Ireland’s dangerous silence on abuse

A true understanding of sexual abuse is a long way off, writes Shane Dunphy

The sentencing of a Roscommon mother to 14 years in prison for the appalling abuse and torture of her daughter elicited a moderate response from the media, and almost no reaction from the general public.

The facts of the case were truly horrific: the young girl at its centre was rented out by her mother (who had herself physically, emotionally and sexually molested the child) to a neighbour, who sexually abused the girl from aged five, leading her around by a dog’s lead.

Judge Thomas Hunt, who handed down the sentence – one of the harshest ever given to a convicted abuser in the State – said that Irish society needs to realise that, despite the numerous scandals involving the Church or celebrities like Jimmy Savile, a true understanding of the impact of sexual abuse is still a long way off.

I believe he is completely correct.

Closed ranks

Some years ago I was called to a small housing estate in the south of Ireland. The case was a particularly upsetting one: a seven-year-old child had been spotted by neighbours cowering in her next-door’s neighbours’ back yard, dressed only in soiled underwear.

This was not the first time the girl had been brought to the attention of social services – she was a poor attender in school and had presented with unexplained cuts and bruises on several occasions.

I learned on investigation that the child’s mother, an alcoholic single parent, had been prostituting her daughter out to the man who lived in the adjoining house, often in return for cheap bottles of whiskey.

Medical and psychological examinations of the child proved that she had been sexually abused, and the neighbour, who had a history of sexual violence, admitted his guilt mercifully quickly.

The man eventually served five years in prison, the mother was sent for addiction counselling and the little girl was taken into care, where she had monthly access visits with her mother.

The community in which this horror story took place – a nice, middle-class suburb where decent, hard-working people lived, closed ranks.

The reality of sexual predation is a harsh one, you see, and for most of us is too distasteful to countenance.

The people who lived alongside our tragic little girl and her abusive neighbour were no different.

Social services knew nothing about the child’s extended family, and neither she nor her mother were in any condition to tell us anything about them. I felt she may benefit from the support of at least one relative whom she could visit occasionally in the hopes of rebuilding her sense of self and her feeling that family was actually a good, safe place.

With this in mind, I spoke to the girl’s teachers, the family’s GP, the people who ran the community centre and one or two individuals I was told had been close to this lonely family.

What I discovered almost immediately was that each person I interviewed knew (or at least suspected) exactly what the unfortunate little girl had been going through, and decided to flatly ignore the knowledge.

This choice was, I think, rooted in falsehoods we choose to lend credence to, unspoken codes we live by. In the modern, urban forest, we tell ourselves, the Big Bad Wolf hides in plain sight, but we can still recognise him by certain giveaway features: he often drives a white van; he allies himself with religious orders or he puts himself in positions of power or celebrity so he can hunt with impunity.

Universal truths

If we keep these universal truths fresh in our minds, surely our children will be safe, right?

Wrong. Let me present some well-known statistics: the vast majority of abuse – and I am talking about (depending on the study you read) anywhere from 70% to 90% – takes place within the home and is perpetrated either by a family member or a person well-known to the child.

Your son or daughter is far more likely to be molested by a family member than they are by a random, predatory stranger.

The difficulties this presents to child protection workers and parents alike is clear: how do you empower a child to protect him/herself against people they are conditioned to trust?

Children are taught from the moment they are capable of independent thought that they should respect and obey their parents – what then if those parents are trying to coerce them into doing something damaging and wrong?

No one I interviewed admitted to knowing anything about the little girl’s extended family – in fact, most claimed they had never had anything to do with girl or her mother other than an occasional passing hello. I left them to lick their wounds, and hoped their community would heal in time.

Judge Hunt has told us that we need to reassess our attitude to abuse – that we need to face up to our responsibilities towards our most vulnerable citizens.


That little girl is a young woman now. She left care, still deeply traumatised by her childhood experiences and returned to live with her mother in the same house in the old estate. Her neighbour had already gotten out of prison, and moved back next door.

I am told he visits his old friends regularly.

No one talks to this tragic family, and no one ever makes reference to what occurred – such things do not happen in nice neighbourhoods. Abusers are priests or nuns or eccentric celebrities, not ordinary neighbours.

What the people of this estate have forgotten is a simple universal truth: not talking about the bogeyman does not mean he is not there – it just means you have been taken in by his disguise.

Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert and author.