Robert Carwardine
35 mins
Paramilitaries have been involved in the sexual exploitation of children across Northern Ireland, a major inquiry has found.
“Powerful and persuasive” evidence was received by the Marshall inquiry that paramilitaries with access to “alcohol, drugs, guns and violence” have been sexually abusing children and young people, but many victims and parents are too afraid to report it to police.
Up to 145 children in Northern Ireland have been identified by the inquiry as being at current risk of sexual exploitation. However the inquiry, which was led by Professor Kathleen Marshall, a former commissioner for children and young people in Scotland, warned that the number could be much higher.
Child sexual exploitation can range from the planned or systematic exploitation of young people, to worrying relationships between people under 16 and older adults.
While the inquiry report did not find the type of organised exploitation seen in Rotherham and Rochdale, it did find that many children and young people were at risk, particularly from paramilitaries.
Witnesses told the inquiry team that sexual exploitation had been occurring in bars and clubs “dominated by members of paramilitary groups” where there were lock-ins after hours.
The inquiry heard that “young girls would get a ‘tap on the shoulder’ to stay behind and may then get shared around”.
Victims feared threats to their families if they did not give in to the abuse and parents may resist reporting the crimes to police out of fear, the inquiry found.
Some witnesses who spoke to the inquiry accused the PSNI of being reluctant to get involved. The PSNI rejected that allegation and told the inquiry that “nobody is above the law”.
The probe also found recent cases where young girls had been sexually exploited by soldiers at two Northern Ireland army barracks.
Two incidents at the unnamed barracks, during which girls were smuggled in and “sexual activity had taken place”, were confirmed by the Ministry of Defence.
Investigations were launched by the PSNI, MoD, and Health and Social Care Trusts and resulted in disciplinary procedures in relation to some army personnel and increased security at the barracks.
The inquiry report warned that child sexual exploitation “must be regarded as a significant and growing threat to the welfare of children and young people”.
One of the main scenarios where children can find themselves vulnerable is the “party house”, where parties are sometimes attended or organised by adults “who coalesce around vulnerable children”.
Drugs and alcohol may be provided free but young people are later expected to pay for them with sex.
The majority of victims were living in residential care, but children living in their own family homes were also on the PSNI’s radar, the inquiry found.
It made a number of recommendations involving social services, the PSNI and the Department of Health.
Often young people do not see themselves as victims in these cases and may come from difficult backgrounds where they do not have a close adult figure to look after them, Prof Marshall said.
In one case the inquiry learned of a girl advertising for a lift on social media in exchange for a sex act.
Children as young as nine or 10 have viewed pornography – and
some have tried to act it out.
Mairia Cahill, who claims she was raped by an IRA man, expressed her disgust at the treatment of victims detailed in the report.
“These are the hidden victims of the conflict,” she said. “They have not, until now, had proper recognition. Their experiences were left invalidated and at the bottom of the pile when it came to assessing the full picture or getting to the truth.”
PSNI Assistant Chief Constable Mark Hamilton said the force had
appointed a Detective Chief Superintendent and five Detective Chief Inspectors to ensure better oversight co-ordination and investigation of all forms of child abuse and domestic violence.
He said: “We recognise the critical need for joined-up working, timely sharing of information and collective action to protect victims of abuse and address this issue. The welfare of the victims is absolutely paramount and the police response to the issue of child sexual exploitation will always be victim-centred, dealing with them sensitively and appropriately.”
Concerns and recommendations… eight key issues identified by the inquiry team
Scale of abuse
Between 100 and 145 children are currently identified as at “significant risk” of sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland. However, it’s admitted that this is probably just the “tip of the iceberg” and the actual number seriously at risk is likely to be much higher. Child sexual exploitation “must be regarded as a significant and growing threat to the welfare of children and young people”, the inquiry report warns.
In reports of paramilitary involvement in the exploitation of young people, the inquiry was told about bars dominated by members of paramilitary groups, where there were lock-ins after hours and sexual exploitation took place. “The individuals were described as people to whom you cannot say no. They regard themselves as beyond the law and, to the affected communities, it appears that they are.”
The Army
In two separate incidents, at two unnamed army barracks, girls were recently smuggled in for sex. Investigations launched by the Ministry of Defence, PSNI and health trusts resulted in disciplinary procedures in relation to some Army personnel and tightened security at the barracks to prevent further unauthorised entry. The MoD told the inquiry they take allegations of this nature “extremely seriously and work closely with the PSNI to ensure the allegations are dealt with thoroughly and as promptly as possible.”
Police investigations
The inquiry team encountered “dismissive attitudes amongst some individual police officers who had possibly received no training on the subject” of child sexual exploitation, “although others took it very seriously.” Interviews with individual police officers indicated “a patchy approach to the collection and analysis of information and intelligence.” Resource issues with forensic examinations meant there was a “significant backlog of exhibits requiring forensic examination in relation to indecent images of children, with some taking over a year from submission.”
There has been a “long-standing concern about the low rates of reporting, prosecution and conviction in relation to sexual offences,” the report found. The current conviction rate is approximately 10%. One barrier, it suggested, might be “a lack of trust in the justice system to treat a victim fairly”. One parent told the inquiry that their daughter, who was a victim of child sexual exploitation, dropped allegations of rape because she was made to feel like a criminal. The case proceeded on the grounds of grooming, but the court case was cancelled five times.
Foster carers
One foster carer described an incident which aroused her suspicions when her foster child was dropped off one night by a group of men in a car. The carer went out to the car and asked the men questions about what had been going on. She believed that it was possibly due to this intervention that the men did not come back for the child. But some carers dealing with serious cases of child sexual exploitation believed they had not received adequate training or guidance, and experienced varying levels of support.
Training to stop abuse
General awareness raising is important, the inquiry team said. Ambulance drivers, taxi drivers, hoteliers and those running fast food outlets and leisure facilities all need to be alert to the signs that a child is being exploited. Hairdressers have also been mentioned as people who have received relevant information. They must have clear pathways for reporting concerns and appropriate feedback to give them the confidence to carry on reporting. At one appointment to discuss a pregnancy, a female health worker said she became suspicious after a male partner did all of the talking. She was unable to talk to the woman alone and now believes there may have been
sexual exploitation.
Most pupils said child sexual exploitation was not explicitly discussed at school, although human trafficking and sexting were. A parent reported: “The male teacher appears embarrassed by some topics and the girls don’t respect him. My daughter tells me she ‘knows it all already’ (she doesn’t) so doesn’t listen. I think dedicated teachers would be better able to get the necessary messages across.”

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