News Roundup

Warning of ‘tsunami’ of child exploitation, experts voice ‘unequivocal opposition’ to 13yr age of digital consent

Leading experts have told an Oireachtas committee they are “unequivocally opposed” to Government plans to set the digital age of consent at 13, and warned that the State faces “a tsunami” of cases of child abuse and exploitation over the internet.

Dr Mary Aiken, an adviser to the European Cyber Crime Centre at Europol, addressed the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Children and Youth Affairs on Tuesday alongside Prof Barry O’Sullivan, who is director of the Insight Centre for Data Analytics at UCC.

The committee meeting comes weeks after Dublin man Matthew Horan was sentenced to nine and a half years in prison for blackmailing young girls into sending him sexually graphic photos and videos.

After hearing of the “pernicious effect” that social media can have on the self-esteem of children, the committee also discussed the digital age of consent, whereby children may use many websites and social media platforms without requiring the consent of their parents. While the Government’s Data Protection Bill 2018 would enshrine an Irish digital age of consent at 13 years old, both experts said they were “unequivocally opposed” to the proposal.

“You can’t buy a dog licence at 13, but we could have a situation in May where kids can sign up to a system and give a social media company access to their information, including the likes of family photos,” said Prof O’Sullivan. “Companies can collect, record and share a child’s home and school address, their location, their date of birth, their photos, phone number, their likes and dislikes, who they know, and the content of their conversations, including messages sent privately. Not only does this present a security risk to the individual child but, by association, it also presents risk to the family.” Both experts said an optimum digital age of consent would be 16-years-old, and that “robust age verification” online was “critical”.

A host of children’s rights organisations previously backed setting the age at the minimum possible for EU law, 13 years of age, including the Ombudsman for Children, Dr Niall Muldoon, the special rapporteur for child protection, Dr Geoffrey Shannon, the Children’s Rights Alliance and the youth information website


Rate of Down’s syndrome abortions compared to Nazi eugenics at Church of England’s General Synod

The rate of Down’s syndrome abortions in the UK and Europe is akin to Nazi eugenics, the Church of England’s General Synod has heard. Speaking during a debate on pre-natal testing, Andrew Gray, a lay member of Synod, said: “We live in a society that claims to value and appreciate those who are different and those who have a disability and yet what we say and do are two different things. In countries like Iceland Down’s Syndrome has been virtually eliminated”.  He continued: “What we have is a very simple situation. The UK and Europe has begun to practice eugenics, by default, and without intent. This is not because of a state-led desire to remove those considered weak or sub-human – we don’t live in 1930s Germany, thank God. But while the reasons and the motivations are different, the outcome is the same. I refer to 1930s Germany with some caution because the Third Reich has a habit of being drawn into these debates, but quite frankly, with this one, there are some stark comparisons.”

Synod members unanimously passed a motion calling for the Government to ensure that “unbiased information” is given to expectant parents who are told their unborn child has Down’s Syndrome. The Synod raised concerns that women were being put under pressure to abort such babies and urged doctors not to frame such a pre-natal test result as “bad news”. Earlier in the week the actress Sally Phillips, who has a son with Down’s Syndrome, said women were “over and over told by implication but also overtly that they will not be able to cope with a Down’s Syndrome baby”. She told a small group of Synod members that a pregnant friend had been “rung nine times during her pregnancy to be offered and offered and offered a termination in case she changed her mind”.


Churches in Australia demand new ‘religious freedom’ law to combat era of ‘hatred’

Numerous Churches in Australia have joined together to call for a Religious Freedom Act, similar to a charter of rights, that would enshrine in law and spell out in detail the human right to religious freedom of faith communities. “We’ve never needed to protect religious freedom before, but now we do,” said author Patrick Parkinson, a professor of law at the University of Sydney.

Essential to the proposed law, submitted to a Government review of religious freedom, is the right for church-run organisations – including schools and aged care homes – to hire and fire staff in accordance with their values. That would extend to employees who enter into a same-sex marriage following its legalisation late last year. The proposal described that freedom as “an existential issue for faith communities of all kinds”, saying if a Christian school cannot select its employees then it “will be indistinguishable from the state school next door”, just as Christian health facilities would “quickly lose their character”.

The churches have also asked for: changes to the Marriage Act to ensure facilities such as school chapels cannot be used for same-sex weddings against the wishes of the diocese, even if the school principal gives permission; the right for parents to remove their children from public school programs that don’t accord with their values; and the creation of a “national religious freedom commissioner” within the Australian Human Rights Commission.

