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Saturday 9 December 2023 Dublin: 7°C
Leah Farrell/

How Ireland deals with sex offenders after they're released from prison

Experts in the area say their work can face strong opposition from the public but it is vital to ensure offenders do not harm anyone else.

AT ANY ONE time there are between 400 and 450 people convicted of sexual violence in custody in Irish prisons.

Yesterday one of those individuals, former sports journalist Tom Humphries, was released from Midlands Prison after serving 22 months of a two-and-a-half year sentence for child sex abuse offences. 

He pleaded guilty to six offences dating from 2010 and 2011 including sexual exploitation and defilement of a child.

During his time in prison, Humphries declined to participate in the Building Better Lives programme, a rehabilitation service for sex offenders, despite meeting many of the conditions.

These criteria include a prison sentence of longer than 18 months, full admission of the offence, robustness of personality to withstand the challenge of the group and some literacy capacity. 

Participation numbers since the launch of the programme in 2009 have remained consistently low. Last year, just 31 offenders engaged in all or part of the scheme, which has three modules.

The first stage of the programme, which is run by a team of psychologists and probation officers, focuses on motivation and identifying treatment targets for the offender. 

The second module involves more than 60 sessions of in-depth therapeutic and risk relevant work. Stage 3 includes what is described as “a high degree of challenge and support for participants” and can be delivered as a group or individually.

It can include family meetings and the development of a risk management and resettlement plan for the offender’s release. 

Kieran McCartan, an associate professor of criminology, said one of the biggest challenges around prevention and rehabilitative work is that the criminal justice system is “traditionally a punitive one”. 

“This means it’s easier to get money for more prison places and police officers than money for treatment and interventions or community outreach work.”

McCartan is on the board of Nota, an organisation that supports professionals working to prevent sexual abuse in the UK and Ireland.

“What we end up seeing is that there is investment in prison and probation programmes but a lot of this work is being picked up by third parties or charities.

It’s not that the governments don’t believe in it, it’s just difficult to justify funding for it – as opposed to increased sanctions and more prison places.

‘Categorical deniers’

The Irish Prison Service told that this programme is “only one of a number” of intervention pillars for people convicted of sexual violence. 

An IPS spokesperson said the service has engaged with an international expert in relation to “the ongoing challenge faced in the treatment and management of ‘categorical deniers’”.

The preliminary findings from a ‘deniers’ programme run in another jurisdiction are positive and I understand the IPS Psychology Service sees this approach as the next critical step in the treatment and management of sexual violence in custody.

He said reasons sex offenders do not engage with the Building Better Lives programme include denial, lack of motivation, insufficient time in sentence, lack of suitability due to an appeal of their conviction and complexity of case.

“Approximately 75% of the sex offender population are not suitable to engage in the programme for these reasons.”

There are no incentives such as early release directly attached to the programme. 

90379748_90379748 Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland Midlands Prison in Portlaoise, where Humphries served his sentence. Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

While Humphries did not engage with treatment or rehabilitation services in prison, he did reportedly take Spanish classes and there was speculation he would leave Ireland soon after his release. The judge in his case declined to impose a post-release supervision order. 

These orders can be imposed by a judge as part of a sentence and will mean the offender will have a period of supervision following their release from prison. 

A judge can also suspend all or part of a sentence for a specific period on the condition the offender stays under the supervision of a probation officer for that time. 

Last year, some 393 sex offenders were supervised in the community. 

A multi-agency approach called Soram (Sex Offender Risk Assessment and Management) is used in many cases and involves teams in all 28 garda divisions consisting of personnel from the Probation Service, Tusla, the HSE and the Irish Prison Service as well as gardaí.

One of the requirements for this ongoing assessment is that an individual is deemed to be at a medium or higher risk of re-offending. These teams meet regularly to review risks and develop case management plans for individuals convicted of sexual violence who are residing in the community. 

Working with offenders in the community

There are other programmes and initiatives that have a focus on treatment, rehabilitation and support for sex offenders when they are released from prison. 

