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Submission from the Legislative & Political Panel (RI) of the Church in Society Committee to the Joint Committee on Child Protection

CHURCH of IRELAND GENERAL SYNOD
CHURCH in SOCIETY COMMITTEE
Legislation & Political Sub-Committee (RI)
Chairman:  Mr Samuel R. Harper

Submission to the Joint Committee on Child Protection

 

Introduction
The Church in Society Committee of the General Synod of the Church of Ireland seeks to identify, contribute to, challenge and develop areas of living today where the mission of the Church can be active and the love of God shared.   It does so by seeking an informed understanding of the societies in which we live and aims as much to listen as to speak and to be informative and practical in the fruit of its work.  The sub-groups of the Church in Society Committee are authorized to issue statements and reports in their own names.  The following submission has been produced by the Legislation and Political (RI) sub-group and, as such, may not represent the views of the Church of Ireland as a whole. 

While the content of this submission has been prompted at this point by the recent changes in legislation in the Republic, in particular the recent ‘C.C.’ Case and the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006, we feel it is important to reflect on the broader aspects of the issues of the rights and behaviour of children and young people, and those who come into contact with them, and to consider the responsibilities of society, the State, parents and the Churches in this area. 

This document has been submitted at this point to meet the deadline as set out by the Joint Committee on Child Protection.  However, as this is an ongoing discussion within the Church, we would consider this an interim response and we would like to reserve the right to contribute further on this issue at a later date.

Changes in Society
It first must be acknowledged that children today grow up in a very different society to that of previous generations.  Societal mores have changed.  Children often receive very mixed messages from advertising, media, and from the behaviour of adults who may often adopt a “do as we say and not as we do” attitude to such issues as alcohol and drug consumption.  We live in a society that encourages independent thought from our young people, but often forces them to become adults before their time.  These issues raise the difficulties of how we, as a society, can offer support to our children in such an atmosphere. How do we create a sense that the wellbeing of society as a whole is dependent on the concern of everyone?

 

Children & young people
It would seem that there are many different ideas as to when “childhood” ends.  The 1985 Age of Majority Act reduced the age of majority from 21 to 18 and this latter age remains the legal age at which one becomes an “adult”, and with this such rights as voting are conferred.  This is confirmed with the 1991 Child Care Act which defines a child as “a person under 18 years other than a person who is or has been married.”  However, for the purposes of the Education (Welfare) Act 2000 a child is one who has not reached the age of 16 and compulsory education ends with the completion of three years of post-primary education.  The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006 keeps the age of sexual consent at 17, with stricter punishments for those who engage, or attempt to engage, in sexual acts with a 15 year old.  The 2001 Children’s Act, regarding the age of criminal responsibility, states that a child under 12 years of age is not capable of committing an offence, with the “rebuttable presumption” that a child over 12 but under 14 may “not have the capacity to know that the act or omission concerned was wrong.”  However, this rebuttable presumption has since been abolished in the Criminal Justice Act 2006 which was recently signed into law.  While retaining the criminal age of responsibility at 12, the 2006 Act includes a section for children aged 10 or 11 who can be charged with regards to such serious offences as murder, manslaughter or rape.  It also includes a provision, whereby if a child “under 14 years of age is charged with an offence, the Court may, of its own motion or the application of any person, dismiss the case on its merits if, having had due regard to the child’s age and level of maturity, it determines that the child did not have a full understanding of what was involved in the commission of the offence.”

It is clear then that there appears to be a series of points which mark approaching adulthood but there is no coterminous point and, apart from this last section in the 2006 Criminal Justice Act, there is little recognition of the vast individual variation in physical and mental maturation.  For the purposes of clarity in this document, we shall consider any individual under the age of 18 as a “child” or “young person”.

Amongst all the media frenzy and high profile cases, it is easy to forget that not all young people are sexually active.  However, there is no doubt that the constant pressures that they face everyday from their own peers, television, magazines, etc., can make it extremely difficult for a young person to decipher what is “normal” behaviour.  They are getting bombarded with huge volumes of sexual information from such a young age that they may not have developed the skills to know how to deal with this information.

A culture which continues to embrace hyper-sexuality and condones, and even encourages, the sexualized appearance of children, and which propagates the belief that self-worth and self-esteem are based on one’s perceived attractiveness and sexual experience, can lead many into a behaviour that they are not ready for and may not fully understand.

