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Opinion: We need to change Irish culture to lift the lid on child abuse

The Scouting Ireland scandal reminds us that more than 90% of child sex abusers are known to their victims and predators are experts at blending in, writes child protection expert, Shane Dunphy.

Shane Dunphy

The frightening revelations concerning Scouting Ireland’s past handling of abuse complaints highlight a number of issues that Ireland – a society well used to child abuse scandals – seems reluctant to address.

That is a reluctance that comes with a heavy price.

The term sexual abuse is something of a misnomer, as it is not about sex at all – sex is the weapon the predator uses, but the real motivation is power and dominance.

Abusers, according to a 2016 study carried out by the University of Michigan, tend to be individuals with a history of childhood isolation. They have often experienced bullying by an adult in authority and have insecure relationships with a parental figure.

The act of abusing gives them a sense of empowerment and control, and they learn very quickly how to protect themselves from discovery – predators are experts at blending in.

They do so by getting their victims to shield them from discovery.

Miriam* came to the attention of child protection services after appearing in explicit photographs shared online. She continued to deny she had been sexually abused in the face of overwhelming evidence – because her abusers had convinced her they would track down her little sister and abuse her if their cover was blown.

Miriam believed that by telling she was condemning her sister.

James, a survivor of abuse at the hands of a teacher at the age of 10, was 40 years old before he sought help. By then he was drinking heavily and his marriage had fallen apart. 

I never talked to anyone about what happened because he told me I wanted it. I never knew what I did to make him think that – but he was a grownup and my teacher, and I was just a thick kid.
I figured he had to be right and there must be something wrong with me.

How do we fight such insidious evil? The answer is twofold, but presents some serious challenges.

Firstly, we must begin the very difficult conversation around what I call ‘familiar danger’.

For decades we have taught our children to fear strangers, to suspect people they don’t know and to ‘scream and run away’ if approached by the stereotypical raincoat-clad man offering sweets. Such men do exist, I’m not suggesting they don’t. But they are a very small minority.

At least 90% of all abuse is perpetrated by an adult who is well-known to the child, and of those one-third are likely to be a member of the child’s own family.

40% of all abuse is not actually perpetrated by adults at all, but by other children – older and stronger children, but children for all that.

How do we tell our kids that the people they must fear may also be the ones they should trust? Do we encourage disobedience? The simple answer is: yes!

To truly address the ongoing threat of abuse we must develop positive, creative thinking in our children. As soon as they can understand the concept, we must foster a belief in individuality, the sacred space that is their own bodies and the right to say no if what is being asked of them is uncomfortable or upsetting.

Our children should be rewarded for expressing personal opinions, for cultivating individual tastes, likes and dislikes and for being courageous enough to share these with others.

If we are to coach our kids in saying no, we must accept that sometimes, that negative will be directed at us. The days of the uniform, single-voiced, homogenous classroom have to be put behind us.

And that can be deeply challenging for the adults on the receiving end of that engagement.

And sadly the discomfort doesn’t end there. As adults we must also empower ourselves.

Perhaps it is a hangover from living for so long under the shadow of a harshly governing clergy who urged us to keep our secrets for the confessional.
Irish people still have a horror of being seen as informers – we don’t want to interfere.

If we are to ensure further institutional scandals are prevented, we must first, accept that we have a duty to police one another. This should not be seen as sneaky – in fact, by so doing we are having each other’s backs.

Identifying that a colleague or a fellow volunteer is behaving unsafely, perhaps spending time alone with a child, becoming over-familiar, using language that is inappropriate and pointing such failings out, gently and without judgement, should be something that is welcomed, not avoided.

This type of team-working, if it becomes part and parcel of the culture of an organisation, can prevent problems further down the line, and sends a clear message to true predators that this is not a safe place for them to be.

Both of these steps require a paradigm shift – but one Ireland is ready for.

Our children deserve it and so do we all.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert, author and broadcaster. He is Head of the Social Studies Department at Waterford College of Further Education.

*All names have been changed to protect anonymity

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Shane Dunphy

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