The clinical director of One in Four has said the families of those caught and convicted for offences including possession of child abuse images must accept that their lives will never be the same and ideally adopt a role in helping to monitor the offender into the future.
Eileen Finnegan made her comments after a week in which a number of people contacted RTÉ radio’s Liveline programme to outline the stigma of being associated with a sex offender.
One caller, a woman named Mary, recalled the circumstances in which her son was arrested.
She outlined how as many as eight gardaí arrived at her home with a search warrant and proceeded to look at her son’s laptop.
“He admitted everything there and then in front of us,” she said.
“That is when our whole world crashed and this existence came about then.”
The man, who had just turned 19 at that time, is now serving time in prison and had been viewing the material for three years.
His mother said he was and still is “a great lad” to her but added: “We do not condone this in any way, shape, or form.
“But we have a person that we love very much who in one instant turned into a total complete stranger to me.
“I can’t walk away from him,” she said.
“Life is not over, this doesn’t define us,” she added, although she admitted “trying to get that help is so hard”.
Mary described the “pure shame and fear” as an obstacle to getting the help required. They later completed 18 months of therapy.
She then described the court case as “very public” and “a public flogging”.
One in Four offers support to all individuals who have been impacted by sexual violence and Ms Finnegan expressed sympathy for innocent family members whose lives are irrevocably altered by the behaviour of a loved one, adding: “That knock on the door is horrendous.”
But she also said that there can never be any minimising of the offence carried out and that the focus needed to be first and foremost on the victim and on protecting children.
“I have not worked with one offender who thinks they are going to offend,” she said. “I am [working with them] after the train crash.”
As for the families, she said: “We will say, if you want to understand or reduce recidivism, this is what your life is going to look like.”
Ms Finnegan said those family members were “victims of the offender, not victims of society”.
We need to have a conversation about this, that whether you like it or not, how come young people are taking an option, and moving towards sexual offending rather than normal sexual behaviour?
She said that in addition to the young people coming to the attention of the service, there had also been a growth in the number of men aged in their 50s and 60s who had also been caught viewing child abuse material online.
Mary told Liveline that she and her family blamed themselves and had asked themselves where they went wrong, but Ms Finnegan said in other cases this was not the approach taken, with people’s views “clouded”.
She said that in the course of her work, “I was expecting the trauma of the victim, and the distortion from the perpetrator, but what I was not expecting was distortion and minimisation by the family member.”
She said such offending had to have consequences for perpetrators.
“We need to prevent children in the future being offended against,” she said, adding that from the family’s perspective: “The person to be angry with is the person who brought you here.
“We can help you [the family] help them [the perpetrator] but you have to understand what we need from you.”