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Maeve Lewis on 'The Truth about Child Sex Abuse' for EOLAS Magazine

Maeve Lewis a psychotherapist with over 20 years' experience in leadership in the area of sexual abuse and Executive Director of One in Four, outlines the case for a national action plan to tackle the scourge of child sex abuse.

The series of devastating reports published in the first decade of this century created an assumption in Ireland that child sexual abuse is a thing of the past. That assumption is unfounded. Although it does not conform to our national self-image, sexual abuse is highly prevalent here. The SAVI Report (2002) showed that 23 percent of Irish men and 30 percent of Irish women had unwanted sexual experiences in childhood. Naturally, we want to recoil from these harsh statistics, but what they actually mean is that each one of us must know somebody in our intimate circle who was sexually abused as a child. It also means that there is a large number of unidentified sex offenders living in our communities.

The statutory inquiries focused on abuse within the Catholic Church, creating a belief that children are harmed outside the family. This is also unfounded. Almost half the victims are abused by a close family member.

Children generally do not tell. They are groomed by their abuser to believe that it is their inherent badness that provoked the abuse, that they won’t be believed or that the consequences of telling will be catastrophic.

This secrecy and silencing is the core of sexual abuse, and is often supported by a collusive family dynamic. But this dynamic also operates at a societal level. We have great difficulty in integrating the intimate, personal trauma of sexual abuse into our collective awareness. Despite the daily feed of court reports of sexual offences, the three out of four Irish people have not been sexually abused tend to shrink from the reality of what is happening under our noses. Our limited public discourse focuses on the individual experience rather than recognising sexual abuse as an inherent systemic social failure that must concern us all.

We regard the impact of sexual abuse as an individual pathology rather than as an expression of the society we have created. The one in four who were victimised are further silenced and isolated. Silence breeds secrecy, and secrecy facilitates the cycle of abuse to continue in perpetuity.

And the children of today? The truth is that we do not know. It was intended that the SAVI research would be replicated 10 years later, but this hasn’t happened. We urgently need this information.

At One in Four we report all allegations of abuse to Tusla child protection teams. But those teams are woefully under-resourced so historic allegations are not investigated with any urgency. Yet we know from our sex-offender programme that offenders will continue to abuse until they are caught. Men who abused their own children go on to abuse their grandchildren, causing massive inter-generational harm.

We estimate that fewer than 5 per cent of child sex offenders are ever convicted. The unpalatable fact is that sex offenders can act with impunity. Most offenders on our programme will never be convicted, though they acknowledge their behaviour and can be supported to live offence-free lives. They travel from all over the country to attend One in Four, but we need accessible treatment programmes in every county.

When a survivor decides to make a complaint, the outcomes are uneven. While the Gardaí have greatly improved their response to people reporting sexual offences, the criminal trial experienced is still perceived by many victims as humiliating and re-traumatising. It is no wonder the reporting rate is so low.

There are some positive developments. Tusla is trying to create a consistent response to children at risk but are hampered by inadequate funding. The recent Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 will hopefully improve the experience of survivors in court. The forthcoming victim’s rights legislation recognises the vulnerability of victims and will situate their needs more centrally in the criminal justice process.

We are still failing our children, with terrible consequences for future generations. We must implement a national action plan to address this scourge if we are not to repeat the mistakes of the past

The New Sexual Offences Law

There was very good news on Tuesday that the contentious Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 had finally been passed by the Oireachtas.  The Bill had provoked strong opposition from some of our male politicians because one of its effects is to criminalise the purchase of sex for the first time.  Other important elements of the Bill did not get as much attention but in the long term will both help to prevent the sexual abuse of children and for those who are abused, will help reduce the trauma of the criminal trial.

For too long the needs of victims of sexual crimes have been ignored in the criminal justice system.   Many survivors who are supported by One in Four describe the experience of being a complainant witness in a criminal trial as being the most humiliating, demeaning and traumatising event they have ever experienced.  The witness is forced to recall in great detail the painful and distressing details of the sexual abuse they have suffered.   In the absence of witnesses to the crime or forensic evidence, the survivor is often subjected to a deliberate attempt to undermine their credibility and their personal integrity.  This is the adversarial system we have.

This will not change completely when the new Bill is signed into law.  But in several important ways, new protections will be introduced. 

There will be new constraints on the possibility that the survivor could be cross-examined by the accused person. 
And for the first time, if the survivor has been in counselling, their counselling notes cannot be automatically obtained by the accused person and his defence team. 
The presiding judge will have no powers to decide if the notes should be produced, and which sections of the notes should be allowed. 
The right to privacy of the survivor and the public interest in encouraging survivors to receive psychological support without the fear of their counselling notes being read by their abuser have been strengthened.

