Dáil Éireann - Volume 497 - 26 November, 1998

Adjournment Debate. - Sexual Offences.

Mr. Flanagan: I raise this matter following the reply by the Minister for Education and Science to Parliamentary Question No. 399 of Tuesday, 24 November in my name when I asked him the number of complaints received by his Department over the past 20 years of child abuse in schools at the hands of teachers

The Minister's response was inadequate. It stated that the Department does not have details of the number of such allegations. This is unacceptable and unbelievable. The reply went on to state: “It ensures that allegations which are brought to its attention are reported to the proper statutory authority.” I assume the Minister means the Garda, the divisional inspector and the school authorities. I hope the Minister of State will elaborate on this in his reply. I ask the Minister to advise the House the number of allegations reported to his Department and the number of such reports which have been passed on to the Garda Síochána. Information of this kind is essential to the proper management of our education system.

I remind the Minister of a recent criminal court case in my constituency where a former teacher pleaded guilty to multiple charges of abusing pupils at a school and where one of the victims stated that he had reported the matter in writing to the Department of Education in 1982. It appeared that no action was taken and the teacher against whom the allegations were made continued to teach until 1988. This is clearly a case of massive systems failure, or worse, no system.

How could this have happened? The matter was reported to the school and Church authorities [825] and again, incredibly, no action was taken. This is an appalling state of affairs. I do not make any charges against the Minister or the Minister of State, but I call on the Minister, whose responsibility is the Department of Education and Science, to investigate this matter without delay by introducing a full and appropriate inquiry into the facts of the case. In this regard I have written a detailed letter to the Minister outlining the facts.

The Minister must also satisfy himself that no similar complaints from other parts of the country remain unaddressed. Further, he might elaborate on the action, if any, taken by the Department in relation to teachers who have been the subject matter of complaints. Were there any transfers, retirements or resignations? While I accept the question of the suspension of a teacher is a matter for the management of a school, I urge the Department to adopt a hands-on approach and that the entire matter be reviewed and re-examined as a matter or urgency. In this regard a Sunday newspaper has reported that nine primary school teachers, including two former Christian Brothers, are currently on full salaries from the Department of Education and Science despite the fact that they are under investigation following allegations of sex abuse. How were teachers, against whom complaints were made, subsequently given glowing references when transferred to other schools in other parts of the country under circumstances that would lead me to believe there was an element of cover up?

The Minister cannot stand over a system where complaints were ignored and filed away, where a Garda investigation commenced 30 years ago was suddenly abandoned and where a teacher continued to teach up to the date of his natural retirement and was not brought to justice until a period of ten years had expired after that date. Investigations will never right the wrong inflicted on victims of sexual abuse at the hands of teachers but such an investigation, if implemented and given full force by the Minister, will ensure that such a case cannot happen again. If the Minister does that he will have embarked upon a worthwhile exercise.

Minister of State at the Department of Education and Science (Mr. O'Dea): I have no personal knowledge of the case to which the Deputy refers. I note he has written to the Minister on the matter and I will bring that to his attention as a matter of urgency.

The role of the Minister and the Department of Education and Science as regards teachers in primary schools relates to recognising persons as teachers, based primarily on their qualifications, and paying teachers. Neither the Minister nor the Department has a direct role in respect of the conduct of teachers in schools as this is the responsibility in the first instance of the school authorities.

My Department issued guidelines to all primary schools in November 1991 under the title [826] Procedures for Dealing with Allegations of Child Abuse and to post primary schools in 1992 under the title Procedures for Dealing with Allegations or Suspicions of Child Abuse. These guidelines were drawn up in consultation with the education partners. They cover suspected child abuse, either external or internal to the school. The guidelines make clear that the role of the school authorities is to ensure that suspicions or allegations should be reported by the chairman, the school manager or the chief executive officer to the health authorities or the gardaí. The guidelines advise that if there is undisputed evidence that an individual has abused a child the matter must be reported directly to the gardaí.

My Department does not conduct investigations to establish the veracity or otherwise of allegations of sexual abuse. As pointed out in our guidelines, this is the responsibility of the health authority and the gardaí. While my Department does not have details of the number of such allegations, its role is to ensure that allegations which are brought to its attention are reported to the proper statutory authorities. Such allegations would also be brought to the attention of the managerial authorities of the relevant schools who have responsibility to ensure the safety and well-being of the children entrusted to their care.

In the event of a teacher against whom allegations of abuse are made being suspended by a board of management pending the investigation of the allegations, my Department will give sanction to the board of management for the employment of a substitute teacher. A working party, representative of the education partners, is currently examining the guidelines issued to schools with a view to ensuring that they remain relevant to the situations faced by teachers in their classrooms. Representatives of the health board have joined this working party.

In addition, my officials have held discussions with representatives of the working group to review the child abuse guidelines which have been established by the Department of Health and Children. It is our intention to issue updated guidelines to schools once the group has completed its final report, which I understand will be due at the end of February 1999. I am satisfied that this type of close co-operation between the health boards, the partners in education and my Department will assist in safeguarding the well-being of the children in our schools.