The State
The State has a number of responsibilities in the area of children and young people:

  1. Education

We welcome and acknowledge what is already being done by schools in the area of relationships and health education and would like to see these programmes continue.  However, the Social Personal and Health Education (SPHE) programme is currently only available at the junior cycle and we would like to see the development of the Relationships and Sexuality module, within the overall SPHE programme, as part of the core subjects at senior cycle. We also acknowledge that much of the pressure on young people comes from the attitudes of peer groups in school.  Current guidance services are mainly career oriented and there are inadequate counselling services in many schools. There is a need for well-trained and dedicated pastoral counsellors to be readily available to young people, as well as the provision of training for parents. Indeed, there is an urgent need for a specific pastoral presence in all schools.  In a society where both parents work and where there are few extended families, the State must provide formal training for parents at stages which correspond to key points in children’s development.

  1. Health

A sexual health strategy for young people is urgently required in this country.  Young people need to be better educated about the possible consequences of sexual activity, such as pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, together with a programme which develops self-awareness and a sense of personal integrity.  Discreet, supportive and easily accessible screening and treatment must be provided throughout the country. The provision of mental health services is also of paramount importance and there is currently a lack of appropriate mental health facilities for 15-18yr olds. 

  1. Advertising and the media

We believe that the sexual imagery and content in some television programming and advertising can have a confusing and potentially damaging effect on young people.  We would ask the State to encourage responsibility within the media to maintain appropriate standards regarding the content of such programming and advertising.  It should be noted that there is already a ban on cigarette advertising on television, replaced now by adverts that are designed to highlight the damaging effects of this habit. A media strategy to outline the possible consequences of early sexual behaviour would be equally appropriate.

We would also welcome a complete ban on credit card companies facilitating the downloading and purchase of child pornography.

  1. Legislation & the age of consent

While we would not consider lowering the age of consent merely to reflect a “reality” in society, neither do we believe that, from a legal point of view, criminalizing young people is in any way desirable. The Church of Ireland would accept the current legal position that no question of criminality arises if the parties to consensual sexual intercourse are aged 17 or over, despite the fact that one or both of them may still be children or young persons.

It must be acknowledged that, while we do not condone such behaviour, there is a difference between two 16 year olds having consensual sexual intercourse, and an older person preying on a vulnerable teenager, particularly through the misuse of a position of authority.  Perhaps the introduction of a “peer law”, where young people who are up to two years apart might not be committing a criminal offence, could be considered.  However, an absolute minimum age would always be necessary.  Of course, the whole area of what actually constitutes consent to sexual intercourse may need to be further defined in law.

The Constitution
In its response to the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution regarding the rights of the family, the Church of Ireland recommended that the rights of the child be expressly guaranteed in the Constitution:

Save in relation to the courts’ divorce jurisdiction, there is no specific reference to the rights of the child in Article 41.  The courts have however interpreted the Constitution as conferring unenumerated Constitutional rights on children arising particularly under Article 40.3.  For the sake of clarity, and in line with the Constitution Review Group’s report, we recommend the express guaranteeing of the rights of the child in Article 41.  

We also strongly endorsed the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and asked for the inclusion in our Constitution of the list of children’s rights contained therein, as well as the principle that in all actions concerning children, primary consideration should be given to the best interests of the child.

We wish now to reiterate these statements and to re-emphasise the importance of the protection of children in all situations.

Parents
As the primary carers, parents have the primary responsibility of educating and guiding their children.  However, the pressures and difficulties that face parents today must not be ignored and support and training for parents to enable them to deal with issues as they arise is vital.  They need reassurance that skills are not automatic and providing information to parents regarding where they can go for counselling and advice must be an important consideration.  We believe that parenting courses, such as those provided by the Mothers’ Union, would be of excellent assistance in these situations.

The Church of Ireland
At the 2006 General Synod in Armagh, an additional chapter making provision for ministry with children was included in the Constitution.  While clear, formal guidelines in the form of Safeguarding Trust: The Church of Ireland Code of Good Practice for Ministry with Children have been in place in the Church of Ireland for over 10 years, it was considered essential that the Code be given formal recognition and constitutional standing by creating a new Chapter in the Constitution.  This addition has had a positive effect on the facilitation of youth leadership and offers protection to both children and the adults that work with them.

The Church has a role in upholding its Christian values, while acknowledging the reality of today’s society.  Young people need to be made aware of a standard of behaviour and those who do choose to live appropriately must be encouraged.  We should celebrate these children and promote holistic friendships and relationships.   

The General Synod of the Church of Ireland, Submission to the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution on Articles 40.3, 41, 42.1 and 42.5 of the Constitution relating to the Family, January 2005