Rehabilitation of underage sex offenders vital to justice system, judge says

Published date27 November 2021
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
The Kriégel case, thankfully, was a rarity, but sexual offending by children and adolescents is now a real problem in the State. One in five of the 11,000 sexual abuse cases recorded on the Garda Pulse system between January 2018 and December 2020 involved young offenders.

Judge John O'Connor, a juvenile justice specialist who sits on the Circuit Court, believes the real number of offences – mostly covering allegations of sexual assault, rape and possession of child pornography – is likely to be higher.

"Many young people do not even realise they are offending by, for example, sexting," he says. Sexting, involving young people sharing sexually explicit images of each other, can take place within consensual relationships but can also be associated with bullying and exploitation.

"Many teenagers are unaware they are breaking the law because they are disseminating child pornography," says Judge O'Connor, who has just completed a PhD on the sentencing of underage sexual offenders.

Parents, equally, are often clueless.

"Some of the parents that we worked with couldn't get to grips with how their children could be interested in sex at such a young age," he says one probation officer told him during his research, "They still saw their child as a child, not an emerging adult."

Probation officers interviewed by the judge believe that early and unsupervised access to the internet and inappropriate images created opportunities for some of the offending by children who have ended up in their care.

"They are less sexually active and are relying on online for meeting, dating etc. They have lots of superficial relationships," said one probation officer, echoing the belief of others than children today are entering into their emerging sexual identity in a "vastly changed world".

Detention issues

Most of a representative sample of 18 judges interviewed by Judge O'Connor regard child sexual offending as transient behaviour and that detention should be a "last resort", believing that most offenders can be rehabilitated and that must be taken into account when sentencing.

The evidence is that judicially supervised treatment programmes for offenders work better than jail sentences, he notes. Very few child sex offenders, even those who have not undergone treatment and training, go on to become adult paedophiles.

Judges dealing with such cases face difficult tasks, he argues, when the public and politicians "appear to prefer risk management to reintegration" and when victims...

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