For survivors, giving evidence about their abuse experience still remains a daunting task and there is much else to be addressed before the criminal justice system pays adequate attention to the needs of survivors.  However, this is a very welcome step on the way.

Maeve Lewis

Welcoming a National Conversation on Sex Offenders

 

One in Four welcomes the “Would You Believe” documentary on sex offenders, “Beyond Redemption?”, broadcast on RTE1.  

Executive Director Maeve Lewis says “This is the beginning of an important national conversation on managing sex offenders in the community”. Research shows that one in four Irish children are sexually abused but we estimate that fewer than 10% of the perpetrators are ever convicted. This means that there are many people in our communities who pose a risk to children but who will never face a criminal trial.  What are we to do with them?

 
Maeve Lewis continues: “People who sexually abuse children are not aliens.  They do not usually fit the stereotype of the dirty old man.  They are our family members, friends, neighbours and colleagues.  They are often likeable, charming people – that is how they access their victims.  I believe that we all have a responsibility to find better ways to deal with sex offenders.” 
 
“At One in Four we provide a sex offender intervention programme to offenders and their families.  Most of these men are not facing criminal charges, though we do alert the Gardai and Tusla when they engage with us.  All the research shows that good offender programmes are not a soft option but are very effective in reducing re-offending and keeping children safe.  We want the Dept. of Justice to put in place similar programmes all over the country.”
 
We also have a responsibility in our communities to find a way to manage offenders.     The Gardai Tusla child protection teams have a role to play, but so does every adult who is concerned about children.  Running offenders out of our neighbourhoods is not the answer: they are at their most dangerous when they are driven underground.  We know offenders are safest when they have decent accommodation, worthwhile work and social support.  We need to look at strategies that have worked in other countries such as the Circles of Support described in the programme.
 
Maeve Lewis ends: “We cannot pretend that child sexual abuse does not happen as we have shamefully done in the past.  We cannot pretend that our approach to sex offenders is working. To do so is putting our children at risk.  But if we adopt strategies that have been shown to work in other countries, then we can save a generation of Irish children from the devastation of sexual abuse.”

One in Four a Community

Every day at One in Four, we work to help and support those affected by childhood sexual abuse. But what you may not realise is that the work we do brings us into contact with all walks of people.  One in four is a resource, a community, a workplace, a support centre and an expert in its field.

Our therapists and advocacy officers do so much:
 

  • support survivors,
  • their families and communities.
  • assist in legal proceedings
  • offer training
  • develop therapy programmes
  • research
  • share knowledge and expertise
  • support other organisations
 

Treatment For Sex Offenders And Their Families Is Key To Keeping Children Safe From Sexual Harm

At the launch of their 2015 Annual Report today One in Four said that providing treatment for sex offenders and for their families is the key to keeping children safe from sexual harm.  Executive Director Maeve Lewis said “We provide a rigorous two-year group treatment programme to sex offenders and the outcomes are very positive. Most of these offenders will never face a criminal trial because their victims do not wish to make a Garda statement. But we have also learned that the wives and partners of the offenders play a vital role in child protection.  Many of these women are highly dependent on their partners, and often blame the child for what has happened.  One woman told us that her 11 year old daughter was ‘a slut who had stolen her husband from her’! Through our work with the wives, they come to understand the part they have played in the family dynamics that supported the abusive behaviour. They can then work with Tusla to keep their children safe.”
 
In 2015 One in Four provided counselling to 116 adult survivors of child sexual abuse and to 40 families, a total of 2,563 therapy hours.  Our advocacy officers provided practical information and support about child protection notifications and complaints to the Gardai to 663 people.
 
45% of our clients were men, which challenges the idea that boys are not sexually abused.
 
Almost 40% of our counselling clients had been sexually abused in their own families.  The others were abused in their communities (11%), in the Catholic Church (22%) and by strangers (15%).  11% were sexually abused by multiple abusers.
 
In 2015 we worked with 38 sex offenders and 19 wives and partners. 
 
Maeve Lewis continues “We meet men and women from all walks of life and from all over the country.  What they have in common is the devastating impact that child sexual abuse has had on their lives.  Many experience chronic post-traumatic stress.  Some struggle with relationships and parenting.  Many experience suicidal thoughts.  Sadly, we cannot respond immediately to the people who contact us and some are waiting up to six months for an appointment.  We know that 4 people have taken their own lives while on our waiting list in the past four years.  This is an absolutely preventable tragedy.”
 