The Pace organisation, a registered charity that provides accommodation and support to ex-prisoners, has three separate programmes that work with people who pose a significant risk of re-offending:

  1. Safer Lives treatment programme – A community based therapeutic group work programme.
  2. Foothold – Intensive one-to-one support, including the sourcing of accommodation, for people deemed to be a high level risk.
  3. Cosa (Circles of Support and Accountability) programme – Small support groups of volunteers who meet regularly with a moderate to high risk individual who is otherwise isolated in the community. These groups are supported by a professional circle involving the probation service and an NGO/charity (in this case Pace).

Kieran McCartan said this type of work after an offender has left prison and is back in the community can often be left to non State-run bodies. 

“We’ve seen this week in the UK Boris Johnson talking about more money for prisons and for police on the ground and that’s what people want to to hear. One of the things we need to think about is how to prevent this [these offences] from happening, by the time they’ve ended up in prison the damage is already done.”

Organisations and professionals who work for support or rehabilitation services for sex offenders can face a backlash and this has become more of a concern here in recent times.

In July last year there were multiple protests outside a clinic in Sallynoggin, Dublin, run by a company that offers psychological services to sex offenders.

Activists locked the gates of the premises with bicycle locks and broadcast videos on social media of them confronting staff who were attempting to get to work. Gardaí were called to one of the protests.

Eileen Finnegan is Clinical Director of One In Four, an organisation that provides counselling to adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. The service also works with offenders.

Speaking to, she said these kinds of incidents create fear among those who are working with these offenders. 

“After that incident I found services providers were terrified to say they were providing that risk management. There is a different thing now where staff are thinking ‘what will happen to us?’

What people in Ireland need to realise is that sexual offending is not necessarily the stories they read in the media involving strangers or members of the Catholic Church. This is happening more in families.
When someone in the family has offended we need to ensure it doesn’t happen again and begin to look at how we talk about it and also look at how we’re educating our young people. There are children that are in school now who could end up either on a programme because they are a victim or on a programme because they are acting out sexually [as an offender]. 

She said the activity of vigilante groups can add to the stress for families where the offender and the victim are related, particularly if the person who offended is also a juvenile. 

“They think: ‘What if someone hears about this?’ That silences families and ultimately silences the victim and the person who offended.”

There are a small number of organised vigilante groups operating in Ireland, posting content on social media about offenders in communities. 

In February this year a man was assaulted after a ‘paedophile hunter’ group broadcast a life video confronting him about alleged inappropriate contact with a decoy teenage girl. 

A serial sex offender was also recently set upon by a group of locals in north Dublin after it emerged the convicted rapist was living in the area. 

McCartan said Nota has engaged in the past with some vigilante groups in Northern Ireland about the “unintended consequences” of their actions.

“They are doing it to keep people safe, but we were asking them had they thought about the fact that this person’s mother still lives in the community, their victims still live in the community and what they are doing is having an impact on them as well. 

“There was never that recognition, they were so focused on getting rid of that person.”

He pointed out that between one in four and one in eight people are affected by sexual abuse at some point in their lives. 

“They [the offenders] can’t all be these erratically abnormal hyper-deviant people, it’s too common for that. It says something about society that we still think about sex offenders as being radically different to the rest of us but the figures don’t stack up to that.”

McCartan referenced research by Canadian psychologist Karl Hanson who demonstrated that over a 20 year period people who were very high risk could drop to low risk and live in the community offence free.

However the research found that in order for this to happen, there needed to be a supportive environment and social inclusion.

“When treatment or intervention goes off the rails, when people aren’t engaged or motivated or feel they have to be careful around everything they do they are more likely to re-offend.”

We hear people saying ‘lock them up castrate them’, and sure, that will reduce their libido but it doesn’t take the interest away. It just takes away the capacity to do something like that. We need to get people to change the way they think.

Eileen Finnegan said One in Four’s work with offenders stemmed from conversations with victims, who were starting to ask why they were the only ones there. 

She said the victims began talking about the need to prevent further harm and to look at what motivated their offenders to commit those acts. 

“That took me out of my comfort zone. I was quite married to the idea that they wouldn’t want anything to do with their offenders.

As a professional, it is easier to have empathy for someone who has been harmed, but you have to dig deeper to have empathy for someone who has harmed. 

One in Four has done some work around restorative justice, which gives victims a chance to ask questions of their offenders and explain to them the impact of their actions. 

