Scouting Ireland v Tusla – Rooting out the Bad Guys..
Minister for Children, Katherine Zappone, can’t do right for doing wrong, it seems. I’d hate her job, for sure. I also don’t think I’d like to be a scout leader or a scouting volunteer this week, after hearing the contents of a letter she read out in the Dáil – a letter that she had received from Túsla.
The Child and Family Agency must rank as one of the most unpopular Government bodies, and in the wake of the disgraceful treatment of Sgt Maurice McCabe, it’s easy to understand. Be that as it may, however, Túsla remains the body charged with the safety and protection of our children. It’s remit is clear. It must, at all times, place the safety of the child at the top of its priority list.
The Agency wrote to the Minister, expressing concern about Child Protection practices at Scouting Ireland. In that letter, it suggested that perhaps it would be prudent to review the practice of overnight trips or hikes, until such time as a full review of child protection and safeguarding policy at Scouting Ireland has been completed. This was not an order – Túsla does not have that power – it was an opinion expressed in a letter to Minister Zappone. The Minister neither endorsed nor lent her support to that opinion. She merely read it into the record of the Oireachtas. I’ll come back to that, but I think she was absolutely right to do so.
On the Opinion Line on Cork’s 96FM on Friday, I spoke to John Maher, a Labour Party local election candidate, but also an experienced Scout Leader, who was deeply troubled by the letter to the Minister, and in particular the thoughts contained therein on overnight hikes.
John feels that the letter has besmirched, almost by default, the more than 13,000 leaders and volunteers who accompany boys and girls on trips away every weekend of the year. He spoke to me passionately about the training, the vetting, and the dedication of those leaders he knows. He spoke of how they are all acutely aware of the need to protect and safeguard the young scouts and guides in their charge, and how diligently they follow best practice as laid down under law, for example under “Children First” legislation.
Neither I, nor my listeners, could disagree with a word John said.
Scouting Ireland is currently working with Child Protection Consultant, Ian Elliot. Mr Elliot is the man who wrote the horrific Cloyne Dioceses report a number of years ago. He is highly respected and rightly so. His remit in SI is to develop and enforce a safeguarding and protection policy that will ensure the safety of every child in the organisation. It must be remembered that SI is currently at the centre of a major historic child abuse scandal, involving as many as 300 alleged victims. Ian Elliot is tasked with ensuring nothing like this can ever happen again. He said this week that as of today, he believes SI is, in his words to Seán O Rourke on RTE, “as safe as it can be”..
Unfortunately, another leading expert on the rights and welfare of children, Dr. Geoffrey Shannon, who is special rapporteur (or consultant) to the Government, doesn’t seem to agree. He was very concerned by the letter from Túsla to the Minister. Dr. Shannon points to practices in SI, as well as to current, so called “live” cases, that give him cause for concern.
So what to do?
Scouting Ireland has said overnight trips will continue – rejecting the recommendation made in the letter from Túsla. Callers and people messaging the Opinion Line on 96FM were in full agreement. Why should thousands of children be deprived of these brilliant experiences, because, in the words one caller “there may be a few bad guys. Just weed out the bad guys..”
But, if you look at Child Protection best practice, and study the research, one stark and deeply worrying fact leaps out and is writ large on every second page. The “bad guys” are nigh on impossible to spot. It is the nature and practice of paedophiles to deliberately and skilfully hide in plain sight, to weave themselves seamlessly into circumstances where they can prey on children. Thick volumes of research tell us that there no “signs”, no “markers”, no “typical behaviours”. History is littered with cases in which pillars of society, trusted and respected family men (for it is mostly men) and those held up as role models, turned out to be twisted, fiendish perverts.
With that knowledge in mind, and the knowledge that there have been serious issues at Scouting Ireland, what do you do? What would you do as a parent? Do you let your son or daughter go hiking? Do you trust their leaders. Are you absolutely one hundred percent certain they will come to no harm?rr It’s an agonising decision, and I’d hate to have to make it. Take John Maher, for example. John is an absolute rock of a young man. I would trust John Maher with my childrens lives. But do I know that John won’t inadvertently and totally unknowingly bring my child into the company of some evil, sick swine who will hurt or damage them?
My own answer – and it hurts me to say it – is that I honestly and genuinely don’t know.
Finally, coming back to Minister Zappone and the letter from Túsla. Was she right to read it out in the Dáil? Well, ask yourself this. If she chose to keep it from us, and some child was harmed by some pervert on a hike, and we subsequently learned that the letter had existed, what then? The media and the opposition would be calling for her head, without question or doubt. Right or wrong isn’t the question. The question is, did she have a choice but to read the letter. The answer to that, is most definitely, “No”.