21 May 2009 Edition
Child protection proposals report 'step in right direction'
AN Oireachtas report on the Constitutional amendment to create new categories of sexual offences against children has been given a cautious welcome by Sinn Féin as “a step in the right direction”.
During the discussions of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children, an issue of contention was whether a Constitutional amendment should be formulated that would protect children from sexual predators while not criminalising teenagers who engage in consensual sexual activity and maintaining the right of the accused to have a fair trial.
Sinn Féin spokesperson on Health and Children Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has given a cautious welcome to the committee’s Second Draft Interim Report and called on the Government to act on its recommendations.
Many of the report’s recommendations originated from Sinn Féin’s submissions, including:-
• Proposals to create a new robust and specific law prohibiting child sexual abuse;
• A complete review of sexual offences;
• Non-discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender; and
• Non-criminalising of peers who engage in sexual activity.
The Sinn Féin submissions also referred to the special circumstances that must apply to cases involving victims or witnesses with intellectual disabilities as well as proposals regarding non-penal and age appropriate alternatives to prosecution in certain circumstances.
Speaking on the report, Deputy Ó Caoláin expressed his disappointment that the committee could not reach agreement on recommending a constitutional amendment that would provide an absolute zone of protection for children under the age of 14.
“Sinn Féin believes that a constitutional amendment should be drafted that would prevent any adult from using the defence of mistake as to age where they have engaged in sexual activity with a person under 14. Children deserve the highest standards of protection possible and this new offence would be a vital tool in providing that. A number of groups, such as the Rape Crisis Network, also proposed an ‘absolute liability’ regime be imposed.”
Sinn Féin also submitted to the committee that, while children must be protected, it would be wrong that consenting teenagers who engage in consensual activity would be criminalised and proposed that where there is no abuse or exploitation that these consenting teenagers be exempt from legal sanctions.
Further to this, a recommendation was proposed by Deputy Ó Caoláin that no child between 12 and 18 should be automatically prosecuted for an age of consent offence unless there are aggravating circumstances.
“Sinn Féin believes that we must ensure children are protected from exploitation but also must uphold the right of the accused to have a fair trial.
“This report is a step in the right direction. It is unfortunate that the Fianna Fáil and Labour members of the committee felt that this was unnecessary and, as the majority, decided against recommending that children under 14 deserve absolute protection,” said the Cavan/Monaghan TD.
Deputy Ó Caoláin will continue his work on the committee with the ultimate aim of securing agreement on a draft amendment to the Constitution that will enshrine the rights of the child in a comprehensive way.
Sinn Féin believes that previous formulations proposed by the Government fall far short of this standard as they do not include a clear statement providing that all actions concerning children undertaken by or on behalf of the state have the best interests of the child as its primary consideration.
Deputy Ó Caoláin accused the Fianna Fáil/Green Party Government of betraying children.
“The latest example is the closure of wards and reduction of services in Crumlin Children’s Hospital, which certainly isn’t in the best interests of children.
“As well as this, Health Minister Mary Harney has refused to go ahead with the promised cervical cancer vaccine for girls, thus increasing the danger of cancer for thousands of children in later life.
“The Government is now refusing to implement the key recommendation of the Monageer Report for an out-of-hours social work service and the overall shortage of social workers to address the needs of children in danger has long been identified but has been allowed to continue by this government.
“The Fianna Fáil/Green Party Government should hang their heads in shame. Enshrining children’s rights in the Constitution is essential if we are to compel governments of the future to live up to their responsibility to cherish all the children of the nation equally.”