While the issue of religious freedom was sparked by the legalisation of same-sex marriage, the churches said the issue was much broader, and it was a “completely false dichotomy” to claim religious rights were in conflict with LGBTI rights.

“The new frontier is gender identity,” the churches argued, deeming it a “new and popular” cause. It was also about “the normalisation of a particular, boundary-free attitude to consensual sexual conduct that conflicts with the moral values of a great many Australian parents”.

The Government inquiry into religious freedom was told extra protections for people of faith were necessary in an increasingly secular era in which there is “hatred against people of faith” and where “there is no longer a consensus that religious freedom matters”. Professor Parkinson said a federal law to codify religious freedom “may be rarely invoked” against the states and territories, but would have a “more educative effect” as to the legal boundaries.


Amnesty refuse to return illegal donation, launch High Court challenge instead

Amnesty Ireland (AI) continues to dispute an order from the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) requiring it to return an illegal €137,000 donation from US-Hungarian billionaire, George Soros, and his Open Society Foundation, which it used to fund its campaign to change the State’s abortion laws. It has instead brought judicial review proceedings against Sipo, Ireland and the Attorney General. It claims Sipo erred in law, acted in excess of its jurisdiction, misdirected itself as to the interpretation of electoral law, failed to give adequate reasons for its decision and acted irrationally and unreasonably. Because of this AI contends it should not have to repay the monies and that Sipo has breached its rights under the Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and EU law. Counsel for Amnesty, Mr Brian Murray SC, said the group fears the matter could be referred to the Garda, leading to a possible criminal prosecution, if it does not return the monies. It also fears reputational damage and financial hardship as it does not have any significant reserves and the monies would have to returned out of its budget for this year.

Nigeria: nine churches burnt down and dozens killed

In Nigeria, a new wave of attacks has seen dozens killed in Christian communities across the country and numerous churches burned to the ground. The violence has hit the north-eastern state of Adamawa, one of the most affected by Islamist group, Boko Haram, and also the Middle Belt states of Nasarawa and Benue, where Fulani herdsmen have caused havoc in recent years.
In Adamawa state, a Christian student was killed, and others injured, in an attack by Muslim students at a University in the state capital, on 4 February. Meanwhile, at least 30 people were killed in two separate attacks by armed men, believed to be Fulani herdsmen, against Christian communities in Song LGA, also in Adamawa state. In the central state of Nasarawa, some 25 villages have been destroyed since 15 January, as Nigeria’s Daily Post reported. The inhabitants of the affected villages are predominantly Christian farmers from the Tiv ethnic group. Two people were killed, and many others sustained serious injuries, in a fresh attack attributed to Fulani herdsmen in Waku village, Guma Local Government area, on 6 February. According to local media, several houses were set ablaze in the village. Benue state has been among the worst affected by Fulani herdsmen attacks in recent months. On 11 January, 73 people were buried during state-organised mass funerals following violence over the New Year in Makurdi, Benue’s capital.

Sexually transmitted disease in young people continues to rise

At least 5,200 people aged between 15 and 24 were diagnosed with either chlamydia, gonorrhea or genital herpes last year, representing a significant 11 per cent increase compared to 2016. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre’s (HPSC) provisional records show the most commonly diagnosed sexually transmitted disease among young people last year was chlamydia (3,730), followed by gonorrhea (872) and genital herpes (598). Dr. Dominic Rowley, a consultant in sexual health and HIV at the GUIDe clinic, St. James’s Hospital, said that all sexually transmitted infections are on the rise in Ireland.  While there is currently an outbreak of gonorrhea both in Ireland and worldwide, with 78 million people infected every year, he said the number of Irish people diagnosed with HIV has also increased by an alarming amount with a rise of between 35-50% since last year.
“Despite this, there has been very little discussion around the issue, or calls to increase the funding for treatment. This could be due in part to the stigma that still surrounds the issue of STIs. If the proper precautions are not taken, and if you don’t seek treatment after risky behaviour, the consequences can be serious. Chlamydia and gonorrhoea can cause infertility if left untreated and diseases like HPV can lead to painful genital warts that can be slow to cure.”
Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has joined with the Health Service Executive (HSE) to launch a campaign called ‘Shag’- in college campuses this week. The HSE ’s “Johnny’s Got You Covered” campaign team will be distributing condoms and lubricant to students this week at IT Carlow, Waterford IT, NUI Maynooth University and Queen’s University Belfast.

