News Comment

Wednesday 26 October 2016

To prevent child abuse, we must try to understand the inconceivable

Published 14/11/2015 | 02:30

Antoinette McLoughlin pictured leaving the Four Courts with her husband, Michael (right), after her case
Antoinette McLoughlin pictured leaving the Four Courts with her husband, Michael (right), after her case

I cannot fathom child sexual abuse. At all.

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Don't get me wrong, it's not that I can get my head around other heinous crimes.

But with more than 10 years' experience covering criminal trials - from speeding fines in the District Court to callous murders in the Central Criminal Court - I've almost always been able to discern a sense of cause and effect between the offender and the offence.

The vast majority of thefts, for example, are committed by drug addicts, who will do anything to feed their next fix.

Most rapes and sexual assaults are, contrary to the deeply embedded 'stranger danger' myth, committed by an intimate partner or someone known to the victim. These crimes are rarely about sex and almost always about dominion, despite pervasive, unconscious beliefs that victims - especially women - are somehow 'bad' and responsible for the abuse they suffer.

Murders are mostly perpetrated against young men by other young men, more often than not involving the perilous use of drink, drugs, knives and guns or a toxic combination of the above.

So-called 'crimes of passion', including those committed by erudite spouses in middle-class enclaves are, as their moniker suggests, committed in the heat of anger or hurt or provocation. And despite some truly peerless deviants - the S&M murderer Graham Dwyer immediately springs to mind - our household name or billboard criminals tend not to be of the horror movie, pre-meditative type.

I can, therefore, rationalise (not necessarily excuse) most crimes.

However, child sexual abuse is simply inconceivable.

So too are the final societal taboos - women who commit or facilitate child sexual abuse or those who stand by the men who do.

This week, the country was convulsed by the resignation, as Fianna Fáil's Director of Elections, of Pat Carey, a former teacher.

Mr Carey resigned from the party, saying he did not know whether he is the former minister at the centre of child sex abuse claims.

Mr Carey said he absolutely and unconditionally denies any impropriety and is wholly entitled to his presumption of innocence.

The shock resignation of Mr Carey overshadowed two other cases which involved actual jury findings in our criminal and civil courts of child sexual abuse.

Yesterday a High Court jury awarded €150,000 compensation in a civil action to a woman who alleged she was raped and abused by one of her brothers in their family home when she was a child.

Antoinette McLoughlin's brother, Peter Garvey, who denied the claims, was supported throughout the eight- day case by his wife, brother and his four sisters, who all gave evidence in support of his defence.

However, the jury found in favour of Ms Mcloughlin, who told the court that she was made to feel an "outcast" in her family when she first revealed the abuse to her father.

A lack of maternal support loomed large last Tuesday in the case of two sisters who were abused as children by their step-father and who courageously waived their right to anonymity.

Emma and Vanessa Witherow said they were relieved at the six- and-a-half year sentence imposed on Joe Patterson, the husband of their mother, as it brought some closure in respect of their abuser.

But the sisters, who were both abused from the age of nine, said there would be no closure with their mother Frances, who stood by her husband despite his appalling conduct and his convictions.

"It's a mother's job to protect children and she didn't protect us," Vanessa told broadcaster Pat Kenny as her sister Emma said that their mother told her that she was worried about "having no one" if she sided with her daughters.

Emma Witherow said that she would like to see her mother face charges for not reporting the crimes. So too does Fiona Doyle, who was systematically raped and abused in her childhood by her father, Patrick O'Brien.

Although her father is now in jail, Ms Doyle wants her mother, Bridget, investigated for what she claims was the aiding and abetting of his crimes on the basis that her mother knew of the abuse and even called her (Fiona) her father's "whore".

"We can't accept that a woman would do this to a child," said Ms Doyle, who has not spoken to her mother in five years.

Why do some women turn a blind eye to abuse, including - and especially - that of their own children? Are they, too, under the control and dominion of the abuser?

And what of the abusers who are predominantly, but not exclusively, male?

Research published last April revealed that men are up to five times more likely to commit a sex crime than the average male if they have a brother or father who has also been convicted of a serious sexual offence.

The Swedish study, the largest of its kind, revealed a strong genetic component to sex offending, which has implications for prevention strategies everywhere.

It has implications for Ireland, where one in five women and one in six men experienced contact sexual abuse in childhood, according to the landmark Sexual Assault and Violence (SAVI) report.

Contact sexual abuse is abuse which involves vaginal, anal or oral penetration. That's difficult to read - and distressing to imagine.

However, child sexual abuse and its causes must be confronted if we are to reduce its shocking prevalence and traumatic effects.

It won't be easy, but we have to move beyond our sheer hatred of sex offenders and develop programmes to encourage them to seek professional help.

That includes talking to paedophiles (those with a sexual interest in pre-pubescent children) and others who want to defile minors before they have offended.

Sexual abuse of children perpetrated by females is the crime that no one wants to talk about, as it offends every societal and cultural stereotype about women and motherhood. But this taboo and these assumptions must also be confronted if we are to protect children.

The first step must be a new SAVI. Estimated to cost a mere €1m over three years, it will enhance our knowledge of the prevalence of abuse and the profile of abusers.

We can never excuse child sexual abuse, but must do all in our power to understand it - and prevent it.

Dearbhail McDonald is Legal Editor

Those affected by sexual violence can contact the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre's confidential national Helpline at 1800 778888

Irish Independent

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