‘I was eight when my brother started coming into my room’

Weekend Read: We talk to child sex abusers, victims and therapists, and ask: is there a better way to tackle abuse in Ireland?

James’s story

“I was about eight when my brother started coming into my room,” James says. “It began with gentle interference but, over time, became more serious and specific. He told me that if I ever told anyone we would both go to prison. It went on for about three years, until shortly after my dad died.

“During my teens there was a deep and profound sadness that I couldn’t shake, so I drank a lot and took drugs. I carried self-loathing, humiliation, fear and shame. When I was 18 my mum brought me to a psychiatrist. When I told her what had happened she thought I was confused.

“Now I have a good relationship with my mum, but during my 20s she seemed to downplay it. I think people need to find the language to talk, at home and in schools, about good and bad intimacy.

“There’s a lot of focus on priests, rightfully: the abuse and the cover-up were despicable. But we don’t talk about families. A family member who abuses is always a family member, and how does the family cope with that?”


In many cases, James says, nobody wants to ruin the family image. “It’s hard for the survivor, for the other siblings, for the extended family. It creates a perpetual anxiety for the survivor which is hard to put to rest.”

James’s case highlights some stark facts that are not always understood about child abuse. Most abuse is carried out by family members or people known to the victim. Many abusers are young men or teenagers. And few are classic “paedophiles”.

Our current image of child sex abusers in Ireland, and our approach to them, may be putting young people at risk. If we are to keep children safe we may have to gain a new understanding of the problem and make some unpalatable changes to the way we deal with it.

Sophie’s story

Sophie was four when her stepfather, Gerard, started to sexually abuse her. These are her earliest memories. She was 15 when he was arrested.

“I remember Gerard always wore these cowboy boots, and my little heart would beat faster when I’d hear him coming down to my room,” she says. “I’d hope and pray that he wouldn’t come in and pull the blankets back. He always did. He controlled my every move and everything my mum did. He also sexually abused my half-sister, his own biological child.”

There was further abuse in Sophie’s family. Her biological father was taken away when she was three because he had sexually abused another sister, Rose, although he never harmed Sophie.

Sophie’s mother, herself a victim of abuse, had proven incapable of protecting her children. Rose is a recovering addict.

Now in her early 30s, Sophie spent years in therapy, earned a PhD in counselling psychology and went on to work with other survivors of abuse.

Today Sophie has a difficult message about how we deal with child abuse. Few would disagree with some of her advice. We need to listen to and educate children, she says. We need to create stabler and healthier homes and work on better mental-health awareness and sex education.

But Sophie also believes that we need to provide therapy to abusers before they abuse, therapy that might stop them from hurting children like her in the first place. This means trying to see beyond our disgust at such crimes against children and to understand the factors that lead a person to commit them. Her views are echoed by others working in the field.

Bill’s story

James and Sophie's names have been changed, but Bill Kenneally is real, a convicted abuser who has featured in recent news reports. Kenneally was 36 when he started sexually abusing teenage boys in Waterford. Over three years he abused 10 victims. To keep them quiet he took photographs of the boys and told them that if they reported him he would claim that they enjoyed what he did.

In 1987 one of the boys’ fathers lodged a complaint and was visited by the Garda. Kenneally, related to a prominent Fianna Fáil politician, admitted his abuse. He gave them the name of other boys whom he had abused. But he was convicted only this year, and now he is appealing his 14-year sentence.

The survivors of his crimes are suing the Garda and the State because they say that senior gardaí, staff at the South Eastern Health Board and members of Fianna Fáil knew about the sexual abuse in the 1980s but didn’t act.

Prisoners are not allowed to have contact with journalists, but The Irish Times has spoken to Kenneally through an intermediary and confirmed that the details published here are accurate. We have done so because professionals working in the field say that his profile is fairly typical, and describing it can help to shed light on a complex area. Kenneally has co-operated for the same reason.

“The Garda interviewed him, told him to obtain psychiatric treatment and stay away from the boys,” the intermediary says. “He stopped coaching basketball and says that he kept a low profile because he knew that he could be prosecuted, but he now wishes they had done so in the 1980s.”

