‘Pattern is changing’ watchdog insists

Child safeguarding remains a vital part of the Church’s ministry, writes Greg Daly

Leadership is critical in the Church’s campaign to improve its child protection policies and practices, according to Teresa Devlin, CEO of the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church in Ireland (NBSCCCI).

Explaining that “leadership handovers are critical in religious orders”, Ms Devlin says outgoing heads “must put their house in order” before they leave office, whereas new leaderships must master their briefs quickly. Arguing that “safeguarding has been the most important part of the Church’s life in Ireland over the last five years”, Ms Devlin says leaders should be surrounded by people who can guide them in this issue. Nobody expects people to be experts on everything, she says, but “they must know where to go for advice”.

Previous tranches of safeguarding reports dealt primarily with dioceses, Ms Devlin says, showing how “dioceses can be seen to have developed practice and standards”, such that “safeguards are being put in place and children are safer than before NBSCCCI was set up”. 


An overall review and detailed analysis of these should be realised in May or thereabouts, she says, with a similar analysis being drawn up for the religious orders next year. While she believes there has “undoubtedly been progress” in the Irish Church, she cautions that much work remains to be done.

Describing as “disappointing” how the most recent tranche of safeguarding reports reveal serious shortcomings in some orders’ implementation of agreed standards, Ms Devlin says she hopes this trend won’t continue.

Some orders might argue that the reports make their performance look artificially poor, pointing out that whereas they once ran schools, children’s homes, and boarding institutions, nowadays they tend to have a “much reduced” ministry to children such that “they would say that some of the standards no longer apply to them”, but Ms Devlin counters that “all the congregations signed up to the standard” and so must be held to it.

“Other criteria do apply,” she adds, noting how case records show real failures to meet standards in some cases, and how almost all orders show a poor record of notification until 2009 when the board was set up, saying that she was “unhappy” with how in some cases it was not until 2013 that proper policies were put in place. 

Criticising the lack of clear and comprehensive written policies, Ms Devlin points out that orders “need written policies so they can demonstrate compliance”. Orders lacking such policies tend to hold that “they follow national guidance,” she explains but says that national guidelines drawn up in 2009 are just a “broad framework” with clearer and more precise guidelines being needed. 

Some failures in terms of policy drafting may be due to orders prioritising case management and allegations “to the detriment of written policies”, but, says Ms Devlin, it is “equally important” to emphasise prevention and making sure that there are clear codes to which “everyone signs up”. 

Explaining how in cases where standards have “limited applicability” to congregations, Ms Devlin says reports generally include a note that to that effect, but that this should not be necessary after new standards, which “will reflect the reality” are embraced next year.

Describing the process by which a new set of standards is being drafted, she said the board will present draft standards to bishops and religious bodies in March, after which a period of consultation and legal proofing in light of canon and civil law should mean a revised version of the draft is complete in the summer. A process of induction would follow in the autumn, with the intention that the standards should be adopted early next year.

The new standards will fall into two sets, she explains, colour-coded to reflect how there are “certain standards for everyone” whereas some will apply, she says, “only if there is ministry with children”. 


Conceding that the process for introducing the standards may seem slow, she explains that the board has to wait on new legislation and Children’s First guidelines as well as new guidance in Northern Ireland. “The Vatican Commission will probably introduce something which they’d like to capture too”, she adds, saying that the long lead-in and induction period should allow this. 

While the new set of standards will be different, their content will be largely similar, she says, explaining that they’ll be supplemented by new guidelines on how complainants and respondents should be cared for. The new standards will be, she says, “clearer, easier to understand, and much more applicable” than the current ones.

The fact that the board’s remit straddles two jurisdictions “doesn’t make much difference”, Ms Devlin says, saying that “the paramountcy of the child is the same”. She adds that regardless of civil law and leaving aside the sacrosanct nature of the seal of Confession, the Irish Church has in practical terms been dedicated to mandatory reporting for some years.

Commenting on some bodies’ slowness to report allegations against deceased clergy, she points out that “social services in Ireland and Northern Ireland don’t want to know about deceased priests, but the Gardai and PSNI do, as it might help solve crimes even when people are dead. It’s not an issue of risk, it’s just about solving crimes, fulfilling obligations and responding pastorally to people who come forward.”

“Dioceses and orders should respond pastorally”, she stresses, singling out the Franciscan brothers for their pastoral responses to complainants. Responses can still be patchy, Ms Devlin says, but how orders respond can depend on how information is brought to their attention. If letters come through lawyers, she explains, it can be hard to respond pastorally in the first instance. “Overall,” she says, “we need to learn better to deal with complainants.”

The next annual report is due in May, Ms Devlin says, and while she says she is unsure what the statistics from this year will reveal, typically the board learns of about 200 fresh allegations each year. Each new report tends to draw out new allegations, she explains, saying that this is a very difficult area for survivors as stories can trigger memories that have lain buried for 30 or 40 years. 

While most allegations date back to the 1980s and earlier, there has since 2000 been a trickle of more recent allegations, with two relating to 2011, Ms Devlin says. While the problem of abuse therefore hasn’t been eradicated, she says, the fact that “corrective action was taken very quickly” in connection with more recent allegations shows that “the pattern is changing and reporting measures are getting better”. 

A recurring theme in the reports is “poor record keeping across the board”, Ms Devlin says, pointing out that this isn’t a current problem, save insofar as “half the battle is trying to make sense of what went before”. Traditionally, she says, bishops and other religious leaders “wrote notes to themselves” and as “nobody expected them to be examined” they were anything but systematic. In recent years, though, “files constructed according to the NBSCCCI template are clear and easy to read, making assessment of practice much easier”.

It is far simpler, she says, “to assess consistent clear chronological notes rather than tea-stained envelopes.”