Wednesday 18 September 2019

Michael Kelly: 'The scandal engulfing Scouting Ireland reminds us that child sex abuse remains an issue today'

The 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report – on which the CSO will build – makes for stunning reading, even today (stock picture)
The 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report – on which the CSO will build – makes for stunning reading, even today (stock picture)
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

Scouting Ireland has become only the latest organisation to have to face up to a sickening catalogue of abuse allegations within its ranks.

Children's Minister Katherine Zappone told an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday that an independent review had found 71 alleged abusers had operated within scouting in the country, primarily between the 1960s and 1980s.

So far, 108 alleged child abuse victims have been identified. The number is expected to rise sharply as the review continues.

Previous reports such as those into the Catholic dioceses of Ferns, Dublin and Cloyne have revealed that instances where an abuser only has one victim are extremely rare. Most wreak havoc on a wide scale, bringing pain and misery to the very children they were trusted to protect.

There's also the fact that the nature of sexual abuse is such that it is extremely difficult for those who have experienced childhood abuse to come forward.

Ian Elliott - the safeguarding expert who has conducted the review - now expects more survivors to emerge.

He knows of which he speaks. As the former head of the independent watchdog supervising the Church's handling of abuse allegations, Mr Elliott has worked with countless survivors.

He has also led reviews into how the Church is adhering to its own policies.

He has played no small part in a seismic shift where the Church is now recognised as amongst the gold standard when it comes to keeping children and vulnerable adults safe.

Scouting Ireland will have to learn painful lessons and show a huge commitment to reform if it is to gain people's confidence again.

Like with the Church, the betrayal of trust is stunning and acutely felt. It's hard to think of anything more spontaneously wholesome as scouting - generations of parents have trusted the organisation with their children during their most formative of years.

What compounds the betrayal is the fact that when survivors came forward to speak of their experiences, they have often not been dealt with adequately by the bodies involved.

Aisling Kelly, the new chair of the board of Scouting Ireland, said this week that in the case of the organisation, evidence from past cases had shown "neither the offenders nor the victims were always dealt with appropriately".

"We cannot change the past, but we can make sure that this organisation is a safe environment for all our members now and into the future," she said.

She's right - we cannot change the past, but nor can we consign the issue of abuse to the past.

No one should delude themselves that abuse belongs to a different era when Ireland was a cruel and difficult place for children. Sexual violence against children remains an issue today.

While people are rightly sickened about what has been exposed in Scouting Ireland this week, it should hardly be a surprise to anyone that those who have mal-intent towards children will try to find their way into clubs and sporting groups where they will have access to children.

Vigilance must be the constant stance. Social media and the internet are huge tools for good, but they have also opened up a new dangerous front that must be faced in the fight to keep children safe.

Key to the war on abuse is understanding the pervasive nature of the problem.

That's why the announcement this week that the Central Statistics Office (CSO) is to be charged with conducting ongoing research on the scale of sexual violence in Ireland is so important.

The current lack of reliable data makes it difficult to prioritise funding and other services for survivors.

Most people want to think of abuse as something that either happened decades ago, or happened in distant institutions.

Most sexual violence takes place in the home and remains hidden.

The 2002 Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (SAVI) report - on which the CSO will build - makes for stunning reading, even today.

The main findings of the SAVI report were:

:: Roughly 27pc of Irish adults in the Republic in 2001 had been the victims of child sexual abuse.

Given that the adult population in the following year's census was 2,904,172, this means there must have been something of the order of 780,000 adults survivors of child sexual abuse walking around Ireland.

:: Just under 65pc of child abuse victims had been abused whilst under the age of 12.

:: More than 48pc of abuse survivors had never disclosed their experiences to anyone before being surveyed.

:: Just under 52pc of abuse survivors surveyed had previously told family, friends or others of their experiences.

:: Only about 5pc of abuse cases had, at that point, been reported to gardaí.

:: Just 16pc of 38 abuse cases reported to gardaí had gone to court; of these six cases, only four had resulted in a verdict of guilt.

In other words, little more than 10pc of reported abuse cases had by 2001 led to a criminal conviction.

:: More broadly, only about 0.5pc of abuse cases had at that point led to a criminal conviction.

Where do we stand 16 years on? Well, no one really knows, but the problem isn't going away.

Those who work with abuse survivors say that a heightened awareness around the issue has made it easier for some people to come forward and reveal their experiences and seek help in dealing with the repercussions. But this is still likely to be the tip of the iceberg.

Ongoing research on the issue of abuse will allow for international comparisons and searing questions about the pathetically low number of convictions that result from claims of sexual violence.

It will also facilitate a vital but difficult national conversation that few people want to have about abuse today. It is long overdue.

Irish Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss