Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Man due in court over child rape

Two girls were allegedly sexually attacked when they were lured away from a children's birthday party in Athlone

A man is due in court tomorrow charged with rape after two young girls were lured away from a children's birthday party and sexually assaulted.

There were angry scenes outside Athlone Garda station where several hundred protesters gathered throughout the day as detectives questioned a suspect over the alleged incident, which happened on Saturday afternoon.

Gardai said the man, who is in his 30s, will be brought before a court in the morning.

He has been charged in the local station with at least one count of rape.

Two other men arrested at the scene, a housing estate on the outskirts of Athlone town, were released without charge earlier in the day.

A venue for the hearing is to be confirmed later after angry locals demonstrated for several hours and repeatedly chanted at the gates of the Garda station. On one occasion armed officers were seen inside the front door to deter the crowds.

Inspector Nicholas Farrell spoke to groups of protesters after gardai said the court hearing would take place tomorrow and appealed for people to be calm and help detectives to do their police work.

It is understood the youngsters, who are aged six and nine, were playing on a green outside a house during a birthday party when they were enticed to an apartment by a man not known to them.

Gardai believe a man told the girls his niece was in an apartment and wanted the girls to come up and bring her out to play.

A local father revealed people were searching for the girls for up to 45 minutes before they appeared.

Around the same time he spotted a man, who did not live in the area, carrying a bottle of vodka and cans of beer and held him down until gardai arrived on the scene.

It is believed the girls managed to flee by climbing out of a window at the back of the apartment where the alleged attack took place and ran back to the birthday party and raised the alarm.

The man due in court tomorrow is originally from Ballinasloe, Co Galway.

Justice Minister Alan Shatter attempted to reassure the public that the man did not have a criminal record for sex offences against children.

Mr Shatter said on Newstalk radio that he wanted to "set the record straight" to ease people's "genuine and understandable fears and worries".

"What happened here was shocking. My heart goes out to the children and their families," he said.

"It is incorrect to suggest that an individual being questioned is someone who has been released from prison following on from their being convicted for committing a sexual offence."

Initially emotions ran high outside Athlone courthouse, where a large crowd gathered by mid-morning to show support to the families of the girls in case charges were brought.

While the numbers dwindled during the day, they soared again to about 300 by the evening with parents, teenagers and young children then gathering outside the Garda station, chanting intermittently and surging towards the locked gates at any movement inside.

Detectives inside the gate were seen carrying bags of evidence across the station courtyard with the names of the child victims written in black marker and items of clothing inside.

Father-of-two Anthony Francis, 32, from Athlone, helped to arrange the protest on social media to highlight the case.

"It's sickening. It's really, really sickening," he said, holding a sunflower which he said was to signify the innocence and beauty of children.

"These poor kids and their families' lives have been destroyed."

The girls were treated in hospital in Galway city and spoken to by specialist gardai.

Three men were initially arrested for public order offences and taken to Athlone Garda atation after the attack.

They were taken before a special sitting of the local District Court later that day where they were remanded in custody.

All three were later re-arrested as part of the investigation into the alleged sexual assault and taken back to Athlone Garda station

Two of the men who were in the property where the alleged attacks took place were released without charge this morning.

A file has been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions to assess if they will face charges in the future.

Carrying a homemade sign reading "Bring Back Public Hanging", mother-of-one Nicola Quigley said people felt compelled to come out on to the street to protest.

"It's upsetting when something like this happens, a community has to come together," said the 27-year-old from Moate.

"If this happened to my child, I would expect the whole town to be here.

"I'm a mother and I mind children and I feel we need to protect our children.

"People should be aware of this and instil it into their kids not to talk to strangers.

"These are two innocent girls whose lives have been ruined."

Her friend Annemarie Nugent, 27, from Athlone, said she came out in support as her own daughter is close in age to the two girls.

"Their lives were taken away on Saturday," she said.

Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI) urged anyone with concerns about the behaviour or activity of someone living in their neighbourhood to contact gardai.

Director Fiona Neary said child abduction is traumatic both for the victims and their community but strangers account for only 7% of all reported incidents.

"All communities can act to protect children," she said.

"RCNI urge anyone who has concerns about the behaviour of someone living in their area to talk to the Gardai in confidence to alert them and pass on any information that may prove useful."

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