A NEW office with a central role in the investigation of child abuse allegations has been suggested by the Catholic body, the Irish Commission for Justice and Peace. ICPJ, in a response to the Department document on the mandatory reporting of child abuse, Putting Children First, concludes that not enough is known about the issue to decide for or against mandatory reporting. In this it differs from the 1989 Law Reform Commission conclusion that mandatory reporting "may on balance do more good than harm".
The ICJP believes a "number of tensions" exist in reporting and investigating child abuse, as a result of the involvement of different agencies and government departments, the divergent therapeutic and investigatory functions of the health boards and the possibility of different approaches by health boards. It suggests consideration be given to establishing an office, which would take over the existing functions of the Director of Public Prosecutions in relation to child abuse allegations.
"Whereas the function of the DPP is primarily to vindicate the public interest in deciding whether prosecutions should be brought, a new office could be given the additional right and responsibility to take into account the best interests of the child."
Such an office could also be a focal point for complaints and appeals from those affected by unfounded or unproven suspicions. It could be notified of all reports and allegations, foster a standardised approach to investigations, encourage further co-ordination between gardai and health boards, and promote good practice. "Not enough is known at present about the incidence of child abuse, the rate of substantiation of reports, and about the injury caused by mistaken, ill-founded or malicious reports of abuse, to be able to balance the pros and cons of mandatory versus non mandatory reporting from the perspective both of the human rights of those affected by unsubstantiated reports and the best interests of the child," the group concludes.
The ICJP submission points out that other groups are responding to other questions, and concentrates its comment on human rights safeguards and due process in the investigatory process. Between 1986 and 1995, reports of child abuse of all types increased fivefold, and confirmed cases of all types of abuse, in the aggregate, has more or less kept pace.
Given this rise, in the absence of a mandatory reporting obligation, "it is difficult to judge whether introducing such a law now . . . would effect a significant increase in the reporting of substantiated cases. It is difficult to discern any significant obstacles remaining to maximising reporting and disclosure which a reporting law would be demonstrably effective in addressing."
The group said there were about 5,000 reports of child abuse received last year, of which about 3,500 were non-confirmed. Even if only 5 to 10 per cent of these were "without foundation", as against "unproven/unprovable", it would still represent some 175-350 cases annually. The social repercussions for someone accused of child abuse "are likely to be severe, even on occasion savage", the lCJP point out.
With child sex abuse cases, the number of confirmed cases has risen by a smaller factor than with child abuse overall. "We understand that possibly four out of every five cases of child sexual abuse currently being reported involve adult complainants ranging from their early 20s to their 50s".
© The Irish Times Wednesday, July 24, 1996