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High profile sex offenders use prestige to access and then silence children

Abusers not only manipulate the child, they groom and manipulate the people around them

’It is to completely misunderstand the nature of child sexual abuse when the status and public profile of the convicted sex offender are viewed as a mitigating factor in sentencing’ Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The conviction and sentencing of a high profile sex offender this week has ignited, yet again, a national conversation about child sexual abuse and those who harm children.

While it is clear that child sexual abuse is considered to be a very serious crime, the debate has also highlighted ambivalence in our attitude towards individual sex offenders and how we should respond to them.

I believe that child sexual abuse is, apart from murder, the most serious crime that it is possible to commit. However, it is a much more common crime than murder. One in four Irish people experience some form of sexual abuse before they are 18 years of age.

Every day at One in Four we witness the suffering and devastation that people experience throughout their lives, long after the abuse has stopped. We also understand very clearly the purposeful and manipulative methods through which sex offenders target vulnerable children.

Very few cases of child sexual abuse ever reach the criminal courts. Reporting rates are extremely low and the very high bar of proof needed for a conviction is difficult to reach.People whose cases proceed to trial describe the experience of being a witness as humiliating and demeaning. Even if their abuser is convicted, they wonder if it is worth the terrible trauma that has been re-triggered. They often feel it is they who have been on trial.

Conviction in a criminal court is essentially the means by which society publicly acknowledges the veracity of the victim’s account and the harm done. The sentence imposed should be commensurate with the gravity of the harm caused.

The penalties that are proscribed by law for most child sexual abuse offences could be considered to be very low, given the enormous personal suffering endured by the victims. This must be seen as an indication of how, as a society, we tend to underrate the gravity of child sexual abuse. We send a message to the abused person that trivialises their experience.

Certain factors, such as an early guilty plea which spares the abused person the ordeal of giving evidence in court should have a bearing on sentencing. Other factors should not.

It is to completely misunderstand the nature of child sexual abuse when the status and public profile of the convicted sex offender are viewed as a mitigating factor in sentencing and the offender’s fall from grace is seen in itself as part of the penalty. The sex offender acts with resolute determination in identifying a vulnerable child and operates sustained, predatory grooming until it is safe to engage the child in sexual acts.

The very fact that they are well known increases their access to children. Their profile and prestige creates a false sense that they are trustworthy and safe. Their power and influence is used to cover up their activities and to silence their victims. They carry a greater responsibility because of their position and it is baffling that this is not seen as an aggravating factor.

Character references are routinely submitted to Irish criminal courts in an effort to mitigate sentencing. If somebody we know were to be convicted of a sexual offence, we would be very shocked and distressed. We would find it hard to associate the person we think we know with the person who has sexually harmed a child. He or she would not fit the stereotype many of us carry of who a sex offender is.

The reality is that the offender has not only groomed and manipulated a child, they have groomed and manipulated all the people around them. That is the only way they can hide their actions in plain sight. A character reference can focus on the persona created by the offender and take the focus off what he or she has actually done.

This often generates a sense of sympathy for the offender, but by doing so we lose sight of the victim. It is also often seen by the abused person as an attempt to minimise what they have suffered or, even after conviction, to undermine the veracity of their experience.

The dynamics of child sexual abuse are complex. They involve an abuse of power and authority. The abuser aims to dominate and control their victim so as to ensure their silence. These dynamics are regularly re-activated in the course of criminal trials.

In other jurisdictions barristers and judges who are involved in the trial of sexual offences are expected to undergo specialist training to ensure that they understand the intricate nature of the crimes before them. Further developments in this area would be very welcome in the Irish courts.

Maeve Lewis is Executive Director of One in Four. A psychotherapist, she has worked in the field of sexual violence for over 20 years both in Ireland and overseas. She is a recognised expert witness in sexual crimes at the International Criminal Court, at The Hague.