Call for greater legal protection for child sex abuse victims

The criminal justice system must be radically overhauled to give more protection to child sex abuse victims, it was claimed today.

The criminal justice system must be radically overhauled to give more protection to child sex abuse victims, it was claimed today.

An Oireachtas Committee called for video links for every courthouse in the country and for judges, gardaí and solicitors to receive specialist training in dealing with youngsters.

The all-party body stopped short of directly recommending a long-promised constitutional referendum on the rights of the child although Fine Gael members said it was essential to protect their welfare.

Children’s Minister Barry Andrews said the Government will now consider the Committee’s 80-page report and make a decision to pursue with either legislation or a referendum.

The committee called for a new criminal offence on the statute books to outlaw specific sexual acts with a child under 18.

A total of 39 recommendations in the report demanded regional child protections units within An Garda Síochána to investigate sex abuse offences and video recording facilities in all stations.

Barristers should also remove their gowns and wigs in court so they do not intimidate child witnesses, the second interim report said.

The Oireachtas Committee on the Constitutional Amendment on Children was set up after the Supreme Court struck down 1935 statutory rape laws in 2006, thus sparking a political crisis.

The court ruled the legislation was unconstitutional because it did not give offenders the defence of making a genuine mistake about the age of the victim.

The all-party body held dozens of public hearings in the past 18 months and received 175 written submissions from groups and individuals.

Committee chairperson Mary O’Rourke said the report wanted to ensure the highest protection of children from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse.

TDs and Senators also called for appropriate prosecution of offenders and enhanced protection of child victims in the criminal justice process.

Ms O’Rourke said: “Sexual abuse is an horrific crime which causes lasting harm to its victims.

“Child protection is everybody’s business. Children are the most vulnerable members of our society. We must therefore do all we can to protect them from those that could cause them harm.”

However Fine Gael said a constitutional referendum was essential and issued its own ’minority report’ on statutory rape.

Committee member, TD Alan Shatter said: “It must be a constitutional priority to protect children. The reform of the criminal justice system cannot take effect without a referendum.

Other recommendations from the report include:

* fast-tracking of cases so the trauma for victims is not prolonged

* further research on the best ways to cross-examine child witnesses

* a state support service for child witnesses

* changes to legislation to cover sports coaches who abuse children

* non-discrimination of children on grounds of gender or sexual orientation.

The committee also said that the accused must not use the dress and manner of the child or its previous sexual history to support a defence of honest mistake.

Children’s Rights Alliance chief executive Jillian van Turnhout welcomed the report and urged the Government to implement its recommendations immediately.

"We urge the Committee to now focus on formulating a wording for a constitutional amendment by October, in order to safeguard the rights of the over one million children living in Ireland," said van Turnhout.

"With the State about to report on its implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it is crucial that focus is maintained. Constitutional change is essential to make Ireland one of the best places in the world to be a child."

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