Sexual abuse: Thinking the unthinkable

One In Four is well known for working with victims of sexual abuse. So many are shocked to learn it also reaches out to people who ‘exhibit sexually harmful behaviour towards children’. Caroline O’Doherty discovers how it’s all part of the work to protect all our children.

Sexual abuse: Thinking the unthinkable

When staff at the One in Four charity for victims of sexual abuse first heard they were taking on a new kind of client, some objected so strongly that management had to rent a separate premises to carry out the work.

That was nine years ago, when the thoughts of helping abusers was a step too far for people who spent most of their time surrounded by the shattered pieces of victims’ lives.

It was all the harder to stomach because these abusers had not paid their debt to society. They were self-confessed but non-convicted offenders, abhorrent in the eyes of the public but innocent in the eyes of the law.

“A lot of staff wanted nothing to do with offenders,” recalls Maeve Lewis, executive director of One in Four.

“We used to hire an office elsewhere to run the offenders programme.

“But all the staff have come on board and we all get it now. This is about preventing more people becoming victims. If we are ever going to break the cycle of abuse, we have to work with abusers.”

The service is called the Phoenix programme and it is the only one in the country working with non-convicted adult sex offenders.

It’s hard enough for the criminal justice system to deal effectively with them but gradually more therapeutic work is being done with prisoners in jails and more post- release supervision is being applied.

But what’s to be done about the non-convicted offender — the one who admits their crime but, for technical or evidential reasons, cannot be brought to court, or who is tried but not successfully prosecuted?

By law they’re innocent, so they aren’t on the sex offenders register, have no interaction with the probation service, and can’t be put under any court-mandated supervision order.

How does society guard against them reoffending? And if they take the initiative and want to change their behaviour, where can they get support?

“It’s a very, very challenging area,” says Detective Superintendent Declan Daly, who heads up the Garda National Protective Services Bureau.

Even the language is tricky.

“It’s not a term I agree with — ‘non-convicted sex offender’,” says Det Supt Daly. “A person is who is not convicted, you can’t call them an offender. There are principles of human rights there. We would call them ‘people who pose a risk to society’.”

They can’t be treated as offenders either.

Det Supt Daly says: “We don’t have the statutory powers to remove them from their employment, for example, or to prohibit them from accessing certain locations.

“Having said that, the State has an absolute duty to protect its citizens and where a person poses a risk of harm to another member of society then the State is entitled to step in and mitigate that risk in some way.”

A referral to One in Four’s Phoenix programme is often a first step. Usually Tusla is already involved, and gardaí will sit in on case conferences to work out what else needs to be done.

Tusla has significant powers to deal with a risk in the home, and often a voluntary agreement can be reached whereby the offender — or the child at risk — goes to live with other family members.

Alternatively, the agency can seek a formal long-term care order from the courts, removing the child from the family into residential or foster care.

Gardaí can flex their legislative muscle too, using Section 12 of the Childcare Act that allows them enter any premises without warrant and by force if necessary to remove a child without prior warning where a risk is considered serious and immediate.

Other times, a quiet word can be effective and, where an offender is not in a family setting and no specific child is at risk, a garda may approach an individual to talk through their situation.

Ironically, given the trouble the Catholic Church has caused in relation to sex abuse, it now offers one of the neatest solutions: Non-convicted offender priests can live in Church premises, their activities regulated and behaviour monitored by their superiors.

Other bodies such as the Teaching Council, the Medical, Council and the Nursing and Midwifery Board may also be brought on board if the risk involves a person working in those professions or associated fields.

“Some of the agencies enter into agreement with people who pose a risk that they remove themselves from their employment or enter covenants that they won’t be alone in the company of children or be in certain places,” says Det Supt Daly.

“It’s not ideal, but it’s an important step. If we’re not investigating a crime, we’re limited in what we can do. It’s important we don’t act outside our remit.

“But a garda deals with people who pose a risk every day. It’s the person who’s on the periphery of organised crime, or who’s associating with the gang carrying out burglaries, or who has the small quantity of drugs but is probably selling bigger quantities.

"You don’t have hard evidence against them and you don’t want to wait until they’ve committed an obvious crime to get evidence. You want to stop them committing an offence.”

Det Supt Daly won’t put a figure on the numbers of people who fall into this legal grey area, but there were 2,348 sexual offences recorded in Ireland last year — somewhere between one third and one tenth, of the actual offences committed.

While 750 rape and indecent or sexual assault offences were tried in court, there were just 309 convictions, so many defendants walked free — some actually innocent, some legally so.

Ms Lewis is equally cautious about quantifying the problem but the Phoenix Programme, with its sole base in Dublin, will work with 45 people this year, with many more on waiting lists. She believes if it could be run in every county in Ireland, it would have no problem filling places.

The reason it is confined to Dublin — although 75% of its clients come from outside — is resources. It will cost €280,000 to run this year, €80,000 of which comes from the HSE. The rest has to be found through fundraising, and that can be problematic.

“There are charitable foundations who do not want to support this type of work,” Ms Lewis explains. “We’re never going to be Tesco charity of the year.”

The project was thrown a lifeline this year by Danielle Ryan, Ryanair heiress and philanthropist, who agreed to fund two years’ salary for a psychotherapist.

It sounds a modest contribution until Ms Lewis explains that the programme has treated 155 sex offenders to date, just five of whom have reoffended.

“We know that sex offenders generally will continue to abuse children until they are caught, often abusing up to 50 children over the course of a life-time,” she says.

“This [Ms Ryan’s donation] will allow us to treat an extra eight offenders each year, saving many children from the devastating impact of sexual abuse.”

Ms Ryan acknowledges that the programme appeared “controversial” to some people but says she saw it as an essential child protection tool.

“I am eager to open up a larger conversation around this ongoing critical issue,” she says.

The programme requires a two-year commitment by the offender and a willingness to accept the harm done, and the steps that must be taken to change.

“We look at their life history. Around 30-40% have been sexually abused themselves and for the majority, there has been some sort of major adversity,” says Ms Lewis.

“We need to help them with the hurt they have experienced and make them understand the hurt they have caused. They often think it all happened by accident and they had no control over it. They have to understand the role played by alcohol, anger, the stresses in various life situations. They have to identify the risk factors that make them a risk to others.”

They also have to accept that attendance on the programme is not an amnesty from prosecution. A victim may change their mind and wish to press charges or a new offence may come to light and the gardaí will be called in.

“Two of our offenders were convicted and received substantial sentences so that does happen. There are no guarantees,” Ms Lewis says.

Securing co-operation by offenders is only part of the job — the programme involves families as much as possible and there can be resistance.

“Sometimes they don’t see the harm done,” says Ms Lewis. “Very often the wives and partners totally identify with the offender and very often they will talk about the child having ‘seduced’ him.

“They have to work towards understanding how they have failed as a mother in their duty to protect their children. We have women who really do make huge strides. They often have an ‘oh my God’ moment when they say: ‘How could I have thought that was OK?’

“But we have had some women who just could not get to that point and their children have been taken into care.

“It’s very, very heavy work. Abusers can be very charming and families can be very convincing. But this is about cutting through all that and protecting children.”

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