Kenneally claims that he did not offend again, but for 30 years he walked free.

“Bill knows he is a pariah, and he hates himself for what he has done,” the intermediary says. “He is not looking for forgiveness or understanding. Rather, he hopes that lessons can be learnt from his story. He grew up with a highly critical father he could never please and lacks any self-esteem.”

Kenneally told his therapist that he was attracted to women but didn’t believe he could have a relationship. He felt inadequate and unwanted. “He now recognises that he abused children because he didn’t feel threatened by them,” the intermediary says.

Kenneally did not abuse primarily because he was sexually attracted to the boys, much as a rapist is not overcome with lust. But, perhaps worse, like most sex offenders he was asserting power, control and dominance over people who could not defend themselves.

Abusers are around us

The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland study, carried out in 2001 by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in association with Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, and published the following year, is the most extensive investigation of child sex abuse in Ireland. It found that 27 per cent of people – just over one in four – experienced either “contact” or “noncontact” sexual abuse in childhood.

This week One in Four, an organisation that provides therapeutic support and advocacy for adult survivors of child sexual abuse, said that it saw 178 new and 485 ongoing clients in 2015, of whom 43 per cent were men and 57 per cent women.

Child sex abusers are around us; we just don’t know it. Eileen Finnegan is clinical director of One in Four and the manager of Phoenix, a treatment programme for sex offenders that the organisation sees as a core part of child protection.

In 2015 it worked with 38 offenders: 11 from Dublin and 27 from the rest of the Republic. Three of these received custodial sentences, seven are awaiting decisions from the Director of Public Prosecutions, two received suspended sentences and one is taking part in the Probation Service’s sex-offender risk assessment and management programme.

Three had abused their sisters, one had abused his daughter, one had abused his son and 11 had abused a niece, nephew or cousin. Outside of families, 11 had abused unknown children, one had abused a known child and nine had abused over the internet.

“I take the bus to work every day,” says Finnegan. “This morning a well-dressed professional man boarded. I looked at him and thought to myself, Nobody knows that you are a sex offender who has engaged in a treatment programme with us. You look the part, you’re handsome and pleasant and have a very good job, but you have groomed and abused a child in your own family.”

The man did not fit common preconceptions of what a sex offender looks like, she says. “We imagine them as outsiders who have nothing to do with us – a stranger in a white van driving into an innocent community – even though the vast majority of abuse is perpetrated by someone well known to the child, often a family member.”

Therapists say that sex abusers tend to be marginalised, lonely and isolated men with poor boundaries and a poor sense of self who can’t form proper relationships with adults. They can also have narcissistic traits.

Abusers can appear to be highly functional. They can groom not only families but, sometimes, whole groups of people, gaining a child, family or community’s trust and making the child feel valued and special before sexually assaulting them.

As in Sophie’s family, some abusers target vulnerable women with low self-esteem and limited or chequered relationships; it makes their children easier targets.

Being made to feel special adds to the child’s confusion, Sophie says. “ ‘This person is kind to me, but they do this thing that makes me feel terrible and scared.’ This can be so murky for children.

“My mother was neglectful, and my stepfather was always there, so I thought of him as Dad. So even though I walked around with fear, anxiety and shame I still loved him. When he was gone from my life I didn’t know who I was.”

“We’ve had around 300 people on the Phoenix programme,” Eileen Finnegan says. “All of them had difficulties around puberty, sex and relationships. We very rarely see paedophiles on the programmes. Most of the abusers we work with are not interested in sexual gratification; they’re interested in grooming a family and a child and exercising power and control.”

Rarity of paedophilia

Mary Flaherty is chief executive of the Cari Foundation – also known as Children at Risk in Ireland – which provides therapy for sexually abused children. “In our 22 years of work we have seen victims who have been abused at home by a relative or a babysitter, or who have been abused by a neighbour or family friend,” she says. “One person was abused in a religious setting by a lay teacher.”

The St Clare’s unit at Temple Street Children’s University Hospital, in Dublin, sees children after abuse has been alleged. Its principal social worker, Dr Keith O’Reilly, says that the child knows the abuser in about 80 per cent of cases; in the other 20 per cent of cases the child has been attacked by a stranger or someone he or she may have met while out.

