'Sometimes child victims think the abuser is actually their friend'
ON the first day of school term, 11-year-old 'Billy' is asked to look after the new baby infants at break-time in the playground.
For some reason Billy, who has no history of sexual abuse, has become preoccupied with sexual issues.
When the bell rings he leads the new class out into the yard to play games.
Alone with the class Billy sees an opportunity to take a child away and engage in "touching or exploring and doing things".
This type of worrying scenario is - according to Mary Flaherty, the CEO of Children at Risk Ireland - one the group has begun to encounter in its work supporting the families and groups affected by child sexual abuse.
And she warns parents, guardians and teachers have to "think the unthinkable" to protect their children and pupils.
She told the Sunday Independent: "That would be a very simple and easy scenario. You have a child who is in the throes of some sexual fixation or obsession and they take this opportunity to act on it and it's as simple as that."
Although expressing some sexual behaviour is normal for under-12s - including "playing doctor", kissing, flirting, occasional masturbation and reproduction conversation with peers and siblings - if there is any element of force, obsession, or degradation it is considered an early flag by experts.
Over the past few years, CARI has noticed some worrying Helpline trends.
These include a horrific rise in rape and sexual assault cases, particularly "teen on teen," and a "huge jump" in sexualised behaviour calls where the child has no history of sexual abuse.
And, over the last number of year, the Helpline has noted that teenage activity has moved beyond the level of sexualised behaviour and would be described as sexual assault and rape.
For Ms Flaherty, the findings highlight the direct dangers of exposing children to a "hyper sexualised society".
"We've gone too far with sexualisation as human subjects who require our individual dignity and the full range of a person," she said, adding that victims are often told to "keep it our little secret," just like in an adult situation.
Other times, the victim might actually think the offender is their friend and is being supportive.
"It can even occur between brother and sister where an older child with a sexual behaviour problem can seek out a younger one, impose their will and take advantage," she said, adding that the loss of religion is another "major inhibitor" in how children view sex and human senses.
"The power of church has waned certainly for the majority of young children and young people almost to the point where it would be a negative, it would be advice that you wouldn't take."
Although there is no doubt that sexual abuse leaves "deep psychological marks" on the victims - and sometimes the perpetrators - if not responded to with skilled therapy, parents and teachers can also be hugely affected.
"There is upset, guilt, failure, how do you manage the family and school community, how do you respond and regrettably many communities, even families, don't accept it or think, 'she's making it up'.
"Society is still not good for today's victims, and it's not in institutions, it's in the communities, schools and sometimes in families themselves where victims aren't heard."
CARI will host a training event for families of children who display sexually harmful behaviour in Dublin on February 26 and 27.