At One in Four we can ensure that clients are supported on every step of their journey.  But our clients also have to engage with statutory agencies.  We notify Tusla child protection services of all allegations of sexual abuse because we know that even if the abuse happened years ago, that sex offender may still be abusing other children.  During 2015 Tusla began to put in place retrospective allegation teams around the country, and this has improved the way notifications are dealt with.  Maeve Lewis continues “We made 49 notifications to Tusla in 2015 but most of these were deemed to be “unfounded”.  While we appreciate the difficulty social workers face in assessing retrospective allegations, this does imply that many credible allegations will not be pursued, and children will be at risk.”
 
We welcome the enactment of the Children First Act in 2015 which will introduce mandatory reporting for a range of professionals.  However, we urge the Minister for Children to speed up its commencement which currently seems to be moving at a snail’s pace.
 
Fewer than 15% of our clients decide to make a complaint to the Gardai.  Generally our clients experience the investigating Gardai as both professional and sensitive.  However, in some cases investigations are not carried out in an appropriate manner. We have supported a number of clients in making complaints to GSOC in 2015. 
 
The biggest barrier to engaging with the criminal justice system is fear of the criminal trial. Maeve Lewis says “Our clients are routinely humiliated and re-traumatised by the accepted practices and protocols of the criminal trial.  Is it any wonder that the criminal justice process is viewed with such terror by victims of sexual crime? And what message does this state of affairs send to sex offenders who can abuse so many children with impunity?”
 
“We welcome the EU Victim’s Directive of November 2015 which introduces important victim -focused measures, including specialist training for judges and legal professionals.  We also welcome the Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Bill 2015 which is currently proceeding through the Oireachtas.  This will bring Irish law up to date with developments in internet child grooming and sex offending and will also introduce changes in criminal trials which may improve our clients’ experiences of the criminal justice system.”
 
Maeve Lewis ends “There has undoubtedly been a sea change in Irish society’s understanding of child sexual abuse and this is reflected in the raft of legislative and policy changes that have emerged in the past two years.  However, I do not believe that people really appreciate how pervasive abuse is, how so many children are abused at home and how devastating the impact is throughout a person’s life. While this mind-set persists, children will continue to be sexually abused”.
 
 

The Media & Sexual Abuse - A Double-edged Sword


The media play an important role when it comes to sexual abuse. Especially investigative journalism.
 
There is no doubt the documentary ‘States of Fear’ and the work of Mary Rafferty led to the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern’s apology to the victims of abuse in these institutions. After the establishment of the Ryan Commission and the Residential Institutions Redress Board and the publication of these reports we witnessed an enormous expression of solidarity from the general public.  I have no doubt this was the start of a positive change in attitude to sexual abuse. These along with other examples have encouraged others to come forward.
 
Media coverage on court cases, reports and experiences of sexual abuse can encourage people to reach out for the first time. As a result, we experience a huge increase in calls and unfortunately this can mean we don’t have the resources to respond as soon as we would like.
 
Over the years the biggest influxes of calls have come as a result of both the Ryan and Murphy reports. More recently it has been familial cases that have come before the courts. People often relate to the stories these cases reveal.
 
While media coverage can encourage people, fear of media coverage can also inhibit people from coming forward.  Headlines and photographs can quickly trigger people. They evoke sadness, anger and often identify with darkness people have experienced.
 
The infamous photograph of Brendan Smyth outside the courts is still used by the media. Popping into your local newsagent to pick up milk and to be confronted with images of your abuser coupled with disturbing headlines will stir up a tsunami of emotion. Without the right support it can be incredibly isolating and disturbing.
 
People can also feel encouraged by media coverage as they can identify with the person’s experience. This identification can incite a feeling of belief and acceptance; belief that what happened to that person also happened to them.
 
This can evoke a positive feeling as the person reporting or telling their story represents the story of thousands of others who are witnessing, observing and invested in their story or case.
 
But media coverage presents a double edge sword. Media coverage on sexual abuse is plentiful and this saturation has led to a desensitisation of the issue among the general public. Compassion fatigue can result given the nature of persistent horrific events in today’s culture.
 
If the general public feel desensitised and fatigued, it is difficult for people who have experienced sexual abuse to find their voice to tell their own story.
 
People who have experienced sexual abuse can also be terrified of the implications of having to cope with media attention if they choose to report. This can often be misunderstood and is something we hope to give people clarity around before embarking on reporting.
 
Deirdre Kenny, Advocacy Director
 

 

‚ÄčA Sex Offender Register?


People often discover the One in Four website while searching for a sex offender register. These are people who are perhaps concerned about keeping their children safe.
 
