Sex crime in ireland: extent and trends

AuthorIan O'Donnell
PositionDeputy Director, Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law, University College Dublin
This paper is primarily concerned with the range of
sexual conduct that offends against the criminal law and
comes to the attention of An Garda Síochána and the courts.
It is important to note at the outset that this is a subset of all
illegal sexual activity. Much sex crime goes unreported to the
authorities or, if reported, does not result in proceedings. The
analysis presented here is offence focused. I have little to say
about the characteristics of victims or perpetrators, or the
relationships between them. The aim is to outline at a general
level what is known about the volume of sex crime, to
indicate the available sources of information and to draw
conclusions, where appropriate, about the interpretation of
trends. By way of a conclusion I will make some general
observations about the kind of empirical information that, if
available, would assist in decisions about where to place
jurisdictional boundaries.1
Before attempting to describe trends in the major
categories of sex crime in recent years, it is important to enter
a brief historical footnote. Crime rates do not travel
relentlessly upward: they can fall as well as rise. Indeed, the
pattern in lethal violence since the early 1800s has been
89 Judicial Studies Institute Journal [3:1
1 One of the questions being addressed at the conference to which a
version of this paper was presented concerned whether the Central
Criminal Court should retain exclusive jurisdiction over rape and
aggravated sexual assault. For the perspective of a senior judge see
Carney, “The Case for a National Court for Indictable Crime” (2002) 2(1)
Judicial Studies Institute Journal 1.
* Deputy Director, Institute of Criminology, Faculty of Law, University
College Dublin.
steadily downward with an increase over the past 30 years.2
The trend for sexual violence may shadow that for unlawful
killing, and it seems reasonable to use the latter (for which
good quality data are available over a long period) as a proxy
for the former. On this basis it is likely that levels of sexual
violence were much higher in previous centuries, underwent
a significant and sustained decline, but recently rose again.
There are a number of indications from the historical
literature that extreme sexual violence is an enduring
problem. Rape was regularly reported in the press and a
ferocious attack sometimes left the victim dead or dying. To
quote from a history of rape in the eighteenth century:
Violence was a staple feature of sexual
assaults and, in the fifty years after 1750 at
least seventeen women died as a result of
injuries incurred during rape attacks or were
deliberately killed to prevent them testifying.
Sometimes the injuries that were inflicted
were gratuitously brutal. When Anne
Goldsmith was taken by four men to a field off
Blarney Lane in March 1780, both her arms
were broken during the rape and she was
strangled afterwards. ... [O]thers had their eyes
gouged, their throats cut and a variety of life
threatening injuries inflicted. ... Joan Murphy
was travelling alone from the Cork fair [in
1759] when she was intercepted by four men
and brought to an isolated spot off the high
road. Her assailants sought to hold her down
to violate her, but her resistance so frustrated
their efforts that they stuck a knife in her
rectum to make her more compliant. They then
raped her into ‘a state of insensibility,’ and
were in the process of burying what they
2003] Sex Crime in Ireland 90
2 O’Donnell, “Unlawful Killing Past and Present” (2002) 37 Irish Jurist
(n.s.) 56.

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