Report says paramilitary child abuse claims "persuasive"

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An inquiry into child sexual exploitation in Northern Ireland found reports of paramilitary involvement to be "powerful and persuasive", MLAs were told, on 18 November 2014.

Health Minister Jim Wells was briefing the Assembly on the report of the Marshall Inquiry.

The inquiry, chaired by former Scottish Commissioner for Children and Young People Kathleen Marshall, was commissioned in 2013 after it emerged police had identified 22 people, aged between 13 and 18, who may have been sexually exploited.

Mr Wells said the report had found that persons linked to paramilitary groups "used that authority and fear it engendered to exploit children and young people".

The minister said "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 above the law".

The inquiry identified a number of risk factors, including deprivation, drugs and alcohol, peer pressure, advances in technology and going missing overnight.

Mr Wells said the inquiry found found no evidence that pointed "to the type of organised exploitation seen in Rotherham, or Rochdale".

He said the report expressed concerns that there was "too much emphasis on the behaviour of victims and calls to restrict their liberty, rather than punishing and locking up perpetrators".

The report made 17 recommendations, the minister said.

He said he planned to establish a response team, which would report back by the end of January 2015.

An implementation plan would be published by the end of March 2015.

On the subject of looked-after children, Mr Wells said the Health and Social Care Board had been asked to "consider proposals for alternative arrangements to secure the safety of these young people in community settings".

Mr Wells quoted the report's concluding remarks that there was a need "to avoid a panic that leads to an unhealthy repression of, and limitations on, young people's lives and expectations of human relationships".

Health Committee chairwoman Maeve McLaughlin of Sinn Fein said the statement was "very weak in terms of accountability".

She said four years had passed since a Barnardos' report had identified the lack of data on child sexual exploitation, and said her party had called for a "fully-independent" statutory inquiry.

The minister said it would help if Sinn Fein had signed up to support the introduction of the National Crime Agency to Northern Ireland.

Referring to the call for a statutory inquiry, he said there was a matter of urgency about child sexual exploitation.

The DUP's Pam Cameron said the first name that came to her mind was Mairia Cahill. She asked Mr Wells for more details about paramilitary involvement.

The minister said there appeared to be a particular problem "in communities where there was not support for the forces of law and order".

Mr Wells said some of those who gave evidence feared for their lives if it was discovered that they had helped the inquiry.

Fearghal McKinney of the SDLP said he was "flabbergasted" by Ms McLaughlin's statement given her party's attitude to Mairia Cahill's allegations about sexual abuse.

He said the report was weakened by the "huge gaps in information".

The minister said he applauded Mairia Cahill's "bravery", and that her claims confirmed much of what the Marshall Report was saying.

Ulster Unionist Jo-Anne Dobson asked about a reference in the statement to the "pubs and clubs culture" and "the tap on the shoulder".

Mr Wells spoke of the dangers of "party houses", where children were given drugs and alcohol and "subsequently exploited sexually".

The minister said these "party houses" were frequented by "Mr Bigs".

Kieran McCarthy of Alliance asked about empowering children to resist exploitation.

The minister said it was not just a case of working with the school system, but also helping schools and youth organisations.

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