The range of abuse varies from non-contact, such as exposing themselves in public, up to rape.
The abuse is not confined to family members. Most victims are females, younger than the perpetrator.
Rhona Turner, chairwoman of the Irish branch of the National Organisation for the Treatment of Abusers (NOTA), said one third of Irish sex offenders were teenagers. One-in-four of these, first abused as a child.
While there are no national recorded figures for sex offenders, Irish childcare experts estimate 33% are teenagers.
However, Ms Turner said international research showed these teenagers would not automatically become adult sex offenders.
“The recidivism rates of 8%-10% show some will go on to commit abuse as adults. But what we don’t know is who will be in that 8%-10%.” Ms Turner said rates of re-offence shot up to 14% when considering adolescents that carry out rape of a peer.
Joan Cherry, director of the Dublin-based Northside Inter-Agency Project (NIAP), one of only two community based adolescent treatment programmes in the country, said society had previously tended to play down sexual abuse by adolescents. Her group has treated 140 teenagers since its inception in 1990.
“Up to 25 years ago, people really tended to minimise it, regarding it as a ‘boys will be boys’ experience.” But a growing body of research shows a more serious problem. “A study carried out in 1990, in what used to be the Eastern Health Board area, confirmed one third of all abusers were adolescents. A US study of convicted adult perpetrators showed 50% had carried out their first sexual offence when they were adolescents,” Ms Cherry said. But the catalyst that prompted a first offence varied. “It may be linked to loneliness or anger or an inability to form relationships with someone of their own age. Drink and drugs can be a factor in terms of lowering inhibitions. Or the fact they were victims of abuse.
“Studies we carried out showed 70% had suffered some form of abuse, approximately 20% sexual.”
Domestic violence, a conduct disorder, a history of animal cruelty, multiple care placements and arson can also be warning signs, she said.