Coercive control and vulnerable adults

In a recently published survey commissioned by Safeguarding Ireland in the Republic of Ireland, the following information on vulnerable adults/adults at risk was highlighted:

  • 30% have witnessed coercive control and 13% have a personal experience
  • Expanded laws on coercive control are needed to protect more people, particularly the vulnerable.

Greater public awareness is needed of coercive control after new research commissioned by Safeguarding Ireland found that 40% of people don’t understand this type of abuse.

In research carried by RED C on a representative sample of 1,000 adults, 25% said they were not familiar with coercive control at all, while 15% said they had heard the term but did not understand it. Just over a quarter (28%) said that they understood it.

When then provided with an explanation of coercive control – 30% said they had witnessed this happening to someone they knew and 13% said they had experienced it themselves.

However, Safeguarding Ireland Chairperson Patricia Rickard-Clarke said she believes coercive control to be even more prevalent because of the low level of understanding, particularly in relation to it occurring to vulnerable adults. “Domestic abuse within an intimate couple is widely reported to have increased significantly during COVID-19 and this is generally what is understood to be coercive control. However, coercive control is much broader than physical assault, can be subtle and can occur in any close adult relationship, with vulnerable adults particularly at risk.”

“Coercive control could be detaining a vulnerable person at home, keeping their phone from them, controlling their money or medical care, preventing contact with family and friends, or constant undermining of a person’s independence and making decisions on their behalf.”

“It is the use of threats, humiliation, intimidation, or assault to make a person dependent, to isolate them in order to exploit and deprive people of their rightful independence.”

The RED C research found that almost a quarter of cases witnessed occurred outside of intimate relationships including between frail older people and family members, or in the care of people with intellectual or physical disabilities either at home or in an institution.

Ms Rickard-Clarke continued to say that the law also needs to change to recognise that coercive control occurs outside of intimate relationships. “Our current laws only recognise coercive control as an identifiable crime in the setting of an intimate relationship between a couple. However, this research shows that despite a low level of understanding of coercive control, people can still readily recognise significant levels of this abuse in settings outside of intimate relationships. I suspect that, if understanding of coercive control was higher, people would identify an even higher incidence of it occurring, particularly involving psychological abuse of vulnerable adults.”

“Safeguarding Ireland is calling for our laws on coercive control to be expanded to include the coercive control of another person as a crime in any close adult relationship. This is particularly important for vulnerable adults.”

More information on coercive control is available on the Safeguarding Ireland website.

Safeguarding means living safely, free from abuse or neglect. It means our choices, particularly if we are vulnerable, are clearly heard and respected.


Further Information –
Safeguarding Ireland promotes safeguarding of vulnerable adults to protect them from was all forms of abuse by persons, organisations and institutions and to develop a national plan for promoting their welfare.

Understanding the nature of sexual offending

“He ruined my life when he was supposed to be protecting me.”

These are the words of a survivor of the paedophile John McClean, a former teacher and rugby coach in Terenure College in Dublin, who was sentenced last month to eleven years’ imprisonment, along with a three-year suspended sentence, for his crimes.

The trauma and suffering that McClean caused so many young men over decades was heard in court forty-seven years after he abused the first child.

This subject, one victim said, is one that “no one wants to talk about and no one wants to hear.”  It is a difficult and painful thing to look at but we have to understand the nature of sexual offending better and we have to understand the impact of abuse better.  If we don’t, that lack of knowledge can be exploited by people who have the intention to harm children.

In a powerful article, RTÉ’s Crime Correspondent, Paul Reynolds, recalled the experiences of the twenty-three men whose cases were part of this prosecution and described some of the lifelong impacts they have suffered: “Psychological and psychiatric damage, anxiety and depression, a lack of self-confidence, failed relationships, post-traumatic stress, broken families and addictions to drugs and alcohol … suicide attempts, homelessness and criminality.”

This paedophile was aware of his own power and used it to abuse children and manipulate and control other adults.  He identified and targeted children who were particularly vulnerable, and used a combination of physical strength, pretended friendship, and fear, to abuse them.  He created situations to be alone with children; he was cruel, operating in plain sight, hiding “behind a mask of authority and a cloak of respectability,” and making connections with parents so he could work his way into families’ homes.

The immense courage of these twenty-three men led to this conviction but as far back as 1979 an allegation was brought forward but was dismissed by a member of the clergy as untrue.  What amount of harm and suffering could have been prevented if this allegation were handled differently?

