As parents, our primal instinct is to protect our children. And yet as a society, we have failed time and again. I would like to acknowledge the hard work that has been put into the drafting of this Bill in order to make it fit for purpose. There is no doubt that this legislation, along with the collective legislation to copper fasten the protection of children that is to follow from Minister Fitzgerald, has given this matter the unprecedented attention that it so justly deserves.
As a member of the Justice Committee, I have witnessed the extraordinary dedication that voluntary organisations such as the Rape Crisis Centre, One in Four, the ISPCC – to name a few – all of whom represented in full the victims of whom we are trying to protect. Their insight has been invaluable to the construction of this Bill. I would like to acknowledge my respect for the work that they do, and the courage of those victims who have been willing to share their story with the aim of helping others.
We have poor historical record when it comes to protecting our children. The disbelief and anger surrounding revelations of institutional abuse is not just about the actions that took place. It was about the covering up and ‘turning a blind eye’. Just last week we saw a damning report, 112 children dying of unnatural causes, in tragic and lonely circumstances, during one of the wealthiest and progressive periods of our history. The Catholic Church may not have the same institutional power, but the days of ‘turning a blind eye’ are not yet behind us by any means.
In the past we may have underestimated the disincentives to blowing the whistle on criminal or neglectful behaviour. We now are learning, the hard way I must add, the power of fear, uncertainty and loyalty when it comes to reporting crime, from corruption, banking practice, and even something as sinister as child abuse.
According to ISPCC research, 57% of people would be reluctant to report a crime. This gets more complicated when we delve into the reality of sexual abuse. Why? Statistically in Ireland, it is the people that are closest to the victim, like family or friends, or the people placed in positions of moral guardianship and that are the perpetrators and ultimately, these are also the silent accommodators of child abuse. These are the people that we trust the most with our children; family, friends, and professionals. These are the people who, in our lives, are the most difficult to suspect or even question.
In fact, 80% of abuse takes place within the close family and friend circle of the child. I believe that the aim of this Bill is to identify the obligation for those who may be struggling with a concept of reporting, or even identifying a loved one. This Bill ensures that it is a crime not to. This is the only way to ensure that the welfare of the child or vulnerable person, and other children who may be subject to abuse by the offender, is put first and foremost.
Children and vulnerable persons do not have the means to report a crime on their own. Their only hope is to be saved or protected by a suspecting adult. While one may argue that turning someone into a criminal for not reporting someone due to fear or confusion or loyalty may be a step to far. I believe in this case, the child comes first and there is no alternative or excuse.
This Bill clearly acknowledges the power of authority, institution and self-protection as barriers to doing the right thing. It creates an incentive that goes beyond the moral incentive. There will now be a legal duty on each and every person in this society, not just the professionals, to ensure that the facilitation of abuse will not be tolerated. It will no longer be someone else’s problem. It will be their problem, your problem. Looking the other way should no longer be the easy option. It will now be a criminal offence.
One of the main recommendations of the Justice Committee was that while there had been much comment on institutional abuse, much abuse is interfamilial. It was for this reason that we recommended that the legislation strike a balance between confidentiality and the current risk to children and vulnerable adults. In other words, we must tread carefully.
I acknowledge the debate and concern in relation to ‘reasonable excuse’ and the choice of the victim not to report in this legislation. In an ideal world, all reasonable excuses should be outlined in this legislation before publishing the Bill. To quote our children’s ombudsman, ‘reasonable excuse should not include circumstances where the person in respect of whom the offence concerned was committed makes it known that he or she does not want that offence, or information relating to that offence, to be reported.’ I understand this point of view and while in theory this may ultimately be in the best interest of the child, individual cases that we have investigated through this process show that each case is different, and hyper sensitive, and it will still be a fact that any individual sighting reasonable excuse will be brought before a court and judged on their actions in the context of this legislation.
I will finish by calling on the Minister to continually review the impact of this Bill alongside the Minster for Children and also retain dialogue with organisations such as One in Four, in which we rely on to give us a real insight into the incidence and reality of abuse of children and vulnerable adults. We must be vigilant in the implementation and review of this legislation to ensure that, alongside the upcoming Children’s Rights Bill, Vetting Bill and the Children’s Referendum, it serves its vital purpose of protecting our most vulnerable.