The scale of sexual abuse of children by children is a reality that Irish society “must urgently face up to”, campaigners have said.
It comes as new figures show that 20% of detected sexual violence reported in 2019 involved juveniles as both victims and suspected offenders.
There are now calls for a multi-agency national strategy to combat child sexual abuse and update sex education in schools.
A report by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) also shows that almost 62% of all victims reporting sexual violence in 2020 were under the age of 18, including offenders who are adults.
The analysis by the CSO reveals that 99% of suspected offenders of reported sexual violence were male.
It also shows a significant increase in the proportion of assault victims who are female in 2020, compared to 2019, which the CSO said “may be an effect of Covid-19 lockdowns”.
However, there has been a bigger reduction in the number of female victims of murder and manslaughter.
In relation to child-on-child sexual abuse, the CSO report shows that 20% of all detected sexual violence crimes reported in 2019 involved a victim under 18 and a suspected offender under 18. That proportion rose from 16% in 2018.
“While sexual violence seems particularly horrifying where children are both the victims and the perpetrators, this is the reality we must urgently face up to," said Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) executive director Clíona Saidlear.
"We must understand how we do this and what we need to do to change.”
Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC) chief executive John Church said it welcomed the reporting of such cases and urged that children and young people be empowered and equipped with the language to recognise and report inappropriate sexual behaviour.
He said the ISPCC's Childline Listening Service answered over 2,100 online messages, calls, and texts in 2020 from children and young people concerned about sexual abuse.
Mr Church said sexual violence can have "a devastating and long-lasting impact" and could change the course of children’s lives.
“An updated programme of relationships and sexuality education (RSE) in our schools is vital,” said Mr Church.
He said children search online for answers to questions not covered in RSE.
"The results to these searches can be pornographic in nature. It is essential that the negative impact of pornography form a central part of discussions on reforming SPHE and RSE.”
Mary Crilly, director of Sexual Violence Centre Cork, said the figures show that this behaviour starts in the teenage years.
“Rape is about power and control and a very deliberate act," said Ms Crilly. "It is too easy to say young boys are experimenting or didn’t mean it or thought they had consent."
- National Rape Crisis Helpline, 1 800 77 8888; rcni.ie; Childline chat online at childline.ie, call 1800 66 66 66, or text 50101; Sexual Violence Centre Cork, 1800 496 496; cari.ie or 1890 924 567.