THE Government's lead adviser on child protection has expressed "profound concern" after a former Catholic Church watchdog accused religious bodies of using "covert means" to limit its investigations.
The sensational claims were made by Ian Elliott, who authored several high-profile reports on the handling of allegations of child sexual abuse in various dioceses.
He told the Sunday Independent that the work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church, which he led until last year, was being undermined by religious bodies consistently cutting its funding.
Mr Elliott believes that efforts have been made to curtail further probes by starving investigators of resources.
He said he could "see no justification" for this "other than a desire to limit the role of the board by covert means".
The remarks have already prompted major concerns in political circles.
The Government's lead adviser on child protection, special rapporteur Geoffrey Shannon, said it was essential that there be a strong, well-funded oversight mechanism for the Catholic Church.
"I think it would be a matter of profound concern if funding was to be cut at the expense of ensuring a robust child protection system," he told this newspaper.
Oireachtas Health and Children Committee chairman Jerry Buttimer also weighed into the row last night, calling on the religious bodies to explain why the funding had been cut.
"There is a need for an explanation. If someone of the stature and calibre of Ian Elliott is raising concerns it is a very serious issue," he said.
Mr Elliott's comments will come as a major embarrassment to the Catholic hierarchy as it seeks to put an end to years of scandal over its handling of child sexual abuse.
Although the safeguarding board is independent, it is funded by three major Catholic bodies – the Conference of Religious in Ireland, the Irish Missionary Union and the Irish Bishops' Conference.
The funding bodies declined to comment on the allegations, but company records reveal that funding for the board was consistently cut in the latter part of Mr Elliott's tenure, slumping from €678,000 in 2010 to €596,000 in 2012.
Mr Elliott was also deeply critical of the insistence by church authorities that the board must be invited into Catholic bodies to conduct investigations.
"Ideally, the board should be given the authority to require access where they believe circumstances warrant it," said Mr Elliott.
He added that there had been a history of "cover-up" in the Catholic Church and it was important that structures now be put in place which would no longer allow this to happen.
Shane Phelan, Public Affairs Editor