Child sex abuse: Focus on strangers ignores real risks

Statistics show that 93% of sexual predators are known to their victims. Parents who ignore this in trying to keep their children safe are only exposing them to risk, writes Rita de Brún.
Child sex abuse: Focus on strangers ignores real risks

THE oddball lurking in the shadows. The shifty-looking loner hanging around the school gates. The driver of the parked van. If only it were that simple. If only we could tell at a glance if someone was assessing our children as prey.

There’s always a predator on the loose. We can’t always watch our children and keep them close. So we comfort ourselves by fuelling the myth that sex predators waiting to pounce come in easily recognisable categories; that they’re either strangers in general, or stereotypical weirdos in particular; that they’re the sort that decent, law-abiding citizens could red-flag as dangerous with one superficial, side-long glance.

If that line of thinking is a comfort, it’s also misguided, as when it comes to endeavouring to keep our children safe, stranger-danger — in all its terrifying manifestations — is statistically and realistically the least of our worries.

The vast majority — 93% — of sexual predators are known to their victims. This sobering fact comes courtesy of the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland (RCNI) 2014 Statistics Report, a document which throws light on the darkness of, and elucidates some harrowing truths about, sex abuse in Ireland.

Of the children under 13 that the RCNI came into contact with last year, 45% disclosed they were abused by family members or relatives. Of the 13-17 year olds, 43% said they were abused by non-family members, which according to the report, were most likely to be friends, acquaintances or neighbours.

While strangers didn’t feature largely among those who sexually abused children, other children surprisingly did. Some 37% of those who sexually violated children were other children. Of those offenders, 97% were male.

Of victims who linked in with the RCNI, just 33% reported the crimes to gardaí. As for the unknown number who didn’t report their abuse to either the RCNI or the gardaí, it’s likely that reluctance to endure the ordeal of a trial would have played a role. It’s likely too that the vice grip of silence that engulfs so very many of those who survive crimes of this nature, is firmly allied with the fact that the vast majority of sex offenders are well known to their victims.

Because so many sex crimes never come to light, we don’t know whether the number of offences in Ireland is rising, falling or remaining static. But what we do know is that the number of recorded sexual offences is on the rise.

In 2004, 1,752 sex crimes were recorded. Ten years later, that number was 2,065. In the intervening decade, the number peaked in 2010, with 2,366 sexual offences logged. In the 12-month period ending March 2015, CSO figures show the number of recorded sexual offences rose by 2.8% (up from 1,995 to 2,051).

There were 1,420 names on Ireland’s sex offenders register in May 2015. In August of this year, it was confirmed that 94 of those named on the register are currently being supervised in the community post release from prison. There were 401 sex offenders within the prison service.

According to Children at Risk in Ireland (CARI), the HSE received 3,385 new cases of child sexual abuse in 2013.

Figures from One in Four are equally grim, claiming that 27% of youngsters are sexually abused by their 18th birthdays.

Fewer than 15% of that organisation’s clients go to the gardaí to report the abuse, allowing the majority of sexual predators to remain at large. Terms used by clients to describe the criminal justice system include “alienating, traumatising and dehumanising”. Of those who engaged with the criminal justice system, only “a small proportion of cases” proceeded to trial. But that doesn’t mean those suspected of crimes are entirely left to their own devices.

They’re not.

The gardaí, the Probation Service and Tusla work with the HSE and other organisations to monitor and otherwise engage with those who have been convicted of sex crimes. They also work with those who, while never convicted, they have reason to suspect of such crimes.

Focussing attention on stranger danger is perilous. It diverts attention from the dangerous individuals known to the individual/family, individuals who are far more likely to do harm than any stranger or any unknown convicted sexual offender.

Satisfying ourselves that no convicted sexual offenders live in the vicinity of our kids, serves only to build a false sense of security, when the reality is that vigilance must be exercised at all times so as to protect kids from those who have access to them, individuals they know and trust.

The number of those with either an inclination to behave in this way or a track-record of doing so, is entirely unknown, as only a tiny minority ever come to the attention of the gardaí.

CORK-BASED psychologist and sex offender risk assessor, Dr Joe Sullivan, puts it this way: “According to the SAVI (Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland) report, only about 5% of victims report abuse and of that 5%, only about 7% of the allegations lead to convictions. So, the convicted sexual offenders are more or less the 7% convicted of the 5% reported.”

