Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have used their fearsome reputations to sexually exploit children, a report said.
Powerful individuals connected to the organisations have held after hours “lock ins” at pubs where the practice has occurred.
Some have been left fearing for their lives if they identified perpetrators, according to accounts obtained by an independent inquiry.
Soldiers have also been disciplined for smuggling girls into two different barracks within the last three years, report author Kathleen Marshall said, part of a range of abuses of power detailed dating back to the armed conflict.
The commission was set up last year after the arrest of more than 30 people in a major Police Service of Northern Ireland investigation in to the sexual exploitation of children and young people.
Former Scottish commissioner for children and young people Professor Kathleen Marshall has spent a year investigating the extent of the problem after she was appointed by Stormont’s former Health Minister Edwin Poots.
Her review estimated between 100 and 145 children are at significant risk of exploitation but most people consulted by the inquiry said what is known is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
Prof Marshall said: “Child sexual exploitation is not new, but it has become a more significant threat to a greater number of children and young people with ready access to the internet. While it is difficult to assess the extent of child sexual exploitation, the indications are that it is widespread and growing. It is not restricted to children in care.”
Although many consulted in the report said Northern Ireland was not experiencing the sort of organised exploitation seen in Rochdale or Rotherham, the inquiry predicted that more cases would be identified.
Exploitation can include party houses where drugs or alcohol may be provided free but young people are expected to pay for it with sex. It can be a relationship which begins consensually but can develop into sexual activity with the partner’s friends and associates.
It can involve transportation from place to place and money may change hands.
Increasingly children, mainly girls, can be exploited through the internet and social media, sharing of indecent images of the young person like sexting and using them for blackmail, the report said.
The inquiry consulted 580 young people and 795 parents.
It noted the involvement of powerful individuals with purported links to paramilitary organisations, even though exploitation was not a targeted activity of those groups.
“It was a case of individuals using the authority of their paramilitary links and the fear it engendered to exploit children and young people.”
The inquiry also heard of cases involving army members, in the past and in recent times.
“The cases in the past related to alleged actions by the security forces during the Troubles and were described to us as part of a whole spectrum of abuse of power by those who had it at that time.
“Those who spoke to us recounted movingly the impact this had had on their lives.”
More recently two separate incidents involving different barracks saw girls smuggled inside and sexual activity taking place.
The investigations led to disciplinary procedures in relation to some army personnel, and tightened security at the barracks to prevent further unauthorised entry.
The report said: “The information we received from the health and social care trusts indicates that the army is responsive to concerns and engages in collaborative working.
“The Ministry of Defence confirmed that they take allegations of this nature extremely seriously and work closely with PSNI to ensure that allegations are dealt with thoroughly, and as promptly as possible.”
Often young people do not see themselves as victims in these cases and may come from difficult backgrounds where they do not have a close adult figure to look after them, Prof Marshall said.
In one case the inquiry learned of a girl advertising for a lift on social media in exchange for a sex act.
Children as young as nine or 10 have viewed pornography, some have tried to act it out.
The report said: “Young people’s views about what is normal are affected by this and by other messages from the media.
“This has helped shape what some refer to as a new normality among young people, involving an expectation of multiple sexual partners and sexual activity in circumstances where the existence of consent is often questionable.”
Social media allows young people to communicate with a wide range of people unknown to their parents, a vulnerability easily exploited by adults with malicious intent.
Sexting is reported to be widespread in schools, the document said. It recommended schools should have a key role in raising awareness and preventing, identifying and reporting exploitation.
Staff, particularly paramedics, said they needed more training.
“There are few prosecutions and convictions for sexual offences against children and this exacerbates the reluctance to report and to engage.”
The report said there should be a joined up and strategic approach.
It made 17 key recommendations.
1. A public health campaign should be launched on child exploitation issues Police must prioritise strengthening relations with young people amid a climate of austerity
2. More guidance should be available for parents and carers on how to obtain information when a child is considered to be at risk A forum should be established to consider how changes to criminal justice could achieve more successful prosecutions.
Above the law
Health Minister Jim Wells outlined details of the report into the nature and extent of the problem.
“These individuals have access to alcohol, drugs, guns and violence.
“They were described as people to whom you cannot say no. They regard themselves as beyond the law.”
The police view is that organised paramilitary involvement in child sexual exploitation has not been established.
Mr Wells, drawing on the expert report commissioned by his predecessor as Stormont health minister, said those claiming to be linked to paramilitaries had built on loyalty and fear in the community.
He said: “Girls may feel they can gain status through co-operating with these powerful individuals and this may be tolerated by some families. Others fear threats to their families if they do not succumb to the abuse.”
Mr Wells said: The inquiry was told of families that had endured generations of exploitation.
“The kind of power such individuals exert means they may be involved in all types of child sexual exploitation.
“However, specific to them are the pubs and clubs operated in some areas where there may be lock-ins involving young girls who get ‘the tap on the shoulder’ to stay behind.
“The report states it was not possible for the inquiry team to identify the prevalence of paramilitary links but perhaps this is not surprising given that some stated they feared for their lives if it became known they had spoken to the inquiry.”
Of the 17 key recommendations in the report and a further 60 supporting recommendations – seven are for the department of health and two are joint with Departments of Justice and Education.
In an Oral Statement to the Assembly health minister Jim Wells informed members that a number of the recommendations are already being progressed.
He updated members on the recommendations for his Department that are either already committed to or work is ongoing to deliver them.
· The development of a new child safeguarding policy
· A revised departmental circular, which will provide clear guidance to front-line practitioners on the sharing of information about adults considered to pose a risk to children
· The introduction of a new definition of adult at risk in the context of a new adult safeguarding policy, which we are currently consulting on
· A planned review of the Safeguarding Board for Northern Ireland
· Commencement of work on a public information campaign on CSE, with support from the Minister’s of Justice and Education.
The Minister acknowledging the report’s findings on technology as an increasing danger – he said he was in the process of developing an “we-safety strategy and action plan for Northern Ireland.
He said: “This brings me to the next action, which is underway. Kathleen Marshall has very clearly identified advances in technology as increasing dangers and risks to young people. Helping children and young people keep safe in an electronic world and equipping their parents and those who work with them to keep them safe is a major challenge for all of us and a shared responsibility.
“I have already written to my Ministerial colleagues to seek their agreement to commission and fund the SBNI to develop an e-safety strategy and action plan for Northern Ireland.”
The Health Minister welcomed Mrs Marshall’s counsel for a balanced response to the reality of CSE in Northern Ireland and avoiding a “panic that can lead to an unhealthy repression of and limitations on young people’s lives and expectations of human relationships.”
The Minister concluded: “This is a step on a journey. We know more today about CSE than we did yesterday. Next year and in the years to come we will know more than we do today. It’s a journey that will continue for years to come and one that we need to make together. On behalf of my Ministerial colleagues, I would like to thank Kathleen Marshall and those who assisted her for their efforts.”
In 2011 the Barnardos charity said one in nine teenagers were sexually exploited in Northern Ireland.
Prof Marshall is a professor and solicitor who chaired an inquiry into the abuse and protection of children in care in Edinburgh in 1999.
She carried out an investigation in Northern Ireland which was separate to, and much wider than, the police inquiry.
Former Stormont health minister Edwin Poots ordered her investigation.
Earlier this year a report found that at least 1,400 children were subjected to appalling sexual exploitation in Rotherham between 1997 and 2013.
Children as young as 11 were raped by multiple perpetrators, abducted, trafficked to other cities in England, beaten and intimidated, it said.