There’s a general assumption that most child sex abusers are paedophiles – people who are only sexually attracted to prepubescent children. But Dr Nick Bankes, a clinical psychologist who works with offenders, says that of the hundreds of child sex abusers he has treated only about six may have been paedophiles. And, although most sex abusers are men, about 10 per cent may be women.

“Many more may be hebephiles, who are exclusively attracted to teenagers, while others may be men who are interested in adults but cross a line by abusing a person who is under 18,” he says. “They have distorted thinking and sometimes convince themselves that they’re teaching the child about sex.”

Some victims may be teens who kiss a young man who then goes on to assault or rape them. Others have been contacted by strangers over the internet and asked to engage in sexual acts on camera.

Teenage abusers

Between a quarter and a third of abusers are under 25, and many are teens. Mary Tallon and Joan Cherry are social workers with Northside Inter-Agency Project, a community-based treatment programme for children between the ages of 13 and 18 who sexually abuse. The project also supports families, especially where, for example, a teenage son has sexually abused his sister. (Athru, in Galway, and Southside Inter-Agency Team, in Dublin, provide similar services.)

“Our clinical experience shows that some – but not all – of these young people have poor attachment experiences, may have been exposed to some kind of trauma, such as domestic violence, or may have been bullied, although a lot of families referred to us are very well functioning, and it can be a challenge to figure out what’s happening,” they say.

“They are seeking power, control, intimacy, revenge, anger or jealousy, and struggling to have their needs met in an appropriate way. We worked with one young lad who was feeling very controlled by his father; his sexual abuse of children was framed around how he was in control now. Other abusers may be angry at being bullied and take it out on younger children – although, of course, most bullying victims never abuse other children.”

Tallon and Cherry say that intervention and therapy make young abusers less likely to reoffend. Without therapy they have the highest recidivism rate.

Dr Patrick Randall is a clinical and forensic psychologist who treats child abusers. “One of my clients was a 16-year-old boy who was sent to Pieta House” – the suicide and self-harm crisis service – with suicidal ideation,” says Randall. “They worked with him, and he told them that he was terrified of his sexual feelings for young children.”

Most of Randall’s current clients were referred to him after downloading material from the internet. “I saw one man who was caught looking at child sex-abuse material and who had two teenage children of his own,” he says. “Research on cyberabuse is just getting off the ground, and clinicians are concerned that services are not keeping pace with technology.”

Stigmatising offenders

On May 14th the Irish Mirror's front-page headline said: "Evil paedo in hiding after attack on house." Randall says that this kind of headline could put more children at risk. "Stigmatisation and marginalisation of offenders may increase risk to the public, because they reduce an offender's capacity to get help to reduce their risk of offending."

Such stereotypes are also a reason why victims don’t come forward, according to Eileen Finnegan. “When the media depict abusers as monsters, [victims] see what could happen to their abuser, who might also be their father, uncle or brother,” she says. “And abusers can use this to control their victims: ‘See what will happen to me if you come forward?’ ” It also puts the family at risk of isolation and violence from vigilantes, she adds, “so they sometimes hush it up”.

Sophie’s choice

Sophie, the abuse survivor who is now a counselling psychologist, says that public attitudes, inflamed by traditional and social media, have hurt her.

“I understand why people want to wipe abusers off the face of the planet. ‘Cut their balls off,’ they declare. But this wouldn’t stop child abusers who are driven by power. They are not something out there: they are our brothers, father, uncles, sons and friends.

“We can never root them all out and destroy them, so we have to start thinking about how to protect children, and that is by offering children comprehensive and healthy sex education, as well as by providing humane treatment for abusers.

“I’ve had fights about this in my own family, and I understand the impulse to want to kill them. My sister, who was abused by my father, says he should have his dick nailed to the floor and the building should be set on fire.”

Sophie’s relationship with her biological father, Will, is very strained, and she puts firm boundaries around him. Yet she is conflicted. “When someone says that all child molesters should be executed I think, You’re talking about killing my dad. Taking his life now would never have stopped the abuse, and it wouldn’t have protected any other children.”

