Child Abuse: Is Ireland Doing Enough?

UCC’s researchers are leaders in the field of forensic psychology and the issue of child protection. Does this theory influence local policing, or are we simply not doing enough?

Content Warning: This article discusses the subject of sexual abuse, including abuse on children. If you are affected by the content of this piece, please get in touch with your Welfare Officer by emailing, or the Cork Sexual Violence Centre by dialling 1 800 496 496.

Are we doing enough as a country and society to protect children? A concerned listener called into The Neil Prendeville Show, one of Cork’s main radio talk show, and advocated for a referendum to legalise the death penalty for pedophiles. As is customary for Prendeville, a poll was released shortly on his twitter account. The host was wondering would his listeners be in favour of this form of punishment for child abusers? At the time of writing, 69% of respondents were in favour, while 31% opposed it. In the comment section, no voters justified their choices by condemning death penalty for all crimes, without thinking of pedophilia. Yes voters on the other hand called for the capital punishment because they see child abuse as the worst crime that can be committed.

After the shocking news of the three student rape cases in Cork being released earlier this semester, it was reported that only 6 members of An Garda Síochána make up the unit which deals with sexual offences, including online child protection, in the city of Cork. This, alongside the low conviction rate of child abusers (under 5% in 2011 according to advocacy group ‘One In Four’), shows us why the listeners of RED FM are concerned with pedophilia. It seems like we are not adequately facing the issue as a society.

A question remains however. Will the death penalty actually increase the safety of children? In Prenderville’s question lies the first misconception that prevents us from looking at child abuse holistically. The poll asked whether people agreed with sentencing to death ‘pedophiles’. Not ‘child abusers’. And from the responses, it appears that people are using the two words interchangeably, using pedophile to refer to someone who committed a crime against a child. Pedophilia however is classified as a mental illness in the DSM-5 (Book of psychiatric illnesses used by many psychiatrists as a diagnosis tool). This disease is characterised by three criterions, these being 1) ‘having arousing fantasies about […] prepubescent […] children, 2) ‘[has] acted out these […] desires, or is experiencing significant distress […] as a result [of them], 3) [being] 16 years of age [or more, and five years older or more than the child/ren].

While included in the second criterion, pedophilia does not define an act, but a thought process. Child abuse on the other hand refers to a behaviour that is a crime, which can be done as a result of pedophilia, but not always. Clarifying the language around the topic would allow society to better understand the issue and adapt itself to genuinely strive to decrease the amount of children being harmed every year. From a legal point of view, what is illegal is child abuse, not pedophilia. And the wider ignorance regarding the difference between these two terms have caused us to adopt counter-productive measures to deal with such crimes. Ireland, and the world in general, has a crime-first approach to pedophilia. We do not acknowledge its existence until a crime is committed, and our procedure is to arrest and convict criminals (and even then, rarely) and support victims. While crime will continue to exist (and we do need to strengthen our judicial system to deal with criminals and continue to offer support to victims), shouldn’t our focus be in preventing it?

In many countries, hotlines exists for pedophiles who would like to seek help in order to not act on their desires. While it may still be difficult for us, and even to proponents of a ‘help-based’ approach to pedophilia, to consider letting self-confessed pedophiles to live lives without surveillance, moving towards a more medical view of pedophilia and creating an atmosphere which would encourage pedophiles to come forward and seek treatment would decrease the number of people committing crimes. True pedophiles (those with a long-standing, regular attraction to children in general, as opposed to child abusers who commit crime because of their authority and closeness with a specific child) sometimes turn desire into behaviour because of frustrations which can come about if someone is hiding and not undergoing treatment or therapy.

What is frustratingly contrasting when it comes to this topic in Ireland is the role that our country, and UCC, played in the forensic research on pedophilia. In 1997, the department of Applied Psychology in UCC developed, with some input from the Met’s Paedophile Unit, the COPINE scale. The COPINE scale is a ten-level typology to rate the severity of images and video of child sex abuse. Since its development, this scale was used for research purposes, as well as used and adapted by police forces throughout the world for their day-to-day work. With such breakthrough and useful research conducted in our very own campus, one can wonder why this theory does not translate to actual crime fighting locally.

Another obstacle to better child protection is the fact that most of our campaigns, procedures, and acts are children-focused. We teach children to mind strangers, to learn to say no, to talk to an adult if something does not feel right. We also wait for a child to report a crime to a trusted adult, and to focus on treating the child afterwards. However, as noted by the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, most cases of child abuse take place within the home, or by a ‘trusted adult’ known by both the child and their relatives. While it might be possible for a child to turn down a stranger, the personal relationship and authority of a known adult renders a child powerless, incapable of saying no or speaking out against a loved one, and a lot of times, even understanding that something is wrong has happened.

Today, we are seeing more and more cases coming out, and this focus is certainly not curbing figures. It would benefit children more if our society matured and decided to face this problem head on. We cannot let children be responsible for their safety and ignore the issues that exist prior to criminality. An adult approach means both targeting pedophiles and encouraging them (in a way that we have yet to figure out) to seek help before they act on their fantasies, and also non-pedophile adults by teaching them, and not the children, how to recognise signs. Signs that a child may be a victim, or more importantly if we want prevention, signs that an adult may have dangerous tendencies. We need to know how to help a child. We need to know how to report crime ourselves. And even though it may disgust us, we also need to know how to help an adult seek the necessary treatment.

There are many things we do not expect of our children. We do not expect them to handle financial decisions. We do not expect them to be employed. We sometimes don’t even expect them to pick their own clothing in Penney’s! So why should law-enforcement, and their own protection, be their sole responsibility?