Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information) Bill
A society can only progress if it is prepared to learn from past mistakes. One of our society’s gravest mistakes was the creation and maintenance of a culture of secrecy and undue deference. It contributed to the shameful abuse and exploitation of thousands of young and vulnerable citizens, both in communities and residential institutions.
The abuse and exploitation was brought to light by some of the survivors who courageously spoke out against the prevailing silence. Their bravery led to the statutory enquiries which culminated in the Ryan and Murphy reports. Although both long overdue, these reports have firmly recorded the shameful secrets of our country’s past. Indeed, only last week we heard of the failures of our very recent past with the unnatural deaths of children in State care. But this must be accompanied by positive action.
The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill is one such feature of the positive action needed. I welcome the provisions of the bill which will enhance the protection of children in Ireland.
The preparation of this bill has included public consultation and a call for submissions from the public and civil society organisations. Civil society organisations can provide invaluable assistance and insight into a range of areas to an extent just not possible by public representatives because of all the other duties and tasks. Without doubt, this bill is richer and more comprehensive in outlining and achieving its objectives because of the contributions made by the Rape Crisis Network, Barnardos, One in Four, the ISPCC and others.
Also of importance is the Regulatory Impact Analysis. This independently recommended that we needed stand-alone statutory provision to ensure a greater focus on effective protection of children and other vulnerable persons from serious crime.
The Bill recognises the responsibility of communities in safeguarding children. It does this by placing a duty on all citizens to report to An Garda Siochana any case of actual knowledge or strong belief of an arrestable offence which it lists in detail. The distinction between actual knowledge or belief of an offence as opposed to mere suspicion or rumour is crucial – because the reporting of false accusations can have detrimental effects on a person who is wrongly accused. And Ceann Comhairle, I cannot think of anything worse than for a person to be wrongly accused of the crimes to which this bill pertains.
Furthermore, the legislation lists in detail the defences on which a person may rely for not disclosing information. These defences are clear and straightforward and respect the wishes of a victim of serious crimes, provided they possess the capacity to make such informed decisions. Special provision exists for designated professionals including medical practitioners and social workers as well as parents and guardians. But these provisions contain the important qualification that all decisions made be taken with the interests and welfare of the vulnerable person or child.
The former chairman of One in Four and current chief executive of Amnesty International in Ireland, Colm O’Gorman, who is also a survivor of abuse, has recalled how the trauma he experienced was exacerbated by the realisation that people in the community knew of the abuse and even joked about it but failed utterly to act responsibly and compassionately by reporting their knowledge to the Gardaí.
It is very regrettable that the debate on this important bill has concentrated on the Catholic sacrament of confession and whether or not confessional privilege should apply. Granted, it is a complex matter; one of a personal and moral nature and one on which many views can be held. However, it must be accepted by all citizens of all religions and none that this legislation is first and foremost about protecting children. It is not about singling out a particular religion and it shameful that some commentators have ignored the very substantial provisions of the bill in favour of a populist, inaccurate angle.
It’s also very worthwhile to consider the important work of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland which shows that nearly 80% of childhood abuse victims were abused by someone known to them.
The State cannot and will not permit, to exist, a situation whereby adults, particularly those in positions of responsibility, are aware of criminal acts, especially those of a sexual nature and those against children or vulnerable people, but chose to do nothing. Such an eventuality is the very essence of the quotation by Irishman, Edmund Burke, which stated “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing”.