A lot done, more to do

A lot done, more to do Teresa Devlin
The reality is that without fresh funding the work of safeguarding in the Church will fall behind, writes Michael Kelly

“Hearts and minds have been changed, but there is no room for complacency” – that was the upbeat yet cautious assessment of the head of the independent body monitoring safeguarding in the Church this week.

Teresa Devlin, Chief Executive of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland was speaking to The Irish Catholic after a year of unprecedented challenges for her office.

The annual report – launched on Tuesday – coincides almost exactly with the arrival of Covid-19 in Ireland covering the period from April 1, 2020-March 31, 2021.

The period witnessed a significant increase in demand for advice and support but at the same time the financial resources available to the national office decreased by over 40%, which led to staff salaries being reduced by 20%.

“It’s a challenge,” Ms Devlin says initially when asked about the cuts, before admitting: “it’s actually not sustainable. Unless we get funding [restored] we won’t be able to keep up with the demand”.

She is realistic about the financial crisis facing the sponsoring bodies – the Irish bishops’ conference and the Association of Missionaries and Religious in Ireland (AMRI) – due to the pandemic. But Ms Devlin is equally cognisant that the hard-won progress in the area of safeguarding cannot go backwards.


The cuts have seen the national board funding fall from almost €600,000-per-annum to €360,000. The report points out that “staff continued their work under new emotional and financial pressure, and they made themselves available in response to an increasing demand for services while increasing their outputs”.

Ms Devlin says that it is not entirely clear why there was such an increase in demand, but one potential reason is the fact that safeguarding personnel in some dioceses and religious orders were placed on leave as a result of the pandemic.

“Whatever the reason, the national board is thankful to the commitment shown by staff in the national office who responded so generously to the need for additional supports within the Church,” the report notes.

A lot of the support provided by the national office moved online, and one area where this was most obvious was in the area of training. Despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic and funding challenges, the period actually saw a dramatic increase in training.

“In effect, staff for the entire period under review have been working four days a week. This along with travel restrictions and an inability to meet people in person has meant that all training moved online.”


“Despite this, there was a significant increase in the number of training events offered by the national board. This year 60 training events were facilitated by national office staff, in comparison to the previous year which saw 27 events facilitated – an increase of 122%”, the report notes.

There was also a large increase in requests for advice from bishops, religious superiors and others.

The overall increase from 260 advice requests in 2019/20 to 392 in 2020/21 represents an increase of 51%, with an escalation of demand from so-called ‘independents’.

The report says ‘independents’ can be complainants, statutory personnel, international safeguarding personnel or members of the public. Most often advice to independents relates to procedural or guidance matters .

“We are acutely aware that children are much more technologically ‘savvy’ than adults, and increasingly children communicate more confidently online,” said Ms Devlin. “Therefore, wanting to support those Church personnel who took the opportunity to communicate with children online, we developed our ‘Online Ministry with Children’ training programme.”

The goal of this training programme is to ensure that Church bodies are aware of all the necessary safeguards to be put in place, as well as how to assess and manage the additional risks of using this form of communication. Ms Devlin said that the demand for it has been very solid, from both dioceses and religious congregations.

The national board received, during the period under review, 134 complaints of abuse (42 relating to diocesan priests; 92 relating to members of religious orders). This demonstrates an increase in the number of allegations (116) reported to the national board in the previous year.

However, Ms Devlin warned that “the value of this information is extremely limited and additionally, it cannot be determined how historic the abuse allegations are.

“When a diocese or religious order notifies the national board of an allegation against a cleric or non-ordained religious, no name or other identifying information is provided…This means that there is no way for the national board to establish whether there is more than one allegation against any particular notified individual, or whether a complainant has alleged that more than one person has abused them.

“Because of the legal restrictions imposed by data protection legislation compliance, severe limitations exist in analysing and interpreting such information.

“What is presented here is simply the raw data that the national board has received in the 12 months being reported on,” Ms Devlin said.

Data protection

It is clear that the issue of data protection is presenting severe limitations on the reporting aspect of the board’s work. The report explains the problem: “As the national board does not have any statutory powers or statutory responsibilities, the sharing of allegation information must be done on a voluntary basis by the Church authority. In order to avoid a data breach, the Church authority, as the data controller, has to be careful what information is shared with the national board. Personal, identifying information must be removed. Clearly this makes the role of monitoring very challenging”.

The national board has made attempts to seek statutory powers under Section 56(1) of the Child and Family Agency Act 2013 to enable full exchange of information. This request was deemed inappropriate by Tusla, and the request was turned down. In data protection terms, therefore, the information that is shared with the national office is minimal and includes only dates of when the allegation was made known to the Church authority; the date of the alleged abuse; the date when the report was made to the statutory authorities; the status of the respondent; and the safeguarding action taken to ensure risk to children was minimised.

Limited information

The report notes that: “this limited information does not allow the national board to cross reference data, and confidence in statistics is diminished due to possible double reporting. It may well be that all avenues open to the national board, currently, in legal terms, to remedy this have now been effectively exhausted”.

As well as the legal avenues having been exhausted, Ms Devlin said it has also been an “exhausting” process for the staff of the national office. However, she remains confident that approaches may be able to be made to civil authorities on both sides of the border. She points to the fact that in England and Wales – where the same data protection laws are in place – such sharing is permitted.

The board is now looking forward to the Church’s planned strategic review of all aspects of safeguarding and outreach to survivors of abuse in the Catholic Church in Ireland.

It is a point taken up by the national board’s chairman John Morgan: “It is hoped that the opportunity will be grasped to fully evaluate the resources, both in terms of personnel and finance needed, to address the new horizons which reality will present to further the culture of care surrounding safeguarding ministry and its outreach in building up the Church throughout Ireland.

“We must not put at risk any dilution in the strength and extent of our service within the community of the Church,” he said.

Ms Devlin is adamant that the board “can’t sustain the current level of work on current resources. The work [of safeguarding] needs to be funded properly and on a multi-year basis”.

She insists that the tremendous work that has gone on cannot be jeapordised. “There has been a huge change in mindset around safeguarding, and there is a huge group of volunteers in the Church who deserve so much credit.

“We do have a culture of safeguarding embedded, yes, but there is always a tendency to say ‘the worst is over’ or think that this is now a problem for other countries…but we can never afford to let our guard down,” Ms Devlin insists.