LEGISLATION TO make it mandatory to report abuse of children or vulnerable adults will apply to all persons, organisations and sectors of society, Minister for Justice Alan Shatter has told the Dáil.
There had been a lot of media comment that the legislation would have an effect on the “seal of confession” or sacerdotal privilege, he said. One report suggested the entire clergy of the Catholic Church were exempt.
“Another states the clergy is bound by the Bill and I am persecuting the church,” Mr Shatter added.
“This Bill applies to all persons, to all organisations and to all sectors of society. No one is exempt from prosecution.”
He said a person “may claim any defence they so wish, but it will be a matter for a court to determine in the circumstances of a particular case, the extent to which that defence does or does not exist.”
Mr Shatter introduced the Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences Against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Bill, which closes a loophole in the law.
Under existing legislation it is an offence to withhold information in relation to a serious criminal offence but the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act 1998 specifically excludes sexual offences. The new legislation amends that.
Mr Shatter said it was clear from publications such as the Ryan, Murphy and Cloyne reports that if those who had knowledge in the past of sexual offences committed against children had informed the Garda, “many children who subsequently became the victims of abuse may have been protected from clerical sexual predators”.
There had been a number of equally serious cases of vulnerable adults in institutional care being subject to serious sexual and physical abuse but he had to be mindful that most abuse took place in the person’s own home.
“We are not just concerned with issues of sexual abuse by persons in authority, be they in the Catholic Church or in any other religious group or institutional setting.”
It was important to produce legislation “that affords protection from abuse to children or vulnerable persons in any scenario or in any location”.
Penalties vary from fines and up to 12 months in prison to sentences of five or more years for serious offences such as assault causing harm; causing serious harm; cruelty to a child; child abduction and manslaughter. Ten years would apply “in the most serious cases such as the withholding of information concerning the murder of a child”.
The Bill would not be retrospective because it would potentially criminalise individuals who had in good faith decided it was not appropriate to report the case at the time, but “who would not be able to show that their decision meets the revised standard now required in this Bill”.