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Sunday 5 February 2023 Dublin: 4°C
Leah Farrell
Of all reported cases of child sexual violence only 2% end in a conviction. Children whose disclosures don’t result in a criminal conviction still need protection, writes Dr Clíona Saidléar.

IN HER ADVANCE report on Ireland released this month, the UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Maud de Boer-Buquicchio, made the observation that:

“A culture of silence around issues of childhood sexual abuse and exploitation…. means systems are not in place to prevent or quickly respond to violations.”

You would be forgiven for thinking she was referring to our well documented historical failings in responding to child sexual violence, but unfortunately, she was referring to what is happening to child victims of rape today.

The report also noted “a lack of a dedicated and integrated strategy to respond to sexual violence against children”.

The question of how our children are currently protected is disturbingly difficult to answer in any detail.

This is the question that the Rape Crisis Network Ireland laid before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality as it seeks to understand the reform needs of the family law system in Ireland.

According to the report: Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland, around one in five children is a victim of sexual violence, so it stands to reason that this issue features heavily in the family courts, yet these courts have little by way of specialist practitioners to deal with it. 

The vast majority of reported cases of child sexual violence never go to court – so what is being done to protect those survivors? 

Getting data

As observed by the Rapporteur, there are gaps in the data we would need to begin to answer that question.

What we do know is the following:

Tusla receives approximately 3,000 referrals of child sexual violence every year. The corresponding number of children will be fewer and that number does not appear to be currently published.

Of those referrals, some will be mistaken or false, at a rate of approximately 2% – 8%, according to a range of research.

After that, according to a sampling done by the Garda Inspectorate in their Report of December 2017, there is a 4% prosecution rate for child sexual violence investigations with less than 2% of investigations resulting in a criminal conviction.

Therefore, our criminal justice failure rate in reported and true child sexual violence is between 90% and 96%.


Children whose disclosures result in no criminal conviction still need protection.

The protection of these children is one of the complex tasks we expect families and communities to undertake informally and which we have mandated Tusla to undertake formally on all our behalf.

Tusla’s response is dictated by its categorisation of these cases, after assessment as either ‘founded’ or ‘unfounded’.

Contrary to what might be a common understanding of the word ‘unfounded’, when Tusla categorises a report as ‘unfounded’ that doesn’t always mean that the sexual violence never happened.

What Tusla seems to mean by ‘unfounded’ by and large, is that it hasn’t found sufficient evidence to categorically say the violence did happen.

Is this categorisation misleading for other agencies?

A series of Parliamentary Questions have elicited the answer from Minister Zappone that Tusla ‘does not collate’ how many child sexual violence cases it categorises as founded or unfounded.

It is imperative that we find out what percentage of child sexual violence reports are treated as unfounded?

Do the other agencies, professionals and vitally, the child’s circle of trust, have a shared understanding of their obligations when there is an ‘unfounded’ finding?

Family Court

To further add to the complexity of child protection the National Rape Crisis Statistics 2015 found that for children under 13 who experience sexual violence, 62% said that the perpetrator was a family member.

Where a child discloses abuse within the family, this disclosure will in many cases result in his or her family breaking up.

All told this means that we can expect that a significant proportion of family separation and child custody cases going through our family courts, involve the rape and sexual abuse of children by family members in the absence of a parallel criminal conviction.

The Family Court Services process on average 11,600 guardianship, custody and access cases every year but we have no statistics from the Courts Service on how many of these cases contain evidence of domestic and sexual violence.

These family courts are held in camera. This means that apart from the very welcome Child Care Law Reporting Project and the work of the Child Rapporteur there is little by way of transparency for insight and reassurance.

The statistics on how many private family law cases involve allegations of child sexual violence is an imperative matter of justice, child protection and public interest.

The fact is our family courts are handling criminal matters of a child protection nature in unknown numbers, in the absence of standardised and fully regulated specialisation.

Almost all advocates are agreed that our family courts need improved specialisation to deal with these complex matters.

Ensuring transparency, accountability and specialisation would form part of a national strategy on child sexual violence. Such a strategy does not exist.

A national strategy would place responsibility somewhere for oversight of whole-of-government child protection activity.

This oversight responsibility is currently not held by any specific government department or agency. 

What we have is a system lacking transparency and poorly joined up which, in short, is a system vulnerable to failure.

Where a system suffers from this flawed design, it is not only likely to fail to achieve its child protection objectives but, as history teaches us, it often causes further harm to the very children it is meant to serve.

We need action urgently.

Dr Clíona Saidléar is the Executive Director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland which is a specialist sexual violence policy NGO owned and governed by rape crisis centres.  

Clíona Saidléar
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