Dáil Éireann - Volume 522 - 27 June, 2000

Written Answers. - Child Abuse.

466. Ms Fitzgerald asked the Minister for Education and Science the proposals, if any, he has to issue guidelines to school principals who are called before the courts to give character references for persons accused of rape and sexual assault of children in view of the fact that such efforts may result in sentences being reduced following the intervention of persons who hold authoritative positions in the education system; his views on the desirability of this practice given that headmasters are introduced to the courts in their official capacity and in view of the fact that it may send the wrong message to paedophiles; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18235/00]

Minister for Education and Science (Dr. Woods): The maintenance of a safe environment for children in schools is of paramount importance to me in all matters relating to child abuse and there can be no room for equivocation on the evils of paedophilia. This question, however, raises wider issues. Central to the question is the operation of an important element of the criminal justice system and the right of an accused person in a criminal trial to the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven. The issuing of guidelines by my Department as proposed by the Deputy and any attempt in those guidelines to restrict the capacity of school principals to give evidence as witnesses in courts could be seen as an unconstitutional interference in the judicial process and an attempt by the State to prevent an accused person from presenting his or her best [543] defence as is his or her constitutional entitlement. For that reason I have reservations about the course proposed by the Deputy, especially since I am not aware of any general trend in principal teachers giving evidence of the kind referred to by the Deputy. However, if the Deputy has a specific case in mind which is causing her concern I will of course inquire into it if she provides me with the necessary details and I can then consider if schools need assistance in this matter and, if so, how that might be provided, having regard to the issues I have just outlined.