State Papers

Growing realisation of child abuse problem in Northern Ireland

There was a growing realisation by 1990 that child abuse was more widespread in Northern Ireland than had been previously thought
Dr Éamon Phoenix

THE emergence of child abuse as an issue to be treated seriously in Northern Ireland is charted in newly-released government papers.

The files reveal a high degree of official ignorance of the issue 30 years ago and a growing realisation that abuse was more widespread than believed.

In a note dated November 3 1988, Jimmy Kearney, the head of the childcare and social policy division at the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) at Stormont, drew colleagues' attention to a forthcoming workshop on the "control of sex offenders".

The aim, he noted, was to overview current practices and attitudes towards child abusers.

The official added: "I have to admit a high degree of personal ignorance on this subject which I would prefer not to expose to the workshop."

The issue was also discussed at a conference on November 30 1988.

Dr Fred Brown, consultant forensic psychiatrist at the DHSS, revealed that indictable sexual offences recorded by the RUC had more than doubled from 1977 to 834 in 1988, while there were 107 offenders in prison.

These exchanges led to a further meeting of medical staff and officials at Dundonald House in January 1989 to discuss the question of medical treatment for child abusers.

Dr Eithne O’Gorman, a departmental consultant psychiatrist, said only a small proportion of child sex offenders came before the courts and an even smaller proportion were ever convicted.

"The overwhelming majority of offenders were never discovered and, in her view, were much more of a problem than those who were... they would not seek treatment voluntarily because of the legal consequences.

"What was needed was a broad-based health-orientated service, together with a change in the legal system to enable offenders to seek help without the risk of criminal proceedings being brought."

However, her colleague Dr McEwen said that child abuse was due to a personality disorder rather than illness and in a majority of cases the idea they would change their behaviour was unrealistic.

In his view they needed to make it easier for children to disclose abuse.

The Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry revealed in January this year revealed how children's homes run by the state, some churches and charities were the scene of shocking abuse and mistreatment of young people dating back decades.

The chair of the inquiry, Sir Anthony Hart, recommended compensation for victims among a range of measures but action has yet to be taken because of the collapse of the Stormont institutions.

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State Papers

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