In the shadow of Athlone, how real is stranger danger?
The alleged rape of two young girls has sparked anger and anxiety. How big are the risks of abuse by strangers?
Public support: a rally outside Athlone Courthouse this week. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire
It was a day remarkable only for its normality. A sunny Saturday at a children’s birthday party on a quiet housing estate in a town that rarely finds itself in the headlines. Then every parent’s worst nightmare unfolded. Two children went missing, and a desperate search ensured. Two days later, a 30-year-old man was charged with four counts of rape against two girls, aged nine and six.
For legal reasons, the details of the alleged attack, in Athlone, cannot be reported. But it was the sheer ordinariness of the day that made its circumstances all the more shocking. It touched on that most elemental of fears: that our children could come to harm and that we might not be able to protect them.
By Monday, hundreds of parents, neighbours and friends had descended on the town’s Garda station to vent their fear, disgust and anger. Some carried cardboard signs with handwritten slogans seeking justice. Passing cars were urged to sound their horns in support as they crawled through the crowded street. As tensions grew, later in the evening, community leaders appealed for calm and for people to let the justice system take its course.
The anger and fear were raw and real. “I’m physically, physically, physically sick,” said Joanne Hewitt, who has two children, aged one and eight, and was carrying a placard that read “Name and shame”. Hewitt, who is 32, said: “They’re only babies. I’m just thinking of my children. I live 15 minutes away, in a cul-de-sac. I let my little one out. From now on, I’ll be out the front with her. It’s shocking to think you have to do that. They have to have a childhood.”
Anthony Francis, a 32-year-old plumber and father of two from Athlone, helped to organise the protest by posting a message on Facebook the evening before. “We need this to be highlighted,” he said. “People are sickened. People are angry . . . We want people who do this to know that we won’t put up with this.”
After the protesters dispersed in the early hours of the morning, the suspect was taken from the Garda station under heavy security. Hours later he was formally charged at Longford courthouse, flanked by members of the Garda’s armed support unit. A group of about 50 people shouted abuse as he was driven away in a Garda van from a car park at the back of the courthouse.
The events are a reminder of how paedophilia occupies a space once filled by the bogeyman. No one seems to know quite who a potential predator may be, where they are or how a person might turn out to be possessed by the sexual urges that draw them inexorably towards children.
But we do know some some facts. All available research indicates that most child sexual abuse – 92 per cent, according to Irish studies – involves a family member, relative or trusted person. Yet the fear about “stranger danger” far outweighs the infinitely more real menace of abuse within the home or extended circle.