More than 30 arrests in North sex exploitation investigation

Victims reluctant to give evidence against their abusers, say police

Hugh Connor, Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, speaking at a press briefing on child sex abuse in Belfast yesterday. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

Hugh Connor, Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland, speaking at a press briefing on child sex abuse in Belfast yesterday. Photograph: Paul Faith/PA

 

The PSNI has made more than 30 arrests and charged a number of people in connection with a major investigation of alleged sex abuse of vulnerable young people, most of whom are living in care homes in Northern Ireland.

Police are investigating allegations of sex abuse against 20 girls and young women and two young males. All the victims are aged between 13 and 18 while the alleged abusers range in age from 14 to 62 – the average age of the suspected offenders is 21.

‘Age-appropriate’

The investigation started in the summer of last year with the offences going back to January 2011. Police believe about 50 people were involved in the offences, which include rape. They are also seeking to determine if more young people have been sexually exploited.

Despite the arrests and charges, detectives are experiencing great difficulty persuading the victims to assist them, PSNI detective superintendent Sean Wright told a Belfast press conference yesterday.

He said that given the young age of some of the perpetrators, some of the relationships might seem “age-appropriate” but the critical factor was that they involved exploitation.

“Where a victim doesn’t see themselves as a victim, they tend not to co-operate with the police, social services or any of the other statutory services who want to bring these perpetrators to justice.

“Victims will tell us that the person who had sex with them, or took them to a party and gave them drink and drugs and encouraged them to perform sexual acts on their friends, is actually their boyfriend and they love them very dearly,” he added.

“So there is no way on this earth that they are going to give us a statement to put their boyfriend in jail. Please do not underestimate the complexity of this,” he told reporters.

Police, he added, were using other means to try to bring charges such as drug-possession or drug-dealing.

The officer said there may be some paramilitary involvement in the crimes but at this stage there was no evidence that it was happening at a centralised leadership level. Some of those arrested were suspected by the police of other acts of sexual exploitation against young people.

‘Sex ring’

Det Supt Wright said most but not all of the victims were staying in residential homes. “We haven’t identified a sex ring, but we are looking for it.

“We have looked to see if there are links and connections across. We can see, for example, that many of the children know each other, we can see that some of the suspects know each other,” he said.

“What we are trying to now understand is what or how significant those links are, how organised this may or may not be, and through those investigations to try and understand what degree of organisation is in place by these perpetrators to groom and exploit young people.”

The North’s health and justice ministers Edwin Poots and David Ford addressed a joint meeting of the Assembly health and justice committees on the issue yesterday.

Assistant chief constable Mark Hamilton told the meeting: “We see children who are taken to parties and who are offered drugs for free, and then at some point have to pay that back through sexual acts.”

Mr Poots said: “Our first priority is to ensure that those who cynically exploit children in this way face the full force of the law and are brought to justice.”