Paramilitaries 'exploited children'
Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland have used their fearsome reputations to sexually exploit children, a report said.
Powerful individuals connected to the organisations have held after hours "lock ins" at pubs where the practice has occurred.
Some have been left fearing for their lives if they identified perpetrators, according to accounts obtained by an independent inquiry.
Stormont health minister Jim Wells said: "They were described as people to whom you cannot say no.
"They regard themselves as beyond the law."
Soldiers have also been disciplined for smuggling girls into two different barracks within the last three years, report author Kathleen Marshall said, part of a range of abuses of power detailed dating back to the armed conflict.
Her review estimated between 100 and 145 children are at significant risk of exploitation but most people consulted by the inquiry said what is known is likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
Prof Marshall said: "Child sexual exploitation is not new, but it has become a more significant threat to a greater number of children and young people with ready access to the internet. While it is difficult to assess the extent of child sexual exploitation, the indications are that it is widespread and growing. It is not restricted to children in care."
Although many consulted in the report said Northern Ireland was not experiencing the sort of organised exploitation seen in Rochdale or Rotherham, the inquiry predicted that more cases would be identified.
Prof Marshall, former children's commissioner in Scotland, has spent a year examining the extent of the problem in Northern Ireland after she was appointed by Stormont's health minister.
It followed the arrest of more than 30 people in a major Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) investigation last year.
Exploitation can include party houses where drugs or alcohol may be provided free but young people are expected to pay for it with sex.
It can be a relationship which begins consensually but can develop into sexual activity with the partner's friends and associates.
It can involve transportation from place to place and money may change hands. Increasingly children, mainly girls, can be exploited through the internet and social media, sharing of indecent images of the young person like sexting and using them for blackmail, the report said.
The inquiry consulted 580 young people and 795 parents.
The police view is that organised paramilitary involvement in child sexual exploitation has not been established.
The Marshall Inquiry noted the involvement of powerful individuals with purported links to paramilitary organisations, even though exploitation was not a targeted activity of those groups.
"It was a case of individuals using the authority of their paramilitary links and the fear it engendered to exploit children and young people."
The inquiry also heard of cases involving army members, in the past and in recent times.
"The cases in the past related to alleged actions by the security forces during the Troubles and were described to us as part of a whole spectrum of abuse of power by those who had it at that time.
"Those who spoke to us recounted movingly the impact this had had on their lives."
More recently two separate incidents involving different barracks saw girls smuggled inside and sexual activity taking place.
The investigations led to disciplinary procedures in relation to some army personnel, and tightened security at the barracks to prevent further unauthorised entry.
The report said: "The information we received from the health and social care trusts indicates that the army is responsive to concerns and engages in collaborative working.
"The Ministry of Defence confirmed that they take allegations of this nature extremely seriously and work closely with PSNI to ensure that allegations are dealt with thoroughly, and as promptly as possible."
Often young people do not see themselves as victims in these cases and may come from difficult backgrounds where they do not have a close adult figure to look after them, Prof Marshall said.
In one case the inquiry learned of a girl advertising for a lift on social media in exchange for a sex act.
Children as young as nine or 10 have viewed pornography, some have tried to act it out.
The report said: "Young people's views about what is normal are affected by this and by other messages from the media.
"This has helped shape what some refer to as a new normality among young people, involving an expectation of multiple sexual partners and sexual activity in circumstances where the existence of consent is often questionable."
Social media allows young people to communicate with a wide range of people unknown to their parents, a vulnerability easily exploited by adults with malicious intent.
Sexting is reported to be widespread in schools, the document said. It recommended schools should have a key role in raising awareness and preventing, identifying and reporting exploitation.
Staff, particularly paramedics, said they needed more training.
"There are few prosecutions and convictions for sexual offences against children and this exacerbates the reluctance to report and to engage."
The report said there should be a joined up and strategic approach.
It made 17 key recommendations. These included:
:: A public health campaign should be launched on child exploitation issues
:: Police must prioritise strengthening relations with young people amid a climate of austerity
:: More guidance should be available for parents and carers on how to obtain information when a child is considered to be at risk
:: A forum should be established to consider how changes to criminal justice could achieve more successful prosecutions.