Child Rape Crisis

A shocking report was published three-and-a-half years ago revealing the scale of child sexual abuse. In the meantime the Government has failed to implement the key recommendations of that report and are still stalling. By Emma Browne, Sara Burke and Vincent Browne

The scale of child sex abuse in Ireland far exceeds anything disclosed in the revelations about the conduct of the Catholic clergy. More than 127,000 people have been sexually abused in childhood and only a tiny fraction of these – less than 5,000 – were sexually abused by members of the Catholic clergy.

The alarming statistics of the scale of child sexual abuse were disclosed three and a half years ago in a special study funded in part by Atlantic Philanthropies, the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Justice Equality and Law Reform: "Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland" (SAVI). It occasioned at the time mere bland observations by the then Minister for Health and Children, Micheál Martin, and the then Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, John O'Donoghue (observations published as forewords to the report).

Since then only one of the eight urgent recommendations of the report has been implemented by the Government. And although impressive guidelines on the handling of allegations of child sexual abuse have been introduced across state and voluntary agencies, there has been little follow-through on the auditing of the extent and effectiveness of their implementation. Most significantly, the urgent recommendation that a "comprehensive public awareness campaign on sexual violence" has not happened.

The abusers

The abusers are broken down into five categories, each responsible for almost the same amount of abuse: family members; neighbours; authority figures; friends/acquaintances; and strangers.

Contrary to popular belief, fathers were the abusers in only one per cent of cases of male abuse and 3.5 per cent of cases of female abuse. By contrast, uncles constituted four per cent of the abusers of men and 7.56 per cent of the abusers of women. Neighbours were the abusers in 20 per cent of cases and authority figures also in 20 per cent of cases. In the "authority figure" category, babysitters were by far the most prevalent abusers.

Combining religious ministers and religious teachers, they were responsible for the abuse of just 5.8 per cent of all boys abused and just 1.4 per cent of all girls abused. So the incidence of clerical child sexual abuse represents a small fraction of all child sex abuse.

Recommendations of SAVI report

The SAVI report recommendations included the following:

› A comprehensive public awareness campaign on sexual violence

› The availability of information on services dealing with sexual violence

› Addressing the barriers to the disclosure of sexual violence/abuse

› Further research on sexual abuse and violence

› The establishment of a consultative committee to ensure that the recommendations of SAVI and other reports be implemented.

Hannah McGee, the lead author of the SAVI report, said that at the time of publication "their main concern was whether the figures would be believed" as international experience showed that often such findings were disbelieved. There was a good response at first, with the report being welcomed by all working in the field but it died down very quickly after the launch in April 2002.

When asked what has been achieved since SAVI, Hannah McGee said that SAVI demonstrated that large scale sensitive surveys can be carried out. Since then there has been more research into areas of abuse and sexual health by organisations such as the ESRI and the National Crime Council.

Apart from progress in the area of research, McGee is unaware of progress on the other recommendations in SAVI, eg there has been no public awareness campaign, although this has been promised in the last week as a part of the response to the Ferns report – the launching of a major public awareness campaign was perhaps the central recommendation of SAVI.

A significant finding in SAVI was that 27.6 per cent of victims of sexual abuse were not aware what services were available to them. Therefore the recommendation to provide information on services was crucial. There is no evidence that this has happened.

Neither is Hannah McGee aware that any consultative committee on sexual violence had been set up – another key recommendation of the report.

Government inaction

Amid a semblance of urgency and decisiveness, Brian Lenihan, the Junior Minister with responsibility for children, announced in the wake of the publication of the Ferns report, that a public awareness campaign would be undertaken forthwith on the issue of child sexual abuse and there would be a review of the effectiveness of the Children's First guidelines which were first introduced in 1999.

But the public awareness campaign was the first and most urgent of the recommendations of the SAVI report published three and a half years ago and, to date, the Government has done nothing to implement it. Furthermore the announcement of a review of the Children First guidelines seems surprising for such a review was already undertaken by the Social Services Inspectorate (SSI) in 2003. It might be expected that Government action now would focus on the deficiencies identified by the Social Services Inspectorate.

The SSI report said many of the (then) health boards had made impressive progress in implementing the guidelines but "Garda/health board cooperation has been slow and there is a need for more work at health board and national level in order to implement aspects of the guidelines."

People working in the child care area said that there are differences in implementation across boards. There is a scarcity of social workers in many areas and a high turnover of social workers which, in itself, causes problems. This has led to "firefighting" and the neglect of ongoing services where needed.

The Programme of Action for Children in the Health Services Executive are currently reviewing the implementation of Children First, which raises further questions about the relevance of Brian Lenihan's announcement. A key expert in the area Dr Helen Buckley, of Trinity College Dublin, has recently published an article highlighting the key components necessary to any review of Children First.

Critical to the child protection strategy has been the Stay Safe programme – to promote awareness among children regarding sexual abuse. This was introduced 12 years ago. All schools were given one day in service training, since then training inputs are provided on request. The Department of Education and Science says 82 per cent of schools are teaching the Stay Safe programme on an ongoing systematic basis. However the last evaluation of Stay Safe was ten years ago.

Another component of child protection is the Garda Central Vetting Unit (GCVU) which was established in January 2002. Over a year ago Brian Lenihan announced the expansion of the unit to enable it to handle the huge volume of assessment of people working throughout the State services with children. He promised this would happen "within a matter of months". Nothing has happened. The Garda Vetting Unit at present is simply unable to undertake the volume of assessments required.

Relevant to this issue, a Social Services Inspectorate Annual report also acknowledged that there is a problem with vetting people working with children when they were inspecting residential childcare units run by the health boards. Their 2003 annual report said: "all health boards carried out checks on the staff they employed to work in their children's residential centres. However, only two centres were in full compliance with the Department of Health and Children's guidelines. Typically there were delays in carrying out checks or they were incomplete. Some Garda checks and references were obtained only after people took up posts and often two rather than three references were taken up. The Department of Health and Children guidelines require Garda clearance and three references to be in place prior to the person taking up duties."

Village asked the Garda press office for comment on this and other issues related to child sexual abuse. The response we got was: "the questions would not be a top priority".

One of the most important recommendations made by teh SAVI report was the establishment of a commitee to coordinate the implementation of SAVI's recommendations. But, it was only this year that Miniter for Justice, Michael McDowell, said the National Steering commitee on Violence Against Women would look at all SAVI's recommendations. Since 2002 McDowell was asked on several occasions in Dáil questions about the commitee.

On 25 November 2003, John Deasy asked Michael McDowell, the Minister for Justice, were there are plans to address the findings of the SAVI report? Breeda Moynihan Cronin also asked: "Will anybody act on the recommendations of the SAVI report? If so how will the minister deal with it? In a follow-up question Breeda Moynihan Cronin asked: "The SAVI report made eight recommendations. The last of which was that a consultative committee on sexual violence be established. Will that be proposed and will the Minister agree to it?"

He replied: "I am considering it I am well disposed towards the proposal". This was 18 months after the publication of the SAVI report.

Then again, on 18 February 2004, Breeda Moynihan-Cronin asked him what progress had been made on the establishment of a consultative committee as recommended by the SAVI report. He replied (this was almost two years after the publication of the report): "The sexual assault and violence in Ireland, or SAVI, report contains several recommendations which have implications for a range of agencies. One of the key recommendations is that a consultative committee on sexual violence be established. I have considered the matter in some detail, and it is my view that the existing national steering committee on violence against women would be well-placed to pursue the relevant recommendations contained in the SAVI report, comprising, as it does, representatives of most of the statutory and non-statutory organisations dealing with the issue of sexual violence. I will be consulting with the committee to ascertain if it is in a position to take on that expanded role."

Then, on 16 February 2005 (nearly three year after the publication of the SAVI report) he told the Dáil: "I have asked the national steering committee on violence against women to examine the recommendations made in the Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, or SAVI, report, which was published by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre in 2002. The national steering committee will commence work on that very shortly and I hope that it will help reduce the number of rapes occurring."

Colm O'Gorman of One in Four says that, based on discussions with a number of child protection services, the Children First guidelines have not been fully implemented. What the Ferns Report shows is "that while health services have powers to investigate, Children First lacks teeth. The health services have no powers for intervention in non-familial abuse, e.g. what happened in Monagheer." One in Four supports recommendations in the Ferns Report calling for the HSE to have powers to apply to the High Court to bar a person believed to a risk to children from having access to children in a professional or voluntary capacity. This huge gap in child protection legislation identified in the Ferns Report "needs to be filled and implemented" according to O'Gorman.p