The nature of paedophilia and the types of impacts described above are the reasons why, in both jurisdictions, the Church of Ireland has in place its safeguarding policies and procedures.  This is not an issue for one religion or organisation; this is a risk for every faith and every organisation and no-one must fall into the trap of imagining that ‘this could never happen in the Church of Ireland.’

Safeguarding is at the core of the Church.  As the former Archbishop of Armagh, the Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke, wrote in the introduction to Safeguarding Trust: “Our work and ministry with children, and with adults who may (for whatever reason) be ‘at risk’, is a privilege but also a trust. We cannot betray that trust in any way if we are to fulfil our responsibilities as followers of a Saviour who came into the world that all may know safety and find salvation.”

If this article has affected you in any way, or if you require any more information about any of the topics covered, please feel free to contact the Church of Ireland’s Safeguarding Officers:

Robert Dunne, Safeguarding Officer (Republic of Ireland):
01 412 5661

Margaret Yarr, Safeguarding Officer (Northern Ireland):
028 9082 8860


Children and domestic abuse

By Robert Dunne.

On Thursday, 21st January 2021, a 53-year old man from Dublin became the first person in the Republic of Ireland to be convicted of the crime of ‘coercive control’.  He was sentenced to over ten years in prison after two years of vicious and cruel attacks on his former partner who was commended for her resolve throughout the legal process, and her actions and courage in the face of ‘unimaginable intimidation and terror’.[1]

This crime was introduced into legislation by the Domestic Violence Act 2018 in the Republic, which makes a number of significant, positive and long lobbied for changes to this crucial area of law.

In the past, a culture of ‘turning a blind eye’ to what went on between couples meant that often the victims of crimes and abuse were left alone and unsupported in their suffering.  It is better understood now that this culture of collusion has to change – a shift that is also assisted by the introduction of mandatory reporting of abuse against children under the national Children First guidance.

Coercive control is a persistent pattern of controlling, coercive and threatening behaviour which includes all or some forms of domestic abuse (which may be emotional, physical, financial, and/or sexual, including threats) by a partner, spouse or ex.  Coercive control can very seriously damage someone’s physical and emotional well-being and have lifelong impacts on the well-being of children exposed to it.

National data suggest around one in seven women and one in sixteen men in the State have experienced severe domestic abuse.  The same study found just 29% of women and 5% of men had reported abusive behaviour to the police.   In Northern Ireland, police deal with around 2,500 reports of domestic abuse each month.

Children can be both direct and indirect victims of abuse and there is a strong correlation between domestic abuse and child abuse.  Tusla, the Child and Family Agency, recognises domestic violence as emotional abuse of the child and recommends that child protection referrals are made where a child is present in a home where domestic violence is a concern. This includes a child under a year old.

At a time when families are restricted to home, where stress is so high and where normal routines and social connections are not possible, domestic abuse is a huge concern across our island.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that domestic abuse has increased since the beginning of the pandemic.  Women’s Aid, for example, reported a 41% increase in the calls they received from the start of the Republic’s restrictions to the end of November 2020. The Police Service of Northern Ireland responded to 549 more domestic abuse incidents in April and May last year than in the same months in 2019.[2]

If you are experiencing abuse or have concerns about a child in this situation, help and support is available by calling 101 or 999 in an emergency or through the following helplines:

Republic of Ireland

  • The 24-hour confidential Women’s Aid helpline on 1800 341 900.
  • Men’s Aid offers support between 9am and 5pm, from Monday to Friday, on 01 554 3811 and a listing of other sources of help which may be able to help outside those hours is available at
  • The Crime Victims Helpline can be reached on Freephone 116 006, from Monday to Saturday.

Northern Ireland

  • The 24-hour Domestic and Sexual Abuse Helpline on 0808 802 1414
  • Victim Support Northern Ireland provides a helpline on 028 9024 3133, during office hours, and the UK-wide National Supportline can be called at any time on 0845 30 30 900

[1] Sarah Benson, Chief Executive of Women’s Aid.  Latest news & releases | Women’s Aid – Domestic violence service in Ireland

[2] Women’s Aid (Northern Ireland). Unlock The Lockdown Press Release – Women’s Aid Federation Northern Ireland

New year’s meeting for MindMatters COI

On Monday 11th January, the first meeting with the researchers for the new Mental Health Promotion Initiative took place online.  Dr Katrina Collins of Collins Consulting and Kate Wilkinson, managing consultant with About Face Consulting Ltd, met with the project team and the steering committee Chair, Bishop Pat Storey, to begin the research phase of what is now called MindMatters COI.

