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OVERLY lenient sentences for men found guilty of having sex with teenage girls are failing to protect the most vulnerable in society, child protection specialists have said.
Reacting to news that two men in two separate cases were yesterday sentenced to just two years in prison for having sex with young teens, the head of children’s charity Barnardos, Fergus Finlay, warned that society was failing to protect young people by not meting out adequate sentences for sexual abuse.
The sentences came in the same week that a post office manager who stole €22,000 to fund a gambling addiction was given four years.
Mr Finlay said this inconsistent sentencing suggested that society had come to value property more than children.
It was "absolutely essential" that the judiciary send out the message that you cannot abuse a child with impunity, he said.
At Donegal Circuit Court yesterday, father-of-three Paul Gilmore was jailed for two years, with 15 months suspended, for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl several times. Hours later, a man who had sexual intercourse with two girls aged 14 and 15 was jailed for two years at Limerick Circuit Court.
Keith O’Donnell had pleaded guilty to nine counts of defilement of the girls on dates in 2006 and 2008.
Imposing two concurrent two-year sentences, the judge said the accused preyed on very young girls, and manipulated them by giving them gifts, such as phone credit.
These sentences were imposed just days after a post office worker who pleaded guilty to nine counts of theft amounting to €22,000 was given four years, with two suspended.
Head of the Dublin Rape Crisis Network Ellen O’Malley Dunlop said the cases highlighted the need for sentencing guidelines for judges. "There is nothing there at the moment for judges. Other jurisdictions have them so there is no reason why we do not."
Ms O’Malley Dunlop warned that such lenient sentencing could prevent victims from taking a case against their abuser.
"Women fall out of the system when they hear stories like this," she said.
Meanwhile, child law specialist Catherine Ghent said Ireland had not yet learned how to prosecute the sexual abuse of young people.
"We do not protect children from abuse, and when they are, we do not vindicate their right to be protected into the future because we do not intervene. We will prosecute children for theft and minor crimes but do not properly prosecute adults who abuse children. In other jurisdictions, children’s solicitors who prosecute child abuse are at the top of their game, and that’s the way it should be.
"Here we do not have properly trained lawyers or judges," Ms Ghent said.
Speaking in court in Donegal yesterday, a now 20-year-old female victim said she now understood she had been an innocent child who was sexually abused.
"I am a victim of child sex abuse and I stand before this court to have my voice heard for myself and the young children who are vulnerable and in need of protection."