I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Wallace, to the House. I welcome this Bill which is necessary and overdue. It is vital that Ireland is not used as a haven for paedophiles from other countries. In recent years there has been some evidence to suggest that people come in from outside the jurisdiction because of the lack of a register here.
Extensive discussions have taken place on the propriety of having a register. Many were of the view that it was not proper. As one who actively called for such a register a number of years ago I am pleased it is coming into law. Everything must be done by the laws of the land to protect the vulnerable in society. The most vulnerable are the elderly and the young. There is a serious problem in that the devious will prey on the innocence of youngsters. This is the most despicable behaviour and it deserves full condemnation.
While the Minister of State outlined the details of the Bill she must also be aware how difficult it is to deal with the problem of sex offenders. Most of what she said was about putting a register in place for the convicted. My concern rests with the huge number of people who have not been convicted. To get the conviction of these people is the challenge and the difficulty down the road. In every community throughout the country there are those who go undetected and are not convicted. They will never appear on the register. The Minister has specific responsibility for dealing with offenders, but that issue needs to be addressed.
In most cases people turn a blind eye and ignore much of what is going on. Those in the community may be suspicious but afraid to say anything. Those in particular areas of responsibility such as social workers, teachers, nurses, the medical profession have difficulties in regard to reporting. As public representatives it is true to say we would find ourselves in particular difficulties in regard to how to address the issue as we may have certain information from within the community and not sufficient evidence to back it up. It is a delicate situation and one that needs to be addressed. Unfortunately, too often down the road scenarios emerge, social problems arise and people get into difficulties. It may take ten to 15 years for the problem one suspected to emerge fully. That is sad. There is a need to encourage more openness and for people to air their views to the appropriate persons if they consider there is a specific difficulty. From a legal point of view, people are afraid to speak out. They are worried about the legal protection they may have if they take that route. That issue also needs to be addressed.
Only last week in the courts there was the case of the little girl of 12 years of age who produced a baby as a result of rape by a 72 year old man. This was a most appalling case. Unfortunately, irreparable damage has been done to that little child for the rest of her life. The sentence could not be severe enough. That may be viewed as an extreme comment. Quite frankly, for adults to face adults is bad enough but an adult versus a child is despicable. For an adult to take that innocence from a child is the most despicable offence and should be condemned in the strongest possible way. I do not care how severe the punishment, it could not be severe enough.
The register introduces some controls and brings Ireland into line with a number of EU states in that sex offenders and paedophiles from outside the State cannot come into this jurisdiction and think they have a safe haven. That is welcome and is highly commendable. Sophisticated organised paedophiles operate in groups here. There is evidence of one such group but how many more groups are operating? Has the Minister of State any clue as to the number of paedophile rings operating here? Have the Departments of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and Health and Children any information on the position? They may surmise but may not have detailed information. Given that these people are so shrewd, cute, astute and cunning it is almost impossible to get around what they are at.
The professional rings operate in a vicious way. They are strangers and befriend youngsters usually from disadvantaged backgrounds or in vulnerable positions and eventually take advantage of them. Their despicable behaviour permanently damages the unfortunate youngsters.
Even more insidious is the person within the home who is in a position of trust – a person who is known to the child and in whom the child has complete confidence and trust. That such a person should take advantage of the innocence of that child and abuse it is just as bad. There is no such thing as one being less offensive than the other. They are equally offensive and should be dealt with in equal harshness by the law. There is also the person who commits the occasional offence and who is not quite as focused as some of the others. This offence should be condemned in equally harsh terms. The full rigours of the law should be applied to any assault of this nature on the innocence of a child.
The register, the details, the period in which the notification applies in regard to the type of offence are highly commendable. However, I am concerned about how all this is decided. We all know the type of consistency of sentences that applies and how judges hand down sentences. Their sentencing mechanism and the manner in which they hand down sentences can vary dramatically from judge to judge. There is a need for special training to be provided for judges so that there is a common sentencing policy. Depending on the judge, one paedophile could get a non-custodial sentence and another person in a similar case could get a custodial sentence. The notification process also varies dramatically and that needs to be seriously addressed. I am confident that the Minister will take this up. It is important that the law is seen to treat all these offenders equally. There should be no level of leniency or variation depending on the individual judge hearing the case.
All the research on paedophiles shows them to be extremely manipulative and clever. It also shows that they have a very low self-esteem and self worth. They have very little understanding of the difficulties of their victims. They justify their behaviour in the most extraordinary ways. Paedophiles support each other within paedophile rings and justify each other's actions. This is totally unacceptable.
The Minister is justified in introducing a new civil offence in cases where paedophiles fail to notify potential employers. That is extremely important. We are dealing with people who have offended and are convicted. My concern relates to those who are operational and who are not convicted. They may have secured access to children through local organisations, sporting clubs, youth clubs, scouts, etc. In the cases of people who have not committed an offence, there is a difficulty.