“We did some work within the Church which was very successful.”

She said the organisation does this work with juvenile offenders, but as a general concept it has not “taken off” in Ireland. 

“Before anything can take off, we need to be having healthy conversations about it like this.”

Impact of the housing crisis

In Pace’s most recent publicly available annual report, for 2016, the organisation said the biggest struggle for its Foothold service was the sourcing of suitable safe accommodation.

The charity said an already difficult situation was exacerbated by the ongoing housing crisis and decisions made by Tusla with regard to the sourcing of temporary accommodation. Pace said this resulted in seven clients becoming homeless immediately.

“Prior to this decision Foothold had been able to work in partnership with Dublin City Council to source temporary accommodation that was paid for by Dublin City Council,” the organisation said in the report.

“Once the payments ceased, we were no longer in a position to assist with sourcing temporary accommodation and the placements ended resulting in homelessness.

The nature of the offences means that accessing emergency accommodation can be unsafe both for the clients and other service users. This meant that sleeping rough became a reality for four clients over the summer period.

Sex offenders have to register where they are living and as part of their monitoring role gardaí will assess whether this is suitable accommodation.

If they believe it is not appropriate, for example if there are multiple other sex offenders living there, or if it is too close to schools and creches, they usually advise them to look elsewhere. 

However gardaí can not force them to leave that accommodation if the offender chooses not to take their advice. 

A 2017 report by the Garda Inspectorate about An Garda Síochána’s response to child sex abuse referenced the responsibility of gardaí to conduct home visits and the limitations of their power in this area.

The frequency of the visits depends on the risk. Most offenders are compliant and participate in a risk assessment process, however, a smaller number are non-compliant and difficult to engage. Gardaí have little power to deal with those unwilling to participate. In some cases, people will not open the door and, in the absence of legislative powers, there is some ambiguity as to the authority of visits by gardaí.

Security sources believe family or community settings are most appropriate as offenders feel less isolated. Issues can also arise if offenders congregate in hostels or in deprived areas as they are more difficult to monitor and they can “validate” each other and begin to minimise the harm of their offences. 

Pace said the motivation of offenders to engage with services is substantially reduced if they cannot source accommodation and the risk of them disengaging and re-offending increases substantially. 

Two clients stopped working with Foothold during 2016. One of these left the country due to his continued homelessness and the need to sleep rough and his inability to find suitable accommodation here. His departure was a concern because his level of need is very high and leaving the country increased his vulnerability and risk level.

The charity said a better outcome would have been the provision of the appropriate supported accommodation in Ireland “reducing the need to sleep rough, providing stability and reducing risk”.

Unfortunately, in the current setting it was not possible to provide any of this. This case highlighted the limitations of Foothold and any other supports when suitable accommodation is not available.

Pace said 40% of the Foothold service users had intellectual disabilities or other behavioural disorders that impacted on their ability to live independently and integrate fully into the community.

Preventative work

Finnegan said work to figure out why people commit these offences and how to prevent them before they happen needs to be prioritised. 

A helpline called Stop It Now in the UK was established so people who were having sexual feelings for children or thinking about harming children in this way could seek help before they acted on it. 

There was an attempt to expand this service into the Republic of Ireland but it has not yet been successful.

“I believe in people taking responsibility for what they’ve done and for the whole system to know. These services are a pathway to ensuring they do not do it again,” she said.

They’ll never be someone who hasn’t offended, but they can be somebody who never re-offends, that is as much as we can do with them. They need to show people they will for the rest of their lives do everything within their power to ensure it does not occur again.

Finnegan said there are factors other than an attraction to children that motivate offenders and that can be addressed, such as mental health issues, isolation and trauma from their own childhood abuse.

Not everyone who offends will ever want to look into this very dark mirror and talk about how, in order to feel better, they needed to sexually harm a child.

“I can understand where people are coming from, the opposition to this, I am a person in society and I have children and grandchildren,” Finnegan said. 

“But when I think about my work I think about the children who are out there now and working to prevent people wanting to harm them, that’s the reason for me as a professional.

“We can’t do anything about what happened in the past, but the information from the people who have the courage to tell us what motivated them to offend and what allowed them to offend can help us stop it in the future.”

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