Row over sale of Dublin school playing fields escalates, now involves Attorney General

A dispute between a school’s patron and its board of management over the proposed sale of playing fields has escalated with the Minister for Education now seeking the advice of the Attorney General on the matter. At stake is whether the patron of the School, the Christian Brother’s led Edmund Rice Schools Trust (ERST), has the right to sell school property despite the objections of the board of management led by parents of students in the school. The board have taken a case to the High Court prompting the ERST to begin the process of dissolving the board for not acting in the best interests of the school. If the board is dissolved, then the High Court case would likely cease. However, the permission of the Minister for Education is required to effect the dissolution of the board, and he has now sought the advice of the Attorney General on the matter.

A spokeswoman for the Minister told The Irish Times: “The statutory process of dissolution is under way in which the Minister for Education must make a decision having considered the submissions made. The Minister has sought clarity from the office of the Attorney General in relation to the correct procedures to be followed as part of this process. It would not be appropriate to comment on the matters that are related to the dissolution.” It is not known when the Attorney General’s advice would be presented to the Minister, or when he would announce his decision. If the Minister sides with the board of management in this row, it could mark a major shift in the control of schools all over the country out of the hands of denominational patronal bodies.


No conscience vote on abortion insists Sinn Féin’s new party leader

Sinn Féin TDs will not be allowed a conscience vote on abortion and anyone who deviates from the party line will be disciplined, the party’s new leader Mary Lou McDonald has said. “It’s a matter of private conscience but it’s also a matter of public policy,” Ms McDonald told RTÉ’s The Week in Politics on Sunday. Asked if TDs could vote in accordance with their conscience, she said: “They do have to respect and uphold and vote in accordance with Sinn Féin policy.” If not, she said, they will be subject to disciplinary action by the party.

Her position stands in stark contrast to that of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, and even members of the cabinet, whose members freedom to vote and campaign in accord with their conscience on matters of fundamental beliefs is guaranteed. One of the most prominent and outspoken pro-life members of the Dáil is Sinn Féin TD, Peadar Toibin. He previously sacrificed his membership of the Sinn Féin parliamentary party when he voted against the 2013 abortion Act. He has already stated his opposition to repealing the Eighth amendment.


Minister for Health offers to help pro-abortion groups in repeal campaign

Minister for Health Simon Harris has offered his political support and assistance to two pro-choice campaign groups seeking a repeal of the Eighth Amendment. Mr Harris met the Women’s Council of Ireland and the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment on Friday afternoon to discuss the upcoming abortion referendum and legislation that would follow its passage. After the meeting, he told The Irish Times, “I was delighted to meet with representatives of the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and the National Women’s Council of Ireland to brief them. A strong civil society campaign will be key in the weeks ahead and I look forward to helping in any way I can.”

The Pro Life Campaign, however, accused the Minister of crossing a line. Spokesperson, Dr Ruth Cullen said: “Minister Harris has crossed a line by giving a private briefing to groups campaigning for abortion on demand. I think this latest initiative on his part will be widely perceived as unfair and even undemocratic. He is privy to the information he is imparting to them because he is a minister so any attempt to excuse it as something any TD could do simply doesn’t add up”

Dr Cullen continued: “As Minister for Health, Simon Harris has pointedly failed to meet or engage with people from the pro-life side, including families who say they owe the life of their child to the Eighth Amendment. He is also the Minister who is overseeing the referendum. With this role comes an obligation to maintain a high standard of objectivity. The way the minister is behaving at present does not inspire confidence that the forthcoming debate will be in any way fair.”


New Catholic school divestment process to follow survey of parents

A new Catholic school divestment process has been launched by the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton. Parents of pre-school children around the country will be asked to vote on whether they want a greater choice of primary schools in their area. A similar survey, which included parents of schoo-age children, was conducted in 2012. It found that less than 10 percent of parents wanted divestment.

The survey will be finished before the end of March and there is a commitment to agree detailed arrangements on school transfers by the end of June.

The survey will be conducted by local education and training boards (ETBs), which will compile a report on the process to be published on the Department of Education website. Where demand for the transfer of at least one Church-run school is identified, the local bishop will be expected to consult with the school and parents about options offered by other patron bodies.

The reconfiguration of a school from its Catholic patronage would also differ with school buildings being leased from the bishops for a small fee, rather than being sold through the legally complicated process of property transfers.