Sad fact is some child sex abusers are only children themselves
Last night's 'Would You Believe' special on RTÉ One once again placed the spotlight on child sexual abuse. While the media has focused on sexual abuse in the context of the Catholic Church, the programme has confronted us with a more unpalatable and hidden truth - the high rate of sexual offending by children under 18.
International estimates suggest that approximately one third of known sex offenders are adolescents. This figure reflects my own research - in a sample of 205 sexually abused children attending two children's hospitals in Dublin, 27pc had been engaged in sexually harmful behaviour by someone under the age of 20.
Who are these teenagers? Siblings, cousins, local teens engaging with younger children while they are out playing, or older siblings of the child's friend. We know that children who are abused within the family find it more difficult to tell, and delay disclosure, and these cases are less likely to make their way to the courts.
Picture how difficult it is for a wife to discover that her husband, whom she loves, has abused her children. If the man that I chose to spend my life with, to have a family with, is capable of this, what does that say about me? Now imagine how much more difficult it is for a parent - a mother or a father - to face up to the reality that one of their children has abused a younger child. The thought for many is abhorrent - so much so that they cannot accept it. They deny even the possibility, making it harder for the young person to own up to their behaviour, and to access the help they so desperately need.
The shame associated with sexual abuse is such that not only do children - and indeed adults - find it difficult to disclose, but even when it is disclosed, it is hard for the family not to want to keep it under wraps. Those who abuse children are seen by our society for the most part as deviant, abnormal 'perverts'. The media portrays such individuals as monsters. What parent would want that for their teenage child? To be shunned as a 'paedo'.
But the teenage boy is still a child, for all his tall frame, stubble and deep voice, he still needs our protection and our support.
As a professional working in the field of child sexual abuse for many years, I have seen first-hand the tragedy of the rejected teenage boy, whose mother feels nauseous each time she looks as him, she is so repulsed by what he has done; whose father cannot look at him at all, finding it impossible to understand how any son of his is capable of such acts; whose neighbours turn away when they see him pass by; whose 'schoolmates' shout "perv" at him in the street. As for the teenage female offender, she is ostracised to the point of oblivion. She 'doesn't exist'.
The incapacity of human beings to recognise that women - and girls - are capable of sexual abuse is a major stumbling block to gathering any reliable information about the scale of female offending.
The reasons why young people engage in sexually harmful behaviour are complex. Emotional immaturity is a factor, poor supervision is another. Young people who have poor coping strategies are vulnerable to engaging in such behaviour. For some, it is a form of bullying.
Exposure to inappropriate sexually explicit material on TV and the internet, and pornographic magazines, doesn't help. We have not served our children well by exposing them to such material. Nor have we progressed much from the traditional 'don't talk about sex' unspoken message that has permeated Irish homes.
We've begun to talk about sexual abuse, but we like to think that it happens out there - by the clergy, in institutions, in other people's homes. It's a distasteful topic, after all. Early detection and psychotherapy for young people - and adults - who sexually offend is an important child abuse prevention mechanism.
In Ireland, we have several projects for teenagers who sexually offend, where young people are met with understanding and parents are supported in helping their teenage children to ensure that other children are kept safe.
So before we judge those families who struggle to face up to the reality of teenage sex offending, let's take a look at ourselves. As an Irish citizen, the question is now: how do I help to make this a society safe from sexual abuse? By pretending it doesn't happen to 'people like me' or is perpetrated by 'children like mine'? How would I respond if my neighbour confided in me that her son had engaged in sexually harmful behaviour with their younger child? Would I reject him? Or try to understand him? Would I judge him? Or ask what I can do to support him? If we are truly to protect our children - both those who have been victimised and those who have offended - we need to wake up, face up and start talking about sex - in all its forms.
Dr Rosaleen McElvaney is a clinical psychologist with extensive experience in the field of child sexual abuse. She is the author of 'Finding The Words: Talking Children Through The Tough Times' (Veritas, 2015) and 'Helping Children To Tell About Sexual Abuse' (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2016)