KEY forensic evidence in up to 25 sexual-assault cases may be challenged in court because of a major administrative blunder by the HSE.
The victims -- some as young as 14 -- were told by gardai last night about the incident, in which a nurse who carried out their forensic tests was unregistered. This could lead to the evidence being challenged.
The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland (RCNI) said the possibility of victims getting justice "may now be greatly diminished", adding that they (the victims) had been "betrayed by HSE incompetence".
The Irish Independent has learned that the nurse -- based in the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (SATU) in Letterkenny General Hospital -- did not pay a registration fee to the national nursing board in 2009 and so should not have been carrying out tests on the victims. The fee is understood to be around €150 per year and HSE rules say nurses must be registered.
The nurse has now been put on leave by the HSE, which is told when a nurse's registration has lapsed and is supposed to take the person off-duty if that happens.
HSE headquarters in Dublin told regional management about the nurse and it was supposed to pass on the information to local hospital management.
This was not done.
There is now a major investigation into how this breakdown in communication allowed the nurse to carry out the tests over an 18-month period from late 2009.
The mistakes were only uncovered in recent weeks during routine checks of the SATU. The matter was brought to the attention of Health Minister James Reilly, Justice Minister Alan Shatter and Attorney General Maire Whelan.
Sources said it would be up to the DPP to decide if the evidence could be used in court. Forensic evidence is more important in cases where bodily fluids have been exchanged.
The evidence could be challenged in advance of any prosecution by the defence on grounds of admissibility, but the lack of registration would be considered by the jury, along with other evidence.
Mr Reilly has moved to make sure correct procedures are in place at all the other five SATUs across the country.
The units are used to carry out forensic tests which may be used in future prosecutions. There are six in total across the country. The others are based in Dublin, Galway, Cork, Waterford and Mullingar.
RCNI chief executive director Fiona Neary said her group was "very concerned for the wellbeing of the victims in these 25 cases".
She added: "Having made the very difficult decision to have a forensic medical examination, the possibility of (the victims) gaining justice may now be greatly diminished."
A statement from the HSE said it appointed two independent experts to review the incident, including why "a staff member could continue to practise without being actively registered".
"The review will also look in detail at any issues relating to professional practice in the SATU and will provide recommendations on any measures that need to be put in place to prevent a recurrence," it said.
"The review will seek to establish why the necessary processes and checks, in keeping with HSE policy, did not identify that this individual was not registered."
It added: "The HSE is extremely conscious of the distress that this will cause for the individuals concerned.
"Supports and services, including counselling, have been put in place to assist those affected."