If you had access to one would you look it up? If you found there were no officially registered sex offenders in your neighbourhood would it make you feel safer? What are you going to do when you find out?
 
There is no easy answer – or at least perhaps no answer that would put your mind at ease.
 
In Ireland, the Garda ‘Pulse’ system manages it – but it’s not publically accessible. There is a very good reason for this. A public register could bring us back 100 years to an era of witch hunting. Are we as a society able to accept that people who sexually offend against children live among us? That we probably encounter them in our day to day lives? What would it be like to find someone we know might be on that register?
 
Are we really ready for what we might find – do we have enough information on why people offend? Do we understand the dynamic? Many people are shocked to find that most children are abused within their families. Strangers only represent 11% of the people who offended against our clients. The SAVI report found only 24% was strangers.
 
At One in Four we believe that the whole family and community are impacted by a disclosure of child sexual abuse.  Child protection is at the centre of everything we do, including our sex offender treatment programme.
 
The sexual abuse of children is a terrible crime with horrendous consequences for survivors as they move through life. It is easy to allow our anger and disgust to overwhelm us.
 
The important question is how do we keep our children safe?
 
Supporting offenders strengthens prevention. The more we know about how child sex offending happens, the more we understand and the more that can be done to protect children.
 
Research tells us that if the statutory agencies and communities work to support the offender, through projects like Circles of Support, then children are safer. Offenders who have meaningful work, a decent place to live and supportive relationships are much less likely to re-offend.
 
The overarching goal of the offender treatment programme is to reduce offending. Research shows if an offender is 10 years offence free then they’re unlikely to reoffend. Sexual offending happens in a context. At One in Four we try to understand that context to support people not to re-offend. Re-integration is an important part of that process.
 
No child grows up wanting to be an offender. While we fully understand the concerns of the community, we must be able to talk about the reality and management of sex offenders. We must learn from the mistakes of the Church…abuse happens and thrives in secrecy.
 
 

 

 

Behind The Scenes at One In Four…The Advocacy Team


 “I’ve just told my family.” “I want justice.” “I realise how much my life has been destroyed.” These are some of the phrases our advocacy team hear when a survivor of sexual abuse makes that first call to One In Four…but no two stories are the same.
 
All sorts of life events can trigger someone to call for the first time: a divorce, a death, a birth. One client carried around our phone number for 5 years before they contacted us. People might not always know how we can help them…just that their lives have been changed by sexual abuse and they want to do something about it.
Deirdre, Nicola, Damien and Frank are our Advocacy Team…daily they provide support and provide information to men and women all over the country who may want to engage in a legal process or have child protection concerns.
 
“A fear or experience of not being believed is a reality for many of the people we support,” says Deirdre. The Advocacy services are free and the team endeavour to respond to callers within 24 hours. 
 
Hundreds and hundreds of people engage our Advocacy team each year, and for some one phone call is enough. For others it can be the first step towards something else:  support in making a Garda statement, court accompaniment or just clear information on how the systems work or any other practicalities. 
 
“Sometimes callers genuinely don’t know what’s there…what’s available…how the system works,” says Damien.
 
Often the people will feel more comfortable to come in to One In Four…to meet an advocacy officer in person and to talk in more detail about the next steps.
 
‘’Every time we meet with someone for the first time we draw on the experience of thousands of past clients’’ says Nicola.
 
The advocacy officers work together with clients to explore options with a view to addressing their needs. And for many survivors of abuse that first meeting can be crucial: “For the first time I feel like I’m speaking to someone who gets it.’’
 
The relationship with our advocacy team can last years. Clients can be engaged with the legal system for many years.
 
“Very often we’re looking for a practical solution to an emotional problem. The legal process does not address the hurt a child may have experienced.’’  The advocacy service works closely with therapy services to ensure that all our clients’ needs are met. 
 
Last year the team worked with 663 clients…663 individuals with 663 stories.
For the Advocacy team, the focus is the client. The client remains at the centre of everything we do.
 
Frank says, “We often find ourselves explaining the reality of the law. This can be really difficult while still trying to looking after the emotional wellbeing of someone who has been abused.”
 
 “Often the harm that has been caused isn’t solved in the court room. Formal acknowledgment can help…but therapy is important.”
 
The last couple of years have seen an increased demand for services and support. We have experienced a higher frequency of calls, meetings  and more court cases.
Despite this increased demand, the challenge for the advocacy team is to provide a professional specialised service as soon as people get in touch and for as long as they need.
 
“It’s amazing…sometimes I’ll walk by a past client on the street and they don’t recognise me. They’re over that part of their lives. They’re in a different place. A better place.”
 

 
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