News Analysis

Friday 22 August 2014

Emer O'Kelly: Toothless Bill cannot protect children from harm and neglect

The constitutional and religious right have stymied all progress on behalf of children

Emer O'Kelly

Published 20/04/2014 | 02:30

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The Roman Catholic Church is already defiantly indicating its refusal to obey the law on reporting suspected abuse, citing the “seal of the confessional”
The Roman Catholic Church is already defiantly indicating its refusal to obey the law on reporting suspected abuse, citing the “seal of the confessional”
In 2012, the Taoiseach said we would be voting to insert an article in the Constitution “dedicated entirely to children as individuals, as citizens in their own right” - that hasn't happened yet
In 2012, the Taoiseach said we would be voting to insert an article in the Constitution “dedicated entirely to children as individuals, as citizens in their own right” - that hasn't happened yet
Children’s activist and Senator Jillian van Turnhout has criticised the Bill as inadequate
Children’s activist and Senator Jillian van Turnhout has criticised the Bill as inadequate

What is being described as the "long-awaited Children First Bill" was published last week. Its provisions were first propounded as "guidelines" as far back as 1999; except that the guidelines were a lot stricter and more comprehensive than the law will now require. "Certain professionals" – ie, medical practitioners, teachers, social workers, gardai, clergy, and child protection officers – will all now be required by law to report suspected abuse of children to the proper authorities: ie, the gardai. In the opinion of Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald, the new laws will "aim to make best safeguarding practice the 'cultural norm' for anyone working with children".

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The Children's Rights Alliance and children's activist Senator Jillian van Turnhout have both criticised the Bill as inadequate, pointing out that there are to be no legal sanctions against those who fail or refuse to obey the law on reporting suspected abuse.

And the Roman Catholic Church is already defiantly indicating its refusal to obey, citing the "seal of the confessional". Once again, the church proves that it has learned nothing, and intends to learn nothing: children's pain matters not at all, and the law of the land will be treated with contempt where it clashes with the arcane intricacies of canon law. And we can whistle for our sanctions against its clergy.

Perhaps even more alarmingly, the chair of the Irish Association of Social Workers, Ineke Durville, has pointed out that the social investigation system is already overwhelmed, even before the passing of the Bill into law. We have only one-third of the international average of social workers in the field, an average which is already consistently found in other countries to be inadequate.

So has this much-vaunted Bill anything going for it? Let's look at our record.

Twenty one years ago, a team led by a woman called Catherine McGuinness wrote a document that said, in part: "The very high emphasis on the rights of the family in the Constitution may consciously or unconsciously be interpreted as giving a higher value to the rights of the parents than to the rights of the children." That was one of the conclusions of what has become known as the "Kilkenny Incest Report". It arose because a teenager had given birth, entirely normally. Except that her own father was the father of her child. He had systematically raped and battered her over a period of years.

And, of course, the nation state said "never again".

Two years later, a man called Joe McColgan received a cumulative sentence of 238 years in prison. A young woman, his daughter Sophia McColgan, had found the supremely dignified courage to take action on her own behalf and that of her two younger brothers and sister. Sophia McColgan was six years old in 1979, the year of Pope John Paul's historic visit to Ireland. Sophia received her First Communion that year, on the day her father raped her for the first time. The rapes went on for years, as did the beatings, and ritual savage humiliations of all four children. Their father deliberately broke one his sons' fingers with a rock. He tried to force his small children to have sex with each other while he watched. And he raped them, indoors and outdoors, endlessly, monstrously.

McColgan had only to serve the longest of the many sentences handed down for the litany of sub-human crimes he had inflicted on his children. In 2004, he walked free, having served nine years of 12: he received full 25 per cent remission for "good behaviour". He had refused to accept any treatment for his sexual deviancy while in prison.

There was no fuss; except, of course, that when he was sentenced in 1995, the nation state had said "never again".

In 2009, a man called Sean Ryan issued a report commissioned by the government. It contained the brutal litany of crimes that had been committed over generations against children confined in State-owned, Catholic Church- run institutions. They were forced into unpaid labour, denied education, half-starved, beaten, and frequently sexually assaulted. That was contained in the report carried out by Mr Justice Sean Ryan into institutional child abuse in Ireland.

Eilis O'Hanlon, Soapbox, BACK PAGE

And the nation state said "never again", and there must be restitution.

Except that this year, 2014, the European Court of Human Rights handed down a judgment on behalf of a woman called Louise O'Keeffe. It said that the Irish State had failed in its duty to protect her rights – as a child in school, she was sexually assaulted by a teacher. Louise O'Keeffe received that judgment because the nation state had fought her every inch of the way, forcing her to go to Europe. While she was fighting, the State Claims Agency had warned that anyone who shared Louise O'Keeffe's temerity and sought legal damages for abuse during schooldays would be pursued for costs of any legal action which failed.

In the run-up to the successful Constitutional Referendum on Children's Rights in 2012, the Taoiseach said that we would be voting to insert an article in the Constitution "dedicated entirely to children as individuals, as citizens in their own right". Except that the new clause has still not been inserted in the Constitution, because a legal challenge to the result of the referendum is waiting to be heard in the Supreme Court.

Every step of progress on behalf of children in this State has been fought bitterly by the constitutional and religious right. Prior to the referendum in 2009, the former MEP Kathy Sinnott said she believed that the proposed terms of the referendum were "too close for comfort to those of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child". Except she apparently had not noticed that Ireland had ratified that Convention in 1992.

The conclusion quoted earlier from the Kilkenny incest report in 1993 was described around that time by David Quinn, now a board member of the conservative Catholic think tank the Iona Institute, as "ideologically self-serving and very wide of the mark". Rather than requiring what Judge McGuinness called "a specific and overt declaration of the rights of born children", he said the blame (for hideous crimes against children) should be pointed at "the decline in traditional values".

There are violent psychopaths in every society. We need stringent, even draconian laws which will help us to stop as many of them as is possible. But we need laws which go further: which put the fear of god, or satan, or something into all people who harm or neglect children, whether wilfully or through inadequacy.

We have been saying "never again" for a very long time. And this ridiculous watered-down Bill doesn't even say that. It is merely a blanket to attempt to muffle the sounds of weeping, anguished children. Shame on us; and shame on our Government for our and their indifferent hearts and empty words.

Sunday Independent

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