Hundreds gather at Athlone Garda station in solidarity and anger over alleged child abuse

‘People are sickened,’ says organiser of protest on Barrack Street

A garda addresses  members of the crowd in Athlone. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

A garda addresses members of the crowd in Athlone. Photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times

 

Like hundreds of other parents gathered outside Athlone Garda station yesterday, Shauna Green felt a mixture of anger, shock and disbelief .

“We just can’t let our children out of sight anymore,” said Ms Greene, who stood with her 15-month-old in a buggy.

“I never thought this could happen in broad daylight in our town. It’s beyond belief. It’s impossible to keep an eye on them 24 hours a day – but now we’ve no choice.”

The crowd gathered outside the station where a man was being questioned following sexual assaults on two girls, aged six and nine, on Saturday afternoon. Two other men were released without charge earlier yesterday.

Many said they had gathered on Barrack Street to express solidarity with the victims’ family. But there was also a visceral anger that a member of the community could be responsible for visiting such horror on vulnerable children.

Anthony Francis (33) from Athlone, a plumber and father of two, helped organise the protest when he posted a message on Facebook the previous evening.

He said the gathering was a way of highlighting people’s anger at what happened. The town, he said, could not simply sit on its hands.


‘People are sickened’
“We need this to be highlighted. People are sickened. People are angry,” she said.

“My own kids play right beside where this happened . . . We want people who do this to know that we won’t put up with this.”

Some of the crowd carried cardboard signs with hand-written slogans seeking justice for what happened.

Other messages called for tougher child-protection measures.

A succession of cars honked their horns in support as they crawled through the crowded street.

Joanne Hewitt (32) a mother of two children aged one and eight, was carrying a placard.

“I’m physically, physically, physically sick. They’re only babies. I’m just thinking of my children,” she said.

“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 bit of childhood.”

While anger and revulsion swirled around Barrack Street, community leaders were keen to call for calm.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter helped to defuse some of the anger when he confirmed that the man being questioned did not have any previous convictions for sexual offences.

“In these circumstances there are understandable fears and worries, but it’s important to set the issue right on this,” he said.

Mayor of Athlone Gabrielle McFadden called on residents of the town not to overreact and to have faith in the Garda investigation.


‘Justice’
“People shouldn’t panic. Gardaí are doing their job. They shouldn’t comment or jeopardise this case.

“It’s important that people settle down. There is nothing to be gained by standing outside the Garda barracks – justice has to take its natural course.”

Across town, in the settled housing estate close to where the assaults occurred, gardaí kept a discreet presence as they continued with door-to-door inquiries.

In the meantime, schools are coming to terms with what happened and principals are struggling to decide how to explain events to other children.

Fr Liam Devine spent much of the day visiting schools, speaking with teachers and parents on how best to approach these issues.

“It is a real dilemma,” he said. “People are mortified that this could happen. You read about it – but you never expect it in your own town.

“Everyone feels worried. All our thoughts and prayers are with those two little girls and their families.”