Justice | Strengthening the law in regard to child sexual abuse
To ask the Minister for Justice the extent to which she proposes to strengthen the law in regard to child sexual abuse; and if she will make a statement on the matter.
The Government takes the issue of sexual exploitation of children very seriously and there is comprehensive legislation in place to deal with these offences.
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act was enacted in early 2017. It is a wide-ranging piece of legislation which significantly enhances laws to combat the sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children. Specific offences have been provided for in this Act to target the recognised steps in what is often a gradual process of grooming a victim.
Among the provisions of the 2017 Act are measures to strengthen significantly the existing criminal law in combating child exploitation and, in particular, to address the use of modern communication technologies as a tool which may lead to child sexual exploitation.
The Deputy will be aware that sophisticated grooming often involves seemingly innocent contact with, or befriending of, a child, perhaps through text messaging, social media or messaging apps. This may be followed by the exposure of the child to sexual images or content. Section 8 of the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 provides for a specific offence of using information and communications technology to communicate with a child for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The offence allows An Garda Síochána to investigate and bring to justice online predators and carries a penalty of up to 14 years imprisonment.
Section 8 of the Sexual Offences Act 2017 also includes an offence of sending sexually explicit material to a child. This is in recognition that the intention behind this type of activity may be to expose the child to material with a view to developing the child’s familiarity with such material or activity so as to facilitate the production of pornography or to meet the child for the purposes of sexual exploitation. The penalty for this offence is up to 5 years imprisonment.
The Deputy will also be aware that child trafficking and exploitation (including the production of child pornography) are criminalised under the Child Trafficking and Pornography Act 1998, as amended by section 3 of the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008.
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 amended the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006 to raise the maximum penalty for engaging in a sexual act with a child who is under the age of 17 years from 5 to 7 years imprisonment. Furthermore, the 2017 Act amended the 2006 Act to raise the maximum penalty for attempting to engage in a sexual act with a child under the age of 17 years from 2 to 7 years imprisonment.
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2006, as amended, also provides that the maximum penalty for engaging in a sexual act with a child under the age of 15 years is life imprisonment and the same penalty applies to attempting to engage in a sexual act with a child under the age of 15 years.
Ireland ratified the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (known as the “Lanzarote Convention”) on 21 December 2020. The Convention entered into force in relation to Ireland on 1 April 2021.
Part 2 of The Criminal Justice (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 which strengthens the law relating to the sexual exploitation of children, including child pornography, and criminalises the use of information and communication technology to facilitate such exploitation, ensures the State’s full compliance with criminal law provisions in the Convention.
The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) (Amendment) Act 2019 introduces, inter alia, stricter penalties for repeat sexual offenders. The Act provides that where an offender is convicted of a sexual offence listed in a new schedule to the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Act 2017 (including a number of sexual offences against children) and is sentenced to imprisonment for a period of at least 5 years and is subsequently – within a period of 10 years – convicted of a further scheduled offence, the court shall, when imposing sentence for that offence, specify a term of imprisonment to be served by the person, that is no less than three quarters of the maximum penalty for the offence.
Where the maximum penalty is life imprisonment, the court shall impose a sentence of not less than 10 years imprisonment. However, the court has discretion not to apply the minimum sentence if it is satisfied that this would be disproportionate in all the circumstances of the case.
While there are currently no new legislative measures being advanced specifically in relation to child sexual abuse, I am bringing forward the Sex Offenders (Amendment) Bill which will strengthen the management of convicted sex offenders on release. I am of course committed to ensuring the law in this area is comprehensive and effective. As such, it is constantly kept under review and if further changes are identified as being needed, these will be brought forward.
The Deputy may also be aware of the European Commission’s new proposal, published in May this year, on tackling child sexual abuse online. This draft Regulation sets out comprehensive new requirements on online companies to assess and mitigate the extent to which their platforms are being misused for the purposes of child sexual abuse, both in terms of hosting material and the exploitation by abusers of their services for the purposes of grooming children. The Regulation will introduce provisions requiring companies to detect and report such material. It will also create a new EU Centre to coordinate the efforts of law enforcement agencies across the Union in tackling online child sexual abuse. I expressed my strong support for this new proposal to the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson, at the recent WeProtect Global Alliance summit on child sexual abuse in Brussels.
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