THE former head of the Catholic Church's child safety watchdog has accused religious bodies of using "covert means" to limit its investigations.
The sensational claims were made by Ian Elliott, who has authored several high-profile reports on the handling of allegations of child sexual abuse in various dioceses.
His 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.
Speaking to the Sunday Independent, Mr Elliott said religious bodies were undermining the work of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church (NBSCCC) by consistently cutting its funding.
He said he believed efforts had been made to curtail further probes of dioceses, missionary organisations and religious orders by starving investigators of resources.
Mr Elliott said he could "see no justification" for this "other than a desire to limit the role of the board by covert means".
Although the 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 three bodies declined to comment on the allegations, but company records reveal 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.
Oireachtas Health and Children committee chairman Jerry Buttimer last night called 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 then it is a very serious issue," he told the Sunday Independent. "I would be disappointed if the national board was downsized or in any way undermined."
The Government's lead adviser on child protection, special rapporteur Geoffrey Shannon, said Mr Elliott was someone he held in high regard and that he had "brought a considerable amount of credibility" to the safeguarding board.
"I think it would be a matter of profound concern if funding was to be cut back at the expense of ensuring a robust child protection system," he said.
"We have a robust, well-resourced oversight body in Hiqa for services provided by the Child and Family Agency. It is essential that this is mirrored in the Catholic Church in the resources afforded to the national safeguarding board."
Leading children's rights activist Jillian van Turnhout this weekend described Mr Elliott as a person of integrity and credibility and said she was "hugely concerned with what he is saying".
She added: "I think the Church still has a journey to go on to demonstrate that they fully understand their historical past and also their present responsibilities."
Mr Elliott retired as the NBSCCC chief executive after six years last summer when the board decided not to offer him a new contract.
He argued that some Catholic dioceses were now better resourced than the NBSCCC, which has only three full-time staff. Two crucial positions, those of director of safeguarding and director of professional standards, are currently vacant.
While he welcomed commitments to fund additional child protection staff within dioceses, he said this should not mean the watchdog had its resources diminished.
This approach, he said, ran the risk of "a lapse back to poor risk management or possibly worse".
Mr Elliott said child protection workers needed to be independent, something which could not be relied upon if they were employed directly by the bishops or religious congregations.
He was also critical of the insistence by Church authorities that the board must be invited in to Catholic bodies to conduct investigations.
"A review process that relies solely on consent being given by the reviewee is vulnerable at any time to someone withdrawing from it for the wrong reasons," he said. "Ideally the board should be given the authority to require access where they believe circumstances warrant it."
He said there had been a history of cover-up in the Church and that structures should be put in place which would not allow this to happen. Mr Elliott departed the board as it was about to embark on further reviews of Irish missionary organisations, an area which has received relatively little scrutiny in previous child abuse probes.
As head of the NBSCCC, Mr Elliott was responsible for several hard-hitting reports, including one which prompted the resignation of the Bishop of Cloyne, Dr John Magee.
In a December 2008 report, the board found serious failings in the handling of child sex abuse allegations in the Diocese of Cloyne. Dr Magee took minimal action over allegations against two of his priests. He eventually resigned in March 2010.
The report sparked a statutory inquiry into the diocese, focusing on the period between 1975 and 2004. The commission of investigation found Bishop Magee deliberately misled authorities and failed to report allegations of clerical abuse.
Despite being widely praised for his work in exposing such failings, Mr Elliott found himself in conflict with certain members of the Catholic hierarchy.
The Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Noel Treanor, accused Mr Elliott of engaging in spin against the Catholic Church in media briefings.
The claim was investigated by retired Supreme Court judge Catherine McGuinness, who found there was no basis for it. Bishop Treanor accepted the findings and withdrew the allegation.
The affair left Mr Elliott bruised and badly affected his relationship with some senior Church figures.
The chairman of the NBSCCC, Mater Hospital chairman John Morgan, declined to say whether he shared Mr Elliott's concerns over funding. He said that if the board became concerned about resources it would take this up with the Church directly. Mr Morgan said the NBSCCC's new chief executive, Teresa Devlin, was scheduled to meet the sponsoring bodies shortly to discuss resources and objectives.
Mr Morgan did not support Mr Elliott's view that consent should not be needed for audits. "In order that our data protection covenants operate correctly we have to be invited to conduct our audits. Otherwise we would not be in a position to examine files and records and that would make our job impossible," he said.
Irish Missionary Union spokesman Fr Hugh MacMahon described the issues raised by Mr Elliott as "quite complex". He said "both sides need to be listened to carefully".
A statement from the Irish Bishops Conference and CORI did not address Mr Elliott's claim that efforts had been made to limit investigations.
It did say, however, that dioceses and religious congregations had contributed towards costs when they became the focus of audits, and that the board received payments from dioceses for training parish-based safeguarding volunteers.
The statement said it was envisaged vacant positions would be filled shortly and added that the Catholic Church in Ireland remained committed to implementing and developing best practice in safeguarding children.