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Guest Post: Kieran Walsh on Murphy and Interagency Co-operation

We are delighted to welcome this guest post on the Murphy Commission Report from Kieran Walsh of UCC and Griffith College Cork. You can learn some more about Kieran on our Guest Contributors page

One of the major issues highlighted in the Murphy Commission’s report is the lack of inter-agency cooperation on child protection issues. Any allegation of abuse requires that a massive infrastructure springs to life to ensure that the complaint is handled appropriately. This is true at the investigative stage as well as the stage of ensuring the rights of the victim to appropriate aftercare. As a result, the various agencies involved – the Gardaí, the HSE and depending on the circumstances, the organisation of which the perpetrator was a member – need to follow clear and unambiguous guidelines outlining the various steps which should be taken. The Murphy Report highlights the lack of coordination within the Catholic Church as well as the lack of coordination, stemming in part from governmental inaction on child protection.

The church issued a set of instructions on the matter of child sex abuse in 1922 entitled Crimen Solicitationis. A new version was issued in 1962. The Report makes clear that these were, as official church documents, written in Latin but there was never an official English translation. Quite apart from the linguistic difficulties, evidence was given by Cardinal Connell that he was not aware of the 1922 document when he became Archbishop, that the 1962 version may never have reached the Archdiocese and that its existence was unknown until the late 1990’s, and that he had never met anyone who had ever even seen it. That the document which was supposed to set out the procedure for dealing with sex abuse complaints was unknown to the Irish church hierarchy is a surprise, that such ignorance helped to engender a culture of indifference is not. It was only in 2001 that the Vatican issued a more widely available set of instructions, Sacramentorum Sanctitatis Tutela.

When we move to examine the role of the state agencies, the problems are compounded. Mairead has already made reference to the deference that members of the Gardaí afforded to the church when a complaint was made to them. It need hardly be stated that this raises serious question about the rule of law in Ireland during the period in question. The HSE also receive criticism for the manner in which their own records were collated. When a complaint of abuse was made, the matter was filed under the name of the victim with no corresponding file for the alleged abuser. This meant that the HSE was unable to give full information to the commission as it would take another 10 years to go through their files to see if they held information about the priests under investigation.

The matter of interagency cooperation was highlighted by the Ferns Report, which looked at sexual abuse carried out by priests in the discese of Ferns. The Report noted that there had been a significant problem with sharing information between the Church, the Gardaí and the Health Board. The problem arose in part because the priests concerned had not been convicted of a criminal offence and hence legal concerns arose around sharing information about these priests between agencies. A new policy was introduced by Bishop Walsh when he became Apostolic Administrator of the Ferns Diocese, whereby the relevant information could be shared to better protect children. The Ferns Report stated that

“The procedure [has] considerable merits. It is a procedure which should and could be adopted in any case in which continuing problems or a series of problems arises in relation to child sexual abuse. The immediate purpose of the procedure – referred to in the report as “The Inter Agency Review Committee” – was for the Diocese to advise the other agencies as to the circumstances and whereabouts of a priest who had been required to step aside from active ministry pending investigations of allegations or suspicions of child sexual abuse. It seems to the Inquiry that the functions of the … Committee could be extended … to enable An Garda Síochána to advise the other authorities of the status of any criminal investigation being undertaken by them into child sexual abuse and the Health Services Executive to express an opinion as to the suitability of the procedures taken by the Diocese to ensure the safety of children from priests in respect of whom allegations have been made or suspicions have arisen.

The Inquiry would also urge that the authorities should raise at meetings of the

… Committee, suspicions, rumour or innuendo which are known to them in relation to misconduct of any member of the clergy. … so often … in the past, … after a disclosure of abuse, people in the community claimed to have known for a long time of rumours of wrongdoing or abuse by particular priests. If there are rumours it should be possible between the three authorities to establish whether there is any basis for them.

In relation to allegations, the Inquiry would suggest that

it is in the interest of all of the authorities and of the people whom they serve that every allegation of child sexual abuse should be brought to the attention of the Inter Agency Review Committee. Even complaints which are demonstrably untrue or written by people known to be not credible or unbalanced should be noted by the Inter Agency Review Committee so as to ensure that each of these authorities have a full appreciation of all of the allegations made. In that way, each authority would know the totality of the problem and the manner in which it is being dealt with.

Yet, the recommendation of the Ferns Report was not followed. The Murphy Report states that

“The Commission has been advised by An Garda Síochána that they nominated and forwarded to the HSE a list of superintendents to sit on the proposed committees but that the HSE has informed participants that it was not proceeding with the committees due to difficulties that arose surrounding the legality of the discussion and use of information that amounts to rumour, suspicion, innuendo or allegations of abuse”

This is where the lessons of Ferns and Murphy should be learned. Statutory agencies, like the HSE, are not taking their duties seriously, and indeed the law is not exactly enabling them to do so. The issue of soft information – the rumors and allegations referred to above – is not regulated by law. The Child Care Act 1991 gives the HSE only limited powers in non-familial sex abuse cases. The decision in MQ v Gleeson [1997] IEHC 26 dealt with the responsibilities that the HSE has to the alleged abuser when it seeks to make information about them known to third parties. The only power which the HSE has to disclose information to third parties stems from the wide ranging duty to protect children which is found in s. 3 of the Act. As no more specific guidance in given, the ability of the HSE to justify information sharing is largely based on an extremely broad interpretation of its powers. Yet the MQ case was interpreted by the HSE to mean that before disclosing any information, they first had to give the alleged perpetrator written notice of the allegations, the opportunity to respond in person and ability to appeal the decision to disclose information. The Murphy Commission ask for the law to be clarified over a) the duty to disclose information to relevant third parties and b) any duties to the alleged abuser. The Murphy Report should give us a starting point for debate on the use of this type of information.

Updates: The Irish Times reported on Saturday that Minister for Children Barry Andrews has announced that legislation is being prepared that will allow for the sharing of ‘soft information’ on potential child abusers between statutory and non-statutory bodies. The paper continues its excellent coverage of issues arising from the Murphy Report today. In particular, it highlights research which demonstrates that many primary schools fail to follow child protection guidelines. The Sunday Business Post reported yesterday that the Murphy Commission would be publishing an additional report in the near future.

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