The project was launched on World Mental Health Day in October 2020 to transform the understanding of, attitudes towards and responses to mental health within the Church of Ireland and the wider community.  MindMatters COI has been made possible by a significant grant from Allchurches Trust – one of the UK and Ireland’s largest grant-making charities.

The project will take three years to complete and begins with a study to establish the understanding of and attitudes towards mental health within the Church community and will be followed by individual dioceses being invited to apply for funding to support local mental health promotion initiatives.

Martin Rogan, CEO of Mental Health Ireland, endorsed the project in October,  saying that Mental Health Ireland “particularly welcome their approach of carrying out baseline research to establish the current needs of the community “.  Archbishop John McDowell said,  “My hope and prayer for this initiative is that as a serving church we will be able to be more effective in our ministry of comfort, of practical help and of hope, and in doing so to benefit those most in need  within our communities and beyond.”

For further information about MindMatters COI please send an email to .  A website for MindMatters COI is under development and more information about the research and how you can help will follow soon.

Samaritans online information session

Every seven seconds, Samaritans answer a call for help.  They are there day or night, for anyone who’s struggling to cope, who needs someone to listen without judgement or pressure.

Established in Ireland in 1962, there are now 21 Samaritans branches across the country, with more than 2,000 active volunteers. Samaritans is not only for the moment of crisis, they’re taking action to prevent the crisis.

Samaritans give people ways to cope and the skills to be there for others. And they encourage, promote and celebrate those moments of connection between people that can save lives. Samaritans offer listening and support to people and communities in times of need.

On Friday 11th December at 12pm, Anne Corcoran and Julie Aiken who work with Samaritans in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland will participate in an online information session about the important work of the organisation. In the lead up to Christmas when Covid19 restrictions are having such a significant impact on individuals’ wellbeing, why not attend this short event and learn about Samaritans and how they can support your work.

There will also be a short input on the new Church of Ireland Mental Health Initiative and an opportunity to ask questions.

Further details about how to register can be found online in the Training & Events section of the Safeguarding website, here. Places are limited so early booking is recommended.

Highly critical Safeguarding report on the Church of England and the Church in Wales

The Church of England failed to protect children from sexual abuse, and created a culture where abusers “could hide”, a report has concluded.

The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse’s report says the Church’s failure to respond consistently to abuse victims added to their trauma.  The inquiry said the Church did not take allegations seriously and neglected the “physical, emotional and spiritual wellbeing of children and young people in favour of protecting its reputation” – which was in direct conflict with its mission “of love and care for the innocent and the vulnerable”.  It added that alleged perpetrators were often given more support than victims.  The Church said it felt “shame” over the failings detailed in the “shocking” report.  The BBC News report is available at while the full IICSA report is available here.

Safeguarding policy updates

Since the launch of the new Safeguarding website in August 2020, the policies are now available on webpages and all changes made to them are updated on the website.  You can track these changes here.

Please be advised of the following important update from the Safeguarding Board to the Safeguarding policies for children and adults:

Best safeguarding practice by the Church in respect of convicted child sex offenders requires that they should not hold representational roles as this can be perceived to convey a position of authority by other members of the Church, both children and adults.  This can be particularly sensitive and potentially hurtful for anyone who has been harmed by a sex offender.
An individual who has been the victim of a sexual offence may have to manage lifelong consequences arising from that harm and their needs should be prioritised.  It is therefore regarded as inappropriate that someone with a conviction for a sexual offence would hold any role on a decision making body in the Diocese or in Church leadership of any sort, even when that role does not involve contact with children.

The wording above has been added to the policies in the following locations:

  1. Section 3 – The Importance of Good Recruitment, Selection and Management Procedures, here in the RI policy.  The same section in the NI children’s policy here .
  2. Here in the RI adult safeguarding policy (recruitment section E) and here in the NI adult safeguarding policy.


