked if Our Children, Our Church would place an obligation on all Bishops and dioceses to report allegations to civil authorities. She responded that there was indeed such an obligation within the policy. She was then asked by Mark Little, "Is there any wriggle room?" to which she responded "No, and it's not up to the bishops or the religious superior, it's a matter for civil law and civil procedures…"

Yet the final policy does leave considerable "wriggle room" for Bishops and their own internal child protection services to decide whether or not to report allegations to the civil authorities. The policy states that allegations or suspicions will only be reported when the church employed child protection worker decides that there is "reasonable concern". Hardly the unambiguous commitment contained in the draft policy produced by the Church's own Working Group which stated, "The Director of Child Protection must report every allegation of child abuse by a priest, religious, employee or volunteer of the Church to the civil authorities". It has been suggested that child protection workers employed by the church would not withhold cases from the civil authorities, that we should trust in the integrity of such professionals to make the right call whatever the policy says. It is extraordinary to me that the same people could suggest that we should not worry about a policy that does not explicitly require the reporting of all allegations or suspicions of child sexual abuse because we can "trust" the integrity of those working within the church to deliver despite the policy. Surely our blind trust in the integrity of those in positions of responsibility in the past, those whose integrity was similarly beyond question, was at least partly responsible for the widespread rape and abuse of children within the Roman Catholic Church? Surely the whole purpose of policy is to remove any ambiguity and ensure that it is not simply a matter of trust that our children will be safe?

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin also made it clear that night that he expected Our Children, Our Church to impose an obligation on the Church to report all allegations or concerns to civil authorities. Most significantly he said "New documents/new norms are important but the culture of wanting to apply them, the culture of wanting to protect children that is something we all have to work towards." Given the stance adopted by his colleagues this week it appears we all have a lot of work still to do to get to that point.

Colm O'Gorman is Director of One in Four, the national charity that supports women and men who have experienced sexual violence