Families can be torn apart by abuse. A caring mother, for example, might fall out with her abusive brother or partner, but the grandparents could then believe and side with the abuser. In Sophie’s case it was a mother failing to stop her partner from abusing. Sophie says that she has forgiven her mother.

James’s brother

James similarly has confused feelings about his brother. “He is about 14 years older than me and has learning difficulties. He’s a very good-looking man and could function in the real world, but he’s socially awkward and has limited intelligence.”

It took James many years to deal with the abuse. He first reported it to his older sister just before he started secondary school. “She agreed not to tell Mum. She said, ‘I want you to know that I believe you, and I won’t tell anyone if you don’t want me to.’ That is so important for a child. She found the right words to put me at ease and kept me alive with her support and love.”

James later dropped out of college and moved to Galway, having confided in one or two trusted friends. When he did open up, to a person who worked for the Rape Crisis Centre, he had a breakdown and was hospitalised for about six weeks. “Mum began to acknowledge what had happened and the effect it had on me. It tore through my family: I later learned that my uncle was hesitant to believe me, and thought I had imagined it.”

At one point James wanted to bring his brother to court; his sister and mother supported him. But after making a statement he ended up back in hospital. “I ultimately decided it would be too traumatic and that he may not go to prison at all.”

His brother did send him a written apology. “Was this enough for me? Nothing is enough. Chopping off his arms and legs would not be enough. I have realised that the only way through is acceptance and forgiveness. Not for him but because it is what I need.”

Stop It Now!

Part of One in Four's approach involves working with the families of victims. “Early on we realised that we were the ones managing all the risk, and we couldn’t shoulder that burden alone,” Eileen Finnegan says. “We teach families to recognise risk factors, including the abuser’s mood, whether they are being manipulative and if they are isolated.”

It’s demanding work, she says. “My hardest day was when I met the wife of a man who had offended against his niece. She said, ‘That child has been a slut since she was two.’ After being on the programme the abuser’s wife changed her mind, and was upset that she had ever thought that.”

In the UK the Stop It Now! helpline encourages men or their families who are concerned about potentially harmful behaviour to get help before a child is abused. In Germany, Prevention Project Dunkelfeld offers therapy to paedophiles and hebephiles who have not offended.

In Ireland clinicians have lobbied for a Stop It Now! programme, to little avail. Keith O’Reilly, the Temple Street social worker, and Nick Bankes, the clinical psychologist, are among those who have called for more therapeutic interventions to stop potential abusers from ever offending and stop existing abusers from reoffending.

Bill Kenneally, the imprisoned abuser, claims that he could have been stopped. “He’s not blaming society at all, and he fully accepts responsibility,” our intermediary says. “But he hopes that maybe, if potential child abusers had somewhere they could go for help before they committed a crime, it might help protect children from people like him.”

If, as therapists also advise, we are to develop more therapy for abusers and potential abusers, we must look beyond the revulsion that we feel about child abusers, beyond calls to castrate or jail them for life – simplistic solutions that leave children at risk.

Waiting more than a year

But even were this solution to be pursued as a policy there would be other obstacles. Few psychologists know how to support sexual offenders or want to take on such difficult work. Funding and infrastructure are also inadequate.

Both Bankes and Patrick Randall, the clinical and forensic psychologist, say that Tusla, the State child and family agency, lacks the resources to handle the volume of child sex abuse cases and that victim-support services around Ireland are inadequate.

Only Dublin, Waterford and Cork have specialist assessment or therapy units.

Tusla has established a steering group for the development of sexual-abuse services that includes the HSE, the Garda, the Probation Service, Cari and the Children’s Hospital Group (which consists of Temple Street; Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, Crumlin; and the National Children’s Hospital, Tallaght).

It wants to develop medical- and forensic-examination centres in Cork, Dublin and Galway, as well as regional victim assessment and therapy centres.

But the steering group has no mandate to direct agencies and has no clear time frame. Mary Tallon and Joan Cherry of Northside Inter-Agency Project say that they welcome the national developments but are concerned about the lack of funding for them.

