An Eire of secrecy

A study of the prevalence of sexual abuse has revealed 20 per
cent of women experienced contact sexual abuse as a child and
nearly half had never told anyone, says Kieran McGrath.

While Ireland was gripped by the on-and-off the field antics of
the Republic’s football team during this summer’s World
Cup a very significant piece of research on sexual violence was

The Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland (Savi)
1 was described by Professor David Finkelhor
(director, crimes against children research centre, University of
New Hampshire) as being among “the best two or three surveys
of its kind in the world”.

The primary goal of the study, based on carefully monitored
telephone interviews with 3,118 adults, was to record the
prevalence of various forms of sexual assault in Ireland. However,
it also looked at many other interesting issues.

The study showed that one in five women experienced contact
sexual abuse in childhood of which a quarter involved penetration.
Ten per cent reported non-contact sexual abuse.

In the case of males 16.2 per cent reported experiencing contact
sexual abuse, with a further 7.4 per cent reporting non-contact
abuse as children.

It is also revealed that 20.4 per cent of women and 10 per cent
of men experience contact abuse as adults.

One of the most interesting findings in the survey was that 47
per cent of those who had experienced abuse (almost 600
interviewees) reported that before participating in this research
they had never told anyone else about what happened to them.

Of those who had spoken to someone, 71 per cent told friends.
The rate of disclosure to professionals was remarkably low. For
example, only 1 per cent of men and 7.8 per cent of women abused as
adults had reported it to the Gardai (police). Patterns were
similar with regard to childhood abuse experiences.

Disclosure to health professionals was 6 per cent for adult
abuse, and 4 per cent for child abuse. However, counsellors and
therapists fared better, at 12 per cent.

Legal redress in criminal cases was reported as being the
exception rather than the rule. Of 38 individuals who reported
their case to the police, only six resulted in court proceedings,
with four guilty verdicts. This is in line with findings elsewhere,
in that most victims of abuse report major difficulties with the
legal system, with many reporting that they regret having engaged

While the findings of this study may confirm what many in
Ireland had suspected, it has nonetheless provided much valuable
data. The one area that was a major surprise was the very high rate
of abuse among males.

Finkelhor saw this as quite startling, pointing out that it is
much higher than comparative studies in the US and Europe. Perhaps,
the wave of emotion generated by the World Cup will momentarily
distract those affected by sexual violence while they wait for
better responses from the legal and social care systems.

Kieran McGrath is senior social work practitioner in St
Clare’s sexual abuse assessment unit, Dublin.

1 H McGee et al, The SAVI  Report,
Dublin Rape Crisis, 2002


– Ireland has a population of 3.8 million and covers 70,280 sq
km – less than a third of the size of the UK.

– Social care and health services are the responsibility of the
Department of Health and Children, set up in 1997. Services are
provided by eight health boards.

– Dublin, the capital city, has a population of 481,854. Dublin
city and county has a population of just over one million – more
than a quarter of Ireland’s population. Dublin is part of the
Eastern Regional Health Authority, which also covers the counties
of Wicklow and Kildare.

– Religions in Dublin city and county (in thousands): Catholic
(911); Church of Ireland (26); Presbyterian (2.7); Protestant
(2.2); Methodist (1.8); and Jewish (1.4).background


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