Poots orders sex exploitation probe
Some people who sexually exploited teenagers in Northern Ireland did not even realise they were committing an offence, Northern Ireland's health minister has said.
Earlier this month, police said they had identified 22 people aged between 13 and 18 who might have been abused. They were plied with drink or drugs and in some cases trafficked around the region in taxis.
Edwin Poots blamed modern "disposable relationships" and the media for creating unsavoury new norms which encouraged such behaviour.
"What is even more scary is that some of those people who are engaging as perpetrators, they don't even realise that they are perpetrators," he said.
"Now they are, but some of them don't actually get it that what they are doing is criminal. It is wrong, it is evil, it is wicked, but nonetheless because they have been numbed by so many things around them to that reality they don't realise it."
Mr Poots and justice minister David Ford have ordered an independent inquiry into child safety and official procedures to keep them safe.
Of the 22 cases under examination by police, 18 involve children in the care system. They had been recorded as missing a total of 437 times.
Care workers have said they reported many concerns about men waiting outside residential homes, and that they warned police when children went missing.
Meanwhile, staff at Barnardo's have said the 22 cases are just the "tip of the iceberg".
Mr Poots told the assembly: "Today's child sexual exploitation does appear to be more widespread, it appears to be more pernicious, with new dimensions which are harder to grasp.
"The youth and celebrity culture, reinforced through TV and media, portrays an image that sex, drugs, alcohol, parties and disposable relationships are the norm.
"That is hugely damaging, the fabric of society is undermined by that constant portrayal."
He said schools had a role in addressing the issue but there were broader societal issues around raising awareness about the risk of child sexual exploitation and identifying those who might be in danger.
Sinn Fein health spokeswoman Maeve McLaughlin said the inquiry should ensure young and vulnerable children and youths are not put at risk again.
"An inquiry with proper independence, powers to investigate and accountability mechanisms is required," she added.
"We should not be afraid to learn the lessons and if departments have failed after being mandated to act then they should be made accountable."