Belfast Telegraph

Priest at Belfast school quizzed pupils about sex - report criticises child protection failings

By Allan Preston

A west Belfast school has been criticised for multiple weaknesses in its child protection measures after three pupils complained when a priest invited to the school asked them sexual questions in confession.

An independent review - ordered by De La Salle College's Board of Governors in January - detailed several flaws in how the school dealt with the childrens' complaints.

This included delays in reporting complaints to police, poor record keeping, and a lack of understanding of child protection issues.

The report centres on a visit by a Dublin priest to De La Salle College during May 2013, and of alleged inappropriate sexual conversations with three children.

The pupils complained separately to school authorities in June 2013, September 2014 and March 2015.

The PSNI previously confirmed the first complaint was dealt with in June 2013, but the remaining reports were not received until December 2014 and July 2016.

The review details that in May 2013, a session of confessions was held in the college over a number of days for some 160-180 pupils in years 10 and 11.

On June 14, 2013, a pupil told a teacher about his experience.

"He was asked if he masturbated, viewed pornography and how often," the report said.

"The teacher was concerned at this and made a child protection referral to the designated teacher."

A week later on June 21, an anonymous phone call was made to a Diocesan Safeguarding Office about the priest.

The office informed the school and referred the matter to the PSNI.

Two further referrals were made by teachers after pupils complained.

A long delay followed and the PSNI were not informed until November 2014 and March 2015.

Ultimately, as none of the pupils' parents wished to make a complaint, the PSNI did not investigate.

The report explained that the questions asked by the priest related to issues raised by pupils in class before the confessions.

The priest had been briefed about this and "this appears to be the rationale behind the questioning, however ill-advised and inappropriate".

The review team said that if the priest's questioning had been brought to the attention of Child Protection Service for Schools or social services, the advice would have been that it did not reach the threshold for a referral and should have been dealt with by the priest's parent organisation.

"The relevant church authority was advised of the concerns about the questioning and it did take action," the report said.

Serious problems with child protection in De La Salle were identified such as poor record keeping, a lack of cooperation between the safeguarding team and "the absence of a shared understanding on key aspects of child protection, such as, what constitutes child abuse".

Only the final complaint made in March 2015 had sufficient evidence for a full analysis by the review team.

"This case demonstrated good practice after a delay which exposed many system weaknesses," the report said.

The review team acknowledged that the "college staff has engaged in considerable efforts to rectify the deficiencies".

This includes a detailed Action Plan for 2017, although the report warned that constant staff changes and absence means there is "major concern" over the plan's long-term sustainability.

It adds: "This pattern must change if team members are to develop the appropriate competence in child protection matters that inspires confidence in members of the school community and ensures the best possible outcomes for pupils."

In an open letter to parents, De La Salle Board of Governors chair Monica Culbert welcomed the report and was "wholly committed" to implementing the report's recommendations.

She added the governors were very grateful to the review team for its "conscientious and sensitive manner".

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