The State relies on Cari, a small charity, to provide services for sexually abused children, but its budget has been cut and cut again, and it now has up to 40 children who have been waiting more than a year for assessment. Best practice is to see a child within six months. And the charity, which has worked with children as young as two, offers services in Dublin and Limerick only.

“We run on a budget of €700,000,” says Mary Flaherty, the chief executive. “An extra €800,000 in funding would allow us to bring our waiting lists down to a much more manageable five or six months.

“Children who turn up here are lucky in that they have a believing and supportive adult in their lives. These are children that we know have been abused, and we want to meet their needs quickly and appropriately. It is desperately wrong to leave them waiting.”

Additional reporting by Fin Dwyer


If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact:

The Samaritans on 116123 or jo@samaritans.org

Rape Crisis Helpline on 1800-778888

Childline on 1800-666666

Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children on 01-6794944

HSE counselling services on 1800-235234

One in Four at oneinfour.ie

Cari (Monday-Friday, 9.30am-5.30pm) at helpline@cari.ie

For details of sexual assault treatment units, see hse.ie/satu

You can report concerns to Tusla, and learn more about how the support process works, at tusla.ie/children-first/ how-do-i-report-abuse

To report online child sex abuse material, see hotline.ie

The Department of Justice's Office for Internet Safety is at internetsafety.ie


The first public discussions about child sexual abuse took place in the 1980s. Given the taboo around sex in general, any discussion around the subject was difficult. But people were not unaware of abuse. As early as the 1930s, as Garda commissioner, Eoin O’Duffy revealed harrowing statistics when he testified before a committee on juvenile prostitution. He reported that the force had investigated more 400 cases of sexual abuse of girls between 1924 and 1929.

The report of the committee was never published. The minister for justice thought it ‘undesirable’ to publicise a troubling reality.

This set a tone for the following decades – but the existence of abuse could not be completely suppressed. Newspapers reported on court cases involving “indecent assault” or “unlawful carnal knowledge” of children.

Catherine McGuinness, the former Supreme Court judge who led the first major investigation into child abuse in Ireland, says, “Mothers spoke quietly to each other and said, ‘Don’t leave your child with Mr So-and-So, because he begins to feel them up.’ People did know that things happened.”

But the extent of child sexual abuse began to emerge only in the late 1970s. The case of Noreen Winchester, a Belfast woman who murdered her abusive father – she was jailed but later granted a royal pardon – brought incest to the attention of the media.

Teachers and social workers were also beginning to address the issue in the Republic.

By 1984 there was increasing evidence that child sexual abuse was a major issue in Ireland. That November the Irish Council for Civil Liberties launched a working party to investigate it. Newspapers, along with Gay Byrne’s radio show, reported incestuous abuse, which gradually came to feature more prominently in the media. Calls to Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s helpline soared. By the end of the year reports of child sexual abuse had increased sixfold over 1983.

In 1985 the centre launched an advertising campaign promoting services for people who were survivors of sexual abuse, including incest. That year it received 600 calls related to child sexual abuse.

By 1987 the Eastern and Southern Health Boards recorded a doubling of reports of child sexual abuse, and the organisations dealing with it were overwhelmed.

Professionals began to point out that a significant number of cases took place within extended families, although few people acknowledged that abuse was taking place in families like their own.

This dovetailed with another emerging notion: that of stranger danger. The belief that strange men prowled communities, snatching children, gained traction following the disappearance of Philip Cairns, in 1986. Only a minority of sexual abusers are strangers, but media coverage distorted the reality.

That changed somewhat in the 1990s, when the horrors of clerical and institutional child sexual abuse began to emerge, but there was a continuing resistance to tackle familial abuse.

It remains deeply discomforting to think that child abusers are like us, are related to us and in many aspects of life appear to be decent people. There is no stereotypical abuser.

Coming to terms with this and shaping a new debate around child sexual abuse are essential to protecting children.

Fin Dwyer

Fin Dwyer is a historian and author and the creator of the Irish History Podcast series

Beyond Redemption?, a Would You Believe? special on RTÉ One at 10.15pm on Thursday, October 20th, looks at the way we deal with sex offenders who have been released back into society

This article was supported by the Mary Raftery Journalism Fund