The age of consent debate: Where does Ireland stand?

Ireland has one of the highest ages of consent in the EU. And until recently, Vatican City had the lowest, reports Peter O’Dwyer.

VATICAN City is a curious place. The walled Roman enclave is, of course, home to his Holiness but peculiarly, it is also home of the world’s highest per capita crime rate.

There is a straightforward explanation for this, however, given that fewer than 850 people live in the city. Thousands of tourists visit every year and pickpocketing is rampant. Another oddity that existed until last year is a little harder to explain, though — the exceptionally low age of consent for sexual activity in the State. In July of last year, Pope Francis raised the age of consent to 18 — the joint highest in Europe. Prior to his intervention it stood at just 12.

Worldwide, only Angola, Mexico and the Philippines have minimum ages of consent as low, although variations occur for a variety of reasons in what is a complex issue especially when considered across national boundaries.

In the Vatican’s case, the anomaly is again a little more convoluted due to the convergence of Italian and Papal law. In signing the Lateran Treaty of 1929, Vatican City became an entirely sovereign State but also adopted the Italian criminal code.

Italian law, in theory if not always practise, is intended to play second fiddle to divine law, Papal decrees and canon law; the laws of Catholicism in other words. As all sex outside of marriage is illicit in the eyes of the Church and, according to canon law, a man must be 16 and a “woman” 14 before they can marry, it’s easy to see how difficulties arise.

Add to the mix that the age of consent at the time of the Lateran Treaty was 12 but in modern-day Italy is now 14 and the Pope’s intervention is a welcome clarification amidst a fog of numbers, ancient laws and decrees.

As Vatican City climbed the age of consent ladder from the lowest rung to highest, where do other EU states fall between the two extremes and is there any uniformity across the Union? The simple answer is no, and the EU has no plans to harmonise ages of consent, either.

“The age of consent would definitely not be an area where the EU would seek to harmonise as it is a core Member State right well beyond the remit of the EU,” a European Commission spokesperson said.

Sweden, Denmark, Poland, France and Greece have all set the age at 15 — the most common in the Union. The Germans and Italians have opted for a year lower at 14 while the British, Dutch, Portuguese and Belgians lie an equal distance the other side of the median, at 16.

The Spanish have undertaken a similar alteration to that of Vatican City recently, in agreeing to raise their lower limit to 16 from 13; bringing the law there more in line with European norms.

With such an important issue, however, the goal is not to be in the majority but in the right or, in an imperfect and imprecise world, closest there to.

In Ireland, the age of consent has been 17 years of age since the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1935. Last year, ministers discussed plans to lower the age of consent from 17 to 16, but came to no decision. The proposal was first made by the Oireachtas Committee on Child Protection in 2006 and highlighted by Justice Minister Alan Shatter in 2012 as an issue that had been far too long ignored. At the time, Enda Kenny, then opposition leader, was vehemently opposed to any such changes.

“The decision is out of touch with the values and aspirations of the vast majority of parents in Ireland, parents who want to live up to their responsibilities to nurture and protect their children,” he said.

Some, like Young Fine Gael (YFG), are in favour of change, while others are dismayed by that prospect.

Last December, YFG President Dale McDermott said: “A lower age of consent will bring our laws into line with other EU countries and provide the legal recognition that people are having sex at a younger age.”

The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland (RCNI) is staunchly against any such move, however. Policy and communications director Clíona Saidléar says the age of consent is a child protection measure and it is hard to justify taking it away.

“If you lower the age of consent there are a lot of unknowns but there’s only one known and the known…is the State stops being responsible in the same way for that [any particular] child.

“That is a fact. What we [would] do is take a cohort of children outside of that particular care of the State,” she said.

A significant proportion of those seeking help from RCNI are children that have been abused by their peers, according to Ms Saidléar, who disputes the suggestion that maintaining the current age of consent facilitates criminalisation of consenting teens.

“It’s not at all that we’re advocating that the State prosecute teenagers who are doing consensual [sexual] experimentation, in fact our education programmes are all about working with teenagers to understand what a healthy relationship is and what the age of consent is.

“But as long as the conversation that we’re having ignores or minimises the fact that there are abusive relationships in those [teenage] years then we’re not helping teenagers to prevent what’s happening to them.”

Ireland is on the fringes in having an age of consent of 17, along with only Cyprus. But, according to Ms Saidléar, it’s a favourable position to be in and one somewhat envied by the RCNI’s partners in other EU countries.

“What our European partners were saying, at the Youth Sexual Aggression and Violence conference in Holland last year, is ‘look we’re really struggling to find a way to treat the teenage child because what we’re stuck with is: we either treat them as a child or we treat them as an adult and they’re neither’.”

“What the age of consent allows us to do is to permit the State to continue to intervene in a way that is suitable and is appropriate for the teenage child; in a way that you can’t do if the age of consent is 13 or 14 or 15,” she said.

With limits, exceptions and caveats across the globe ranging from women in Bahrain needing to be 21 to consent to sex if marrying without their father’s consent, to Japan’s limit, which is eight years lower, consensus, evidently, is tough to find.


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