Child sexual assaults ‘tip of iceberg’

AN alarming rise in child sexual assaults for the first three months of this year is just “the tip of the iceberg” support group and counselling service Children At Risk in Ireland (CARI) said yesterday.

“There has been a substantial increase in demand for our services in the past year,” according to Mary Flaherty, the foundation’s national director. “There are also many more cases being processed through the courts which are not included in the figures.”

She was commenting on quarterly figures released this week by the Department of Justice. They show that although overall crime rates are down, some offences recorded a substantial increase. Convictions for child rape more than doubled in the past year.

“Convictions are only a tiny part of overall cases,” said Ms Flaherty. “Calls to our helpline have risen by a fifth in the past 12 months. It is hard to say whether this is because there are more assaults occurring or because victims find it easier to report incidents. It is probably a bit of both, although the climate for disclosure is certainly better than it was 10 or 15 years ago. It is still very difficult, however, to encourage someone to issue a formal complaint when a sexual assault has taken place.”

She welcomed the department’s decision to issue quarterly crime figures but said it was difficult to extrapolate any emerging trends over a three-month period.

Justice Minister Michael McDowell said that while he was slow to draw too many conclusions from the figures, they demonstrated that a targeted use of police resources could achieve results.

However, overall figures for child sexual assaults show an upward spiral over the past year. Such is the demand for support services that organisations at the forefront of helping abused children are finding it difficult to cope. The Childline service run by the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) received almost half a million distress calls last year but were hard-pressed to answer one in five of these.

This, however, was double the level of calls answered the year before, a situation which prompted the Department of Social Welfare to fund a study of the Childline service.

During 2002, Childline began an accredited volunteer training programme in conjunction with University College Cork and the Children’s Research Centre, Trinity College, was commissioned to conduct an independent review of the service.

However, Childline’s latest figures show that the service answered 31,324 more calls in 2002 than it did in 2001, a hopeful sign, said Paul Gilligan, the organisation’s chief executive.

“The figures once again indicate how vital Childline is to children in Ireland. Not only is the service providing much needed support, advice and comfort but it also provides us with a template of the types of problems and issues facing young people in modern Irish society. The massive increase in the number of calls answered is heartening although the service is still distressed by the calls that go unanswered and is committed to the challenge of striving to answer all calls.”

According to the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, the umbrella body for rape crisis centres throughout the country, the vast majority of victims do not make a report to the gardaí.

“A major study we carried out last year showed that less than one in 10 victims report the crime,” said Ingrid Wallace.

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