The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill, which would close a number of loopholes exposing children to online abuses, will be debated in the Dáil this week.
Ms Fitzgerald said the proposed legislation would create a number of offences that would carry prison sentences of between 10 and 15 years.
The bill addresses gaps in the law relating to online grooming and child pornography. In particular, the bill criminalises the viewing images of child porn-ography. Currently, images of child pornography must be downloaded to be an offence.
“It is bringing our legislation up to date with, unfortunately, what is the ongoing sexual exploitation of children,” said Ms Fitzgerald, adding that she wants to see the bill enacted as soon as possible.
“I would like to see it in place by the end of the year,” she said.
Ms Fitzgerald was speaking in Dublin yesterday before she opened a conference on the bill, hosted by the Children’s Rights Alliance.
She said some changes would be made to the bill about protecting counselling notes, a matter that was raised in the Seanad.
She wants to make sure people who attend counselling could have a sense of security around the future of what they disclose.
“So I will be clarifying the law around that and making sure that there are proper protections in place and where there is going to be disclosure that it is very clearly understood that the law will apply.”
Ms Fitzgerald said it was critical to target those who would seek to make a child familiar or comfortable with sexual acts or activity or imagery to facilitate further, and more direct exploitation of that child.
“The detail with which these offences are set out in this bill is to put beyond doubt the type of behaviours and activities which will be targeted,” she said.
Special rapporteur on child protection, Geoffrey Shannon, said the bill was one of the most important pieces of legislation since the foundation of the State, in not only protecting children but vulnerable adults as well.
“Our children are our most valuable natural resource, and I think it speaks volumes if our police force values that,” said Prof Shannon.
ISPCC chief executive Grainia Long said the group was disappointed that the legislative process has taken so long — it has been two years since the general scheme of the Sexual Offences Bill was published.
Children’s Rights Alliance chief executive Tanya Ward said children in Ireland use the internet more than their European counterparts and many young people are using online ways to socialise and meet people for the first time. “We are absolutely clear that this legislation has to be prioritised and enacted as soon as possible,” said Ms Ward.