Child protection is “something we can never be complacent about," according to Ireland’s outgoing Ombudsman for Children, Emily Logan.
Speaking on Newstalk radio on Monday, Logan, who after more than ten years in her position is leaving to head the new Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, was keen to point out that the “huge predominance in the media” of coverage of clerical sexual abuse had “slightly distorted” the popular understanding of abuse in Ireland.
Explaining how the office of Ombudsman for Children had first been established in the wake of the mishandling of abuse allegations against Ireland’s most notorious clerical sex abuser, Father Brendan Smyth, Logan cited the 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) Report to the effect that:
“In fact, clerical sex abuse accounts for only 6% of child abuse, and in fact much more worrying is the statistic that 20-25% of children are abused by someone that’s known to them either in their family or in their extended family or community. So I think we’ve probably had some discomfort about talking about those kind of things, but it’s important that we don’t forget that.”
The 2002 SAVI study, commissioned by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre and carried out by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, found that 27% of Irish adults had been victims of sexual abuse. Of 722 surveyed adults who detailed their relationship with their abuser, just 12 said that they had been abused by a religious minister, with a further 12 having been abused by teachers who were members of religious orders. Slightly more than 22% of those abused said they had been abused by family members, with a further 35.9% being abused by members of the wider family circle, including neighbors and babysitters.
Logan’s sentiments echoed ones expressed in 2011 by Helen Buckley, a specialist in child protection at the School of Social Work and Social Policy in Trinity College, Dublin. Professor Buckley argued that the governmental focus on institutional abuse was misplaced, especially given cutbacks in frontline services and a failure to invest in community-based services.
”This Government doesn’t understand what child protection is,” she said. “Their version of child protection is strengthening legislation that affects about five percent of children.”
Buckley, one of the authors of the 2005 Irish government report into how allegations of sexual abuse were handled in the Diocese of Ferns between 1962 and 2002, stated that while issues raised in subsequent reports were serious and demanded attention, the “relentless media and political focus on Church-related abuse” was obscuring real problems of child abuse and neglect in Ireland today.
What Buckley described as a “disproportionate” focus on clerical abuse was demonstrated as long ago as 2000, when Michael Breen, then head of the Communications Department at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick wrote in the Jesuit journal Studies that a general failure across the Irish media to warn people that the vast majority of child sex abuse occurs in a domestic context was doing child protection a grave disservice, with this being exacerbated by “a media concentration on clerical abusers to the virtual exclusion of most others.”
He showed that between August 1993 and August 2000 the term “pedophile priest” was used 332 times in the Irish Times, Ireland’s self-proclaimed newspaper of reference, whereas the term “pedophile farmer” had been used just five times, while such terms as “pedophile parent,” “pedophile teacher,” and “pedophile journalist” had never been used, despite people from all of these categories having been convicted of child sexual abuse during the period under scrutiny.
The effects of such a focus on popular impressions of the clergy was clearly shown by a 2011 poll conducted by Amarach Research on behalf of Dublin’s Iona Institute, a socially conservative Christian think tank, which found that 42% of surveyed people believed that more than a fifth of priests were guilty of sexual abuse, with 17% believing that more than half were guilty. Fewer than a third of those responding estimated that the number of clergy guilty of abuse was at most 5%, a figure in line with the findings of 2004’s John Jay report which found that four percent of American priests had had one or more allegations of child abuse made against them between 1950 and 2002.
Citing the 2011 research, Breda O’Brien, a patron of the pro-marriage Iona Institute, told Aleteia:
“Ms Logan’s comments are very welcome, given that a few years ago research conducted by the Iona Institute showed that there was a grossly distorted picture of the level of sexual abuse by clerics. The ombudsman is right to remind us that the people who are most likely to be damaged by this distorted picture are survivors of abuse. It’s not that we should focus less on clerical abuse, but should have a zero tolerance approach to all abuse, which cannot happen if we focus on one group of perpetrators to the virtual exclusion of others.”
Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.