But they also warned that no child is a match for a sex offender and their reaction in no way diminishes the crime perpetrated against them.
The ISPCC urged parents to start teaching their children about personal safety from as early as two, stressing in simple terms that they should never go off with anyone, even someone they know, without first telling their parent.
“You can teach basic safety skills to children as young as two and three — simple rules like it’s not ok to keep secrets,” said Caroline O’Sullivan, director of services with the ISPCC which has tips and advice on the subject on its website.
She said where children were too young for explicit conversations, they should be familiarised with the “underwear rule” which teaches that no-one is allowed to touch the parts of their body covered by their underwear or swimming togs.
“Children need to know that they don’t always have to do what adults tell them, and I suppose that goes against the grain of what we were always told as children — ‘do as you’re told’. But it’s really important that a child recognises that if an adult tells them to do something, they don’t have to do it. They can come and talk to you as their parent.”
Ms O’Sullivan acknowledged that it was a difficult area for parents, particularly as it was important that they let their children have some freedom. “We don’t want to have them at such a high anxiety level that everyone is out to get them,
“We can’t be with our children 100% of the time. Children go to school, they go out on the street playing with their friends, they attend birthday parties and that should continue. But really it’s about recognising that we do have to develop skills in our children so that they can be as safe as they can be when they are out in public.”
Mary Flaherty, chief executive of Children at Risk in Ireland stressed the importance of teaching children simple safety rules, but there were limits to what parents and children could do. “There is only one person who can be blamed here,” she said of the Westmeath case. “If you over-do the suggestion that [teaching children personal safety techniques] can protect them, it can increase the sense of guilt if something goes wrong.”
She also pointed out that the Westmeath case was a rare example of an attack by a stranger as most children who suffered sex abuse were preyed upon by someone they knew.
“It’s a very complex area if you teach a child only to trust family members and then a family member abuses them. I think the most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open and always pick up on the cues a child may give that something is wrong.”