Monday 23 September 2019

Why we need a fresh stocktake on attitudes

It's been 15 years since the Savi report made ­utterly clear that child abuse was not a rare event. That report's lead author, Hannah ­McGee, says it's time to revisit the topic

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The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (Savi) study was published in 2002 - providing the first, and to date, the only, comprehensive overview of the prevalence of sexual violence among the general public in Ireland.

Atlantic Philanthropies made possible the study. That organisation's foresight in funding a careful pilot, run to ensure vulnerable members of the public were protected, gave confidence to the research team which I led, and the departments of Health and Children, and of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who co-funded the main study.

The study involved anonymous telephone interviews with 3,120 Irish adults and was conducted by a great team of 18 researchers in 2001. President Mary McAleese launched the report, helping to signify its importance.

In an area replete with speculation, Savi provided the first clear and unambiguous profile of the nature and extent of sexual violence in Ireland. It also demonstrated that information on sensitive issues could be reliably obtained in Ireland, and it enabled subsequent studies to be conducted on other issues such as domestic violence, crisis pregnancy and sexual health. In that regard, it was a leader and enabler for an era of evidence-based debate, policy, planning and action.

The important first achievement of Savi, in part because of its scale and methods, was that the findings were believed.

Almost extraordinarily, given the 'high' levels of abuse reported, findings were not denigrated or denied by media or other groups. Instead there was in many cases a sad recognition of the study findings confirming stories known personally by many in Irish society. The profile of abusers of children - showing that over 80pc knew their abusers, and that less than 3pc of abusers were clerical (clergy or religious teachers) - was an important backdrop to the clerical and institutional scandals that followed in the decade after 2002.

It meant we could not see child abuse as either a historical artefact or the behaviour of strangers or bad people in institutions (i.e. people 'other' than us). As a reference point for journalists, child protection advocates, policy analysts and others, Savi provided an invaluable caution against scapegoating of sub-groups as the 'locus of evil' concerning child abuse, and challenged society more generally to 'own' the lack of child protection in our system.

As Vincent Browne challenged in his TV and newspaper opinion pieces so well over the last decade - "what about the other 97pc?". Among the initiatives following Savi were additional sexual assault treatment units and the establishment of Cosc - the national office for the prevention of domestic, sexual and gender-based violence.

Fifteen years on, and in the context of substantial national attention to institutional and clerical abuse of children, and increasing attention to similar challenges in adults, it is time to find out where we are now - what policies are working and what are not?

What is the impact of technology (the internet, mobile phones, texting), of increased mobility in the population (Ireland is now both more international in its population mix, and more Irish people travel overseas), and of legal and policy changes in the meantime? In 2002, cybercrime did not exist, nor internet access, including to pornography, nor texting, nor discussions in Ireland about human trafficking, etc.

We live in a world unrecognisable from 15 years ago. A world where evidence is needed to make good decisions. If we are to deploy our legal, policy, educational and service resources adequately, to ensure a safe and respectful sexual environment for society, we need robust data to identify what has changed over time (and why) and what are the priority challenges to address and to fund as we approach 2020. In 2002, the title Savi was a word play on 'being savvy' - i.e. "to have an understanding of (… something complex and hidden)". We now need a Savi-2.

Hannah McGee is the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine & Health Sciences at RCSI

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