A friend recounted discipline at school in the late 1960s. One master was prone to frequent outbursts of violent temper; he would rush down the classroom, his gown flying behind him, and slap boys who had been talking across both sides of the head. On one occasion, he hit a boy so hard that the boy’s spectacles flew across the room, smashing as they hit the floor. This caused a sternly worded letter from the boy’s parents who were faced with an optician’s bill. Thereafter, the master was very careful to remove the boy’s glasses, and set them on the desk, before vigorously slapping him across both sides of the head.
The incident was not untypical of Irish school life at the time and there were moments when masters were victims of attempted bullying by the boys. The school was a large Victorian building with sash windows and a class with an easily-intimidated master was about to take place in a first floor room. One of the boys decided to open the window and to climb out onto the window sill. He stood looking in while another boy closed the window behind him. The master was not to be intimidated, he proceeded to take the class ignoring the boy who stood staring in through the glass. At the end of the class, he said, “Oh, by the way, would someone let him in?” Such an incident now would make national news.
The Ombudsman for Children is today launching an inquiry into whether child protection guidelines are being observed amid concern that there is not consistent application of the guidelines. Yet it would demand an extraordinary degree of perception and knowledge to ensure that all abuse is prevented. In the days when abuse was an erratic staff member physically assaulting a myopic teenage boy, the matter was much clearer, but as definitions of abuse have, quite properly, developed, identification of that abuse has become much more difficult.
The Church of Ireland introduced its own child protection code “Safeguarding Trust“, a year before the Irish government’s Children First code was published; even in the 1980s, there were seminars at theological college on preventing child abuse. Safeguarding Trust states,
It is the policy of the Church of Ireland to set standards for the welfare of all children sharing in its ministry with a view to protecting them from physical, sexual and emotional harm.
Clergy and laity have, for more than a decade, attended training sessions on preventing the abuse of children; vetting is mandatory for anyone in a parish who will come into contact with children; but there is a sense that we are protecting those who are, for the most part, safe.
Drive around some areas late at night and the young children on the pavements are rarely those who are going to be much involved in church activities. Being ill fed, ill clothed, and knocked about, now fall within the terms of physical abuse; being allowed to wander through the streets at late hours without any supervision, and with no-one attempting to provide a proper home life, falls within the terms of emotional abuse; but who is going to resource the social services to sweep through entire areas? There are few votes in raising such concerns.
There will be the continuing presence of individual abusers, which necessitates rigorous child protection codes; but the abuse of children needs also to be addressed at societal level. It needs to be clear that some behaviour is not acceptable; there needs to be a culture of responsibilities as well as rights; there need to be leaders who stand up and say, “That’s it! Enough is enough!
As good as is Ms Logan, our Ombudsman for Children, she cannot change the world by herself.