How child sexual abuse in Ireland was kept ‘invisible’

Research from a legal expert at the University provides an important insight into how child sexual abuse in Ireland was kept ‘invisible’ and how the law failed to reflect the full experiences of victims.

It also explains how Irish children who tried to report child sexual abuse in the past faced a culture of indifference.

In a paper published by the journal Social and Legal Studies, Dr Sinéad Ring of Kent Law School investigated criminal cases between 1999 and 2006 involving the delayed reporting of abuse.

Amongst her conclusions, Dr Ring points out that a significant factor in why victims did not come forward sooner was that many others were not believed when they first told of the abuse. Dr Ring also argues that, while ultimate responsibility for the abuse lies with the abuser, it is not legally or historically correct to attach all of the blame for the silencing of victims to individual abusers.

One of the reasons for this is that parents, teachers, gardai (police) and other members of society were involved in creating and sustaining a culture of silence around child sexual abuse. This existed not only during the period of abuse but for decades afterwards.

Furthermore, Dr Ring says the cases involving delayed reporting of abuse suggest that law’s engagement with these cases is not wholly positive. Although it is helpful in many ways in bringing victims’ stories to light and holding some abusers to account, it cannot be trusted to produce a complete picture of the past. Rather, the decisions of the courts in these cases also point to the law’s power to:

  • perpetuate outdated stereotypes about victims of sexual violence
  • and to produce versions of history that erase certain experiences, create hierarchies of victims, and exonerate society from any complicity in the abuse of children.

As societies grapple with how to ensure that child sexual abuse is adequately addressed in the present and into the future, Dr Ring’s research is expected to make an important contribution to legal studies in this area.

‘The Victim of Historical Child Sexual Abuse in the Irish Courts 1999–2006’ (Ring, Sinéad) is published in Social and Legal Studies published online on 11 April, 2017.