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Justice | Child abuse investigations

To ask the Minister for Justice the extent to which investigations into child abuse continue vigorously in order to ensure the safety of children in the home or in institutional care; and if she will make a statement on the matter.

The statutory bodies with primary responsibility for child welfare and protection are Tusla and An Garda Síochána. Both have distinct functions, powers and methods of working.

Tusla has a statutory duty under the Child Care Act 1991 to promote the welfare of children who are not receiving adequate care and protection. In doing so, it relies heavily on individuals reporting concerns about children, in accordance with Children First: National Guidance for the Protection and Welfare of Children 2017 and the Children First Act 2015.

I am assured by my Cabinet colleague – the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth – that Tusla assesses all child welfare and protection concerns that are reported to it. Concerns about children may arise in any setting, including within the home or involving children in the care of the State.

If there are ongoing child protections concerns, Tusla will take the necessary actions to ensure that a child who may be at risk of harm is protected. If Tusla suspects that a crime has been committed and a child has been wilfully neglected or physically or sexually abused, it will formally notify the Gardaí without delay.

The involvement of An Garda Síochána in cases of alleged child abuse and neglect stems from its primary responsibility to protect the community and to bring offenders to justice. Where it is suspected that a crime has been committed, An Garda Síochána has overall responsibility for the direction of any criminal investigation.

The Deputy will appreciate that, under section 26 of the Garda Síochána Act 2005, the Garda Commissioner is responsible for carrying on and managing and controlling generally the administration and business of An Garda Síochána. In addition, the investigation of suspected crimes is an operational matter within the responsibility of the Commissioner and not for me as Minister.

I assure the Deputy that this 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 sexual abuse material 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.

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