Denis Naughten is one of the most vocal and passionate politicians about reforming legislation to better protect society from sex offenders. For him, the biggest bar to reducing risk from sex offenders is our legislation: “The Sex Offenders Act 2001 which governs the conditions for registration is not fit for purpose and needs to urgently be reformed to ensure the more effective management of these individuals.

Denis Naughten
Denis Naughten

“Our sex offender legislation is out of date and fails to meet even the most basic requirements.”

“When members of the public hear that a high-profile sex offender has been released from prison, they feel assured, believing there’s a physical register of those individuals that’s being monitored and scrutinised on an ongoing basis — which is simply not the case.”

Mr Naughten is unimpressed by the notification requirements that apply to some categories of sex offenders in Ireland.

“To comply with the so-called register, an offender need only reside for one out of seven days at a stated address. He could be anywhere for the other six days.

“He doesn’t have to supply a photo or fingerprints. The other problem with the so-called register is that even though it’s so easy to comply with it, about 10% of those on it have breached it.”

While some breach these laws, others have gone so far as to challenge them in the courts. Earlier this year, a 31- year-old man lost his High Court challenge to the statutory requirement under the Sex Offender Act 2001, to notify a change of address to gardaí. In 2004, he pleaded guilty to a rape which occurred when he was 13.

Deputy Naughten believes the notification periods for sex offenders here should be in line with those in Britain: “They did away with the seven day notification period in the UK some years ago.

“Because we have yet to do that, it has been said that the Irish system puts this country at risk of becoming a haven for sex offenders, and sure enough, one such individual who was wanted in Scotland was found hiding out in Kerry just recently.

“Under the terms of the Child Sex Offenders (Information and Monitoring) Bill 2012, which I published and which is already in the system and accepted by Government, Ireland will be in line with the UK in so far as three days will be the maximum the sex offender can be gone from the address he gave to gardaí, before there is an obligation on him to inform the authorities of his whereabouts.”

Electronic tagging of dangerous sex offenders is something about which the deputy feels strongly. “If a sex offender wants to reoffend he will do that if he can, and electronic tagging would help prevent that.

“Last year, the prison service purchased 60 or 70 electronic tags to monitor high- risk offenders post release. Before that purchase, they had a dozen or so, but used only two or three of those to tag prisoners who were released to go into hospital. Until the new legislation comes in, those new tags will sit gathering dust in a box somewhere.”

Given that young teenagers who have consensual sex can end up being labelled sex offenders, Mr Naughten is in favour of the introduction of spent conviction legislation: “The reality is that some individuals do stupid things when they are young. Why should their lives be completely destroyed by having their names go on a sex register for that, especially when they then go on to live exemplary lives?

“Also, if a 16-year-old commits statutory rape with his younger girlfriend, he may go on to marry that girl and never pose a risk in the community. His information to my mind should not be accessible anywhere as he doesn’t pose a risk.”

There are two core aspects of his bill introduced in 2013. One is to close off loopholes on the sex offenders register. The other is to introduce a type of Sarah’s Law in Ireland. “We are a very small country. We don’t want everyone’s private information blasted all over the place. But we need checks and balances and that’s partly what this Bill is about. If parents have a concern about an individual who is associated with their child, they can go to the gardaí and ask if there is anything about which they should be concerned.

“What’s worrying is that while most people think it’s usually a family member who abuses kids, the reality is that it’s more often someone close to but outside the family, or someone who befriends the family so as to have the opportunity to abuse a child.”

However, Mr Naughten’s bill has effectively been parked for the best part of two years: “I am pleading with the Justice Minister Francis Fitzgerald in the interests of children, women and vulnerable adults, that she will now direct her officials to bring my legislation through committee and report stages in the Dáil, so that we can at least ensure that we have an effective sex offenders register in this country, and so that parents can for the first time get access under the law to information about high risk offenders that might have direct access to their sons or daughters.”

Confirming he hasn’t received a reason for the delay, he says: “If complexity is the cause, then it would make sense if the sections that are causing difficulty could be left out and introduced as soon as possible after the legislation is enacted... On the other hand, there should be and there are in place public protection arrangements, in order to assess the risks they continue to pose, together with supervision of them in the community, so that the public is protected.”

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