Up to 145 children in Northern Ireland are currently at risk of child sexual exploitation while the actual figure may be "significantly higher", a new inquiry has found.
The inquiry, which was carried out by Professor Kathleen Marshall, was also told that paramilitaries may have been involved in sexual exploitation of vulnerable young people.
The North's health minister Jim Wells, in presenting the inquiry to the Northern Assembly, stressed the level of abuse was not on the same scale as in Rotherham and Rochdale in England.
“While we do not know the full extent of child sexual abuse in Northern Ireland, we can say there are no findings in this inquiry that point to the type of organised exploitation seen in Rotherham or Rochdale; nor does it have the same ethnic minority dimension,” he said.
“There is no evidence in the report to suggest cover-up, corruption or lack of commitment on the part of agencies or individuals,” added Mr Wells.
Prof Marshall, a former commissioner for children and young people in Scotland, was commissioned to carry out the inquiry by the former health minister Edwin Poots after it emerged in September last year that the PSNI was investigating allegations of sexual exploitation of 22 young people, aged 13 to 18, in Northern Ireland.
As part of Operation Owl, police had identified these children and young people who were in residential care in homes in Northern Ireland. It was alleged the children were going missing from their care homes and ending up at organised parties where they were plied with drinks and drunks and made susceptible to sexual exploitation.
Prof Marshall examined allegations of exploitation both of children and young people in care and in domestic situations. In her report she said that between 100 and 145 children were currently identified as at significant risk of sexual exploitation. “However, the number actually experiencing child sexual abuse is likely to be significantly higher,” she said.
“In discussions about the extent of child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland with various stakeholders, including the education sector, the most common response was that what is known is likely to be the tip of the iceberg,” added Prof Marshall.
She also addressed the concerns raised last September that paramilitaries could be heavily involved in the exploitation.
“The particular Northern Ireland dimension reported to the inquiry was the involvement of powerful individuals with purported links to paramilitary organizations,” she said.
“Reports about this came from individuals, organisations and professionals. No one suggested that child sexual exploitation was a targeted activity of paramilitary groups,” added Prof Marshall.
“It was a case of individuals using the authority of their paramilitary links and the fear it engendered, to exploit children and young people,” she said.
“The inquiry was told that there were bars dominated by members of paramilitary groups, where there were lock-ins after hours and sexual exploitation took place. It is important to state that no one identified names or locations in relation to these events. Some told us that they feared for their lives if they were suspected of having done so,” she added.
Prof Marshall made 17 key recommendations to try to address the problem. These included launching a public health campaign on CSE (child sexual exploitation) issues; strengthening standards of inspection of care homes; greater focus from the PSNI to deal with the problem; strategic, long-term and sustained funding of services for prevention and early intervention of CSE; and an inter-agency approach to achieving more prosecutions of perpetrators of CSE.
Welcoming the report, Mr Wells said: “All forms of child abuse, including CSE are totally unacceptable.
“I want Northern Ireland to be a safer place for children and young people and the most hostile of environments for those who abuse or exploit children and young people.”