3,500 older victims of sex abuse are 'tip of the iceberg' in Northern Ireland
Up to 3,500 elderly people could be victims of sex abuse in Northern Ireland, a charity has warned.
The statement comes as figures show sexual offences against older people have risen sharply in the last year.
The number of sex abuse referrals to health and social care trusts relating to people aged 65 or over doubled between 2014/15 and 2015/16, up from 160 to 310.
Older people account for over half (50.3%) of all sexual abuse referrals of adults at risk or in need of protection, research by Action on Elder Abuse Northern Ireland found.
PSNI data for 2016 recorded 62 cases of a sexual offence against a person aged 65-plus - a 22% increase on the previous year. An outcome was recorded in just four of the 62 cases, a rate of just 6.5%.
Action on Elder Abuse warned the figures represent "the tip of the iceberg" and called on the authorities to explain and fully investigate the increase. The charity's own estimate, based on robust academic studies, suggests a mid-range figure for the number of older victims of sexual abuse each year in Northern Ireland of 1,460 people, and potentially as high as 3,500.
It urged older people and their families who have suspicions or concerns to contact its helpline.
This is Sexual Abuse and Sexual Violence Awareness Week across the UK, and events are being held in Northern Ireland to highlight the scale of the issue and efforts to tackle it.
Veronica Gray, director of Action on Elder Abuse NI, said many people still fail to recognise or accept that older people are vulnerable to horrific abuse.
"The sad truth is that these figures only provide a glimpse of the full picture of sexual attacks on older people, as there are so many barriers to reporting this type of crime," she commented.
"Based on estimates of total prevalence, they should be seen as the tip of the iceberg. We are concerned that allegations of sexual abuse against older people may be dismissed solely because of the age of the victim, especially if no signs of physical trauma are present."
Ms Gray warned that many do not report their experience.
"As with all victims of sexual offences, older people may be less likely to remember key details about what has happened to them, often as a coping mechanism," she added. "Consequently, they may also be less likely to report sexual abuse, as many will fear they will not be believed.
"However, this must not be used as excuse to avoid thoroughly investigating any allegations or evidence of inappropriate behaviour.
"While some of the large increases in reports of sexual offences recorded by the PSNI and health and social care trusts may be down to a greater willingness of victims to speak out, we would expect the authorities to fully investigate why we've seen such big spikes over the past year."
Anyone with concerns can contact the Elder Abuse response helpline on freephone 080 8808 8141.