Amid a public furore over the collapse of its laws on statutory rape, the 26-County government has said a constitutional referendum may be needed to resolve the crisis.
Following the highly controversial release of a convicted rapist last week, new and controversial legislation was rushed through the Dail parliament in Dublin on Friday. The rearrest of the man known as ‘Mr A’ has failed to quell public anxiety over the legality of the continued detention of those who have been convicted of having sex with minors.
There were angry and repeated calls this week for the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice to resign over the matter. Up to 2,000 people gathered outside the Dail to protest at the government’s handling of the crisis, which led to the release from prison on Tuesday of Mr A.
Radio talk-show hosts encouraged people to attend demonstrations in Dublin and other cities and towns across the 26 Counties, many of which were attended by angry and frightened victims of statutory rapists.
At one point, it was widely believed that all those convicted of sexual abuse against children could go free. The decision by the Supreme Court to return Mr A to prison following the passage of new legislation was widely welcomed. However, legal experts have warned that the rushed bill is a shoddy, stop-gap measure which is certain to face its own legal challenge.
It has since emerged that some acts of homosexual rape involving older men and young boys are now decriminalised under the apparently botched legislation.
Justice Minister Michael McDowell has defied accusations that he ignored warning bells about potential problems with the statutory rape legislation, which first emerged in 1990.
The Law Reform Commission then recommended that an accused be allowed to testify that he believed the girl was above the age of consent at the time sex took place.
Successive governments failed to act on the commission’s advice and in 2002, the chief state solicitor warned the Department of Justice that a legal challenge was under way.
A year ago the Supreme Court ruled that, under the 1937 constitution, a man charged with the sexual assault of a young girl could enter a “mistake as to age” defence,
The case was brought by a man who had consensual sex with a 14-year-old girl claiming she was 16. The man, aged 18 at the time, claimed the law was unconstitutional because he was not allowed to argue he had genuinely believed the girl was older.
Last week, a Supreme Court ruling backing the argument ruled in his favour, allowing potentially seven convicted child sex offenders to be freed from prison.
Greatest public outrage was sparked by the High Court case of a 41-year-old man jailed after he pleaded guilty to having unlawful carnal knowledge of a 12-year-old girl after plying her with alcohol.
The man, referred to as ‘Mr A’ to protect his victim, had served more than two years of a three-year sentence when he successfully sought his release.
Mr McDowell insisted that neither he nor Attorney General Rory Brady had prior knowledge of the Supreme Court case.
Twenty four hours later Taoiseach Bertie Ahern conceded that new legislation was needed to close the loophole but McDowell rejected claims there was a “gaping void” in the law.
Fortunately for the government, a wave of outrage was appeased when the Supreme Court, on appeal, later allowed ‘Mr A’ to be rearrested pending a retrial of the case.
Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams said there was “widespread anger” at the government’s handling of the crisis.
“There is anger that a Supreme Court ruling left open a loophole that allowed a man convicted of raping a 12 year old girl to be freed. The Government, in particular the Justice Minister, have yet to adequately explain how such an appalling vista was allowed to arise.”
Mr Adams said it was “incredible” continued to say that they knew nothing of this constitutional challenge, even after it was admitted that the Justice Department was informed of this case back in 2002.
“It is also appalling that the family of the victim of the sex offender known as ‘Mr A’ had to learn of his release through the media and that they have yet to be met by a government representative.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Dermot Ahern has said a referendum may now be needed to update the law on statutory rape so that an adult charged with having sex with a minor cannot claim they did not know the child’s age.
The only way of ‘rowing back’ on the recent Supreme Court ruling to remove ‘honest belief’ as a defence for someone having intercourse with a minor, would be to hold a referendum, he said this Monday evening.
Gerry Adams said Ireland did not have a good record when it comes to the protection of children.
“It is vital that this loophole is closed,” said Mr Adams. “It is vital that the government move to re-assure the families of the victims of the sex offenders who could be released as a result of this fiasco.”