I appreciate that the Garda will have special powers to prevent a sex offender from accessing certain locations where there are children; this too is very welcome. However, the procedure may be cumbersome and this may lead to delays before people can be stopped. If, based on certain knowledge from local people, a garda believes there may be something suspect about a person's behaviour and yet has no concrete proof or evidence and there has been no conviction, I presume that this facility cannot be used. Because of the insidious nature of what is involved, this is a very difficult area. There is a need for greater openness. People with knowledge need to feel that they will be protected if they come forward with it. That is extremely important.
I welcome the post-release supervision of a sex offender by the probation and welfare service. Statistics show that the rehabilitation procedure here has not been very successful and there is a recurrence rate about 95%. The rehabilitation services in Mountjoy and the Curragh have not been taken up to the extent that they should have been. Has the Minister any views on that? Can the Minister legislate to empower the Department to force the individuals to undertake specific rehabilitation treatment?
It is essential that they try to understand to some degree the distress and damage caused to their victims. Most of these people in the Curragh and elsewhere are not stupid. Some of them are highly competent and well educated people who have taken advantage of a particular privileged position and in many cases would be seen as pillars of society. It is totally unacceptable that these people can be so haughty in their position in prison that they can dismiss the rehabilitation services provided by the State. These people should have no choice in the matter. They should be forced to avail of these services.
The Minister may say in response that this is a matter for the judge to specify when passing sentence. We should not have to depend on a judge to do this. If it is necessary to introduce legislation to force these people to take on board the type of rehabilitation treatment that is being provided, then the Minister will get the fullest of support from this side of the House. These people need rehabilitation.
Some of them are beyond rehabilitation and are so superior, condescending and sure of themselves that it is appalling. This shows the sense of unreality and lack of knowledge they have in relation to the crimes they have perpetrated. They seem to think they have a right to commit such offences.
I have spoken to people who have investigated these cases. The trauma suffered by children and the effects on their adult lives is so extraordinarily dramatic that it is frightening. I have heard of cases where people suffer depression most of their adult life and have failed to achieve in education and have such low self-esteem that they never reached their full potential. Some of them were fortunate enough to emigrate and receive counselling abroad. They came to terms with their experience and eventually managed to reach their potential. This is highly commendable. I am sure that the Minister is aware that in many of these cases the people came back and the perpetrators were convicted through their evidence.
Within the community, there is still a hidden problem and while many cases have come to light in recent years, there is much more to come. There is a real need for vigilance by all parties who have access to young people and understand what is going on to be more forthcoming with information. It is estimated that approximately 6% or 7% of boys and 8% or 9% of girls are sexually abused before the age of 16. That is an extremely high number of young people who have been damaged and experience difficulties in their professional, business and working lives. They can have difficulties with relationships and in regard to their psychological, emotional and physical health. There is such a vast fall-out from this type of behaviour that there should be no pussyfooting on the issue. Serious action needs to be taken in this regard and the Minister of State must be commended for what she has presented to the House today. I am disappointed the Bill did not come before this House much earlier because the register should have been in place long ago.
Will the Minister of State clarify whether paedophiles and sex offenders who have already been convicted will go on the register? As this is not a retrospective Bill, I presume they will not, that its provisions will only apply from the date it is passed and that there is no obligation to have those who are already convicted included on it. All sex offenders convicted to date, particularly paedophile sex offenders, should be put on the register which should be retrospective. The public are entitled to know if these people are out in society and the gardaí should know who they are.
On the question of who will have access to the register, some people were very concerned about the protection of sex offenders and the fact that they could be attacked by vigilante groups and so on. I assume the register will be protected in the Garda stations and that there will not be free access to it. The law must be seen to take its course and the State must be seen to do its job rather than having people take the law into their own hands. It is important that the register is pro tected. If information is required or notification given, it should be done in the most prudent and careful way possible. However, the primary objective must be the protection of children, young people and the vulnerable in society. I wish the Department and the Garda Síochána well in this regard. A huge onus is being put on the Garda Síochána and there is a need to train members of the force to specifically deal with this work. There is also a need for a member of the Garda in each station to be trained and know how to deal with these issues, regardless of how small these stations may be. While the legislation puts a greater onus and responsibility on the gardaí, there needs to be clarification on how they should carry out that role. If they are to be effective on the ground a proper operational programme must be put in place, otherwise people will not know how to proceed.
Perhaps the Minister of State will draft a set of guidelines to assist the gardaí in the various stations throughout the country on how to effectively monitor and operate their powers under the Bill. I hope she will also address the issue of even handed judgments across the board, which is fundamental. Some would say that the sanctions taken against these offenders are much too lenient given the level of stress and damage caused to people in the community. Given the numbers involved, I would concur with that point of view. Non-custodial and suspended sentences are a nonsense because they involve nothing being paid back to society. These offenders need to be dealt with very rigidly, determinedly and, to a degree, ruthlessly. Some people say there is a need for rehabilitation, which is correct. However, one is talking about adultsversus innocent little children. Adults have a responsibility to act and behave as adults. Some of the adults who perpetrated these crimes against youngsters should have known better but still proceeded.
I wish the Garda who have a big job to do every success and I hope the Minister of State will address some of the issues I have raised.