Diocesan Support Teams meet online

On Tuesday 8th September, an online, all-island meeting of the Safeguarding Diocesan Support Teams took place.  A very packed agenda included updates from each diocese on things like training needs, re-vetting, annual returns, safeguarding audits and child safeguarding statements.  One important initiative discussed was the piloting of audits online in the challenging circumstances posed by Covid 19.
A big thank you to all our Diocesan Support Teams for all their hard work on behalf of safeguarding in their diocese.

Supporting our children as schools re-start

By Peter Hamill and Robert Dunne.

Starting school again in autumn is always a time of change, new teachers, new subjects, new routines, exams, perhaps a new school.  How much more is this true in 2020?

Going to school has become a huge challenge for children, parents, school staff and those in management, and many parents and carers having managed lockdown may well be wondering what this next phase has in store.  As the schools look to reopen, advice is available to prepare their children to return to education in this new environment.

The Republic of Ireland’s National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) describes this year as “a time of change, with new rules and routines to learn, in order to keep everyone safe.” 

Change is a process, not an event, and it takes time.  It is often helpful where possible to take things in small bite sizes, one day at a time, and to encourage children and young people to do this, particularly in the early weeks.

Try to build in as much certainty as possible in a time that is so uncertain.   In time, a new routine will develop, and routines have value, in and of themselves for mental health because they provide predictability. 

Communication is important and everyone should be encouraged to communicate how they are doing, including when and how they are struggling with the pandemic, bearing in mind that it is completely normal to feel anxious during a time of change.

Schools have developed countless creative approaches locally and have been encouraged nationally to share pictures of what the school building will look like with families and staff before the re-opening takes place.  Being able to imagine the physical space is likely to be helpful to the student. 

Young people are resilient and learn from others.  This challenging time provides important opportunities for parents and educators to model responses and coping strategies that will help students to learn helpful ways to manage their own fears and anxieties. 

Mental health matters and everyone will need continued support as they adjust to the new term.  People respond to crises in different ways, and government public health websites provide pointers to help which include the importance of keeping in touch with friends, relatives, and neighbours, talking about worries, avoiding information overload, and keeping active.

The Northern Ireland Executive’s mental health advice gives specific guidance on talking with children about the pandemic, including not being afraid to ask children what they have heard about the outbreak.

Try to answer a child’s questions in a way that is appropriate to their stage in life and avoid giving them too much information.

The advice across the island is also to avoid over-exposure to news coverage of the virus.  Creative activities, such as playing or drawing, can help children to express how they feel about a crisis which has been without parallel in most of our lives.

Further information on children’s mental health is available at and

Dr Peter Hamill is Secretary to the Board of Education (Northern Ireland) and Robert Dunne is Safeguarding Officer for the Republic of Ireland.

This article was first published in the Church of Ireland Gazette.
Photo credit: Andrew Ebrahim/Unsplash

Adult Safeguarding

Today some members of the adult safeguarding panels in the Republic of Ireland met online to do refresher training.

All adults have a fundamental right to be respected, nurtured, cared for and protected from harm or the risk of harm. These basic rights are embedded in both our gospel values and within international and domestic laws.

However abuse does still occur. The 2018 Annual Report of the HSE National Safeguarding Office reported 11,780 adult safeguarding concerns, the highest annual rate reported by the Office to date, and a 14% increase from 2017. A report recent commissioned by the Banking & Payments Federation Ireland (BPFI) together with Safeguarding Ireland in October found that 20% of adults have experienced financial abuse.

The Church of Ireland adult safeguarding policy was adopted in April 2018. It is a set of principles and practice guidelines that inform our dealings with all of those we meet in the course of our ministry. We need this to help create a safer environment for everyone and so that we know how to respond to concerns.

Definitions as to what is meant by vulnerable adults or adults in need of protection are really important and these can be found on the website in the adult safeguarding sections, here for the Republic of Ireland and here for Northern Ireland.

Each diocese has an Adult Safeguarding Panel in place to support anyone who has any concerns and they liaise closely with the Safeguarding Officers.

If you have a concern the panels can be contacted by email and their details are available in each diocese.  Alternatively you can contact the Safeguarding Officers, details can be found in the contact section of the website.  

It is the policy of the Church of Ireland to safeguard all adults sharing in its ministry and to protect them from all forms of harm and abuse and the church commits itself to promoting a culture of zero tolerance of harm to adults.

Adult safeguarding is everyone’s business.  For further information please see the Church of Ireland Adult Safeguarding policies on our website.