The ISPCC has said the Tom Humphries case was an example of how a new cyber safety strategy was needed, and believes that it should be implemented by the Taoiseach’s department.
It came as debate continued over the two-and-a-half year sentence handed down to the former Irish Times journalist for the grooming and sexual abuse of a child.
A number of legal professionals defended the practice of character references in such cases, highlighting that typically they were only featured in cases of a first offence.
However, sportswriter David Walsh and former Cork hurler Donal Óg Cusack have come under intense scrutiny for providing character references for Humphries. Judge Karen O’Connor took the references into consideration as mitigation.
Caroline O’Sullivan, ISPCC director of services, said not only did a national cyber safety strategy for children need to be put in place, but should be spearheaded by Leo Varadkar’s department.
The Humphries case focussed on how he groomed his young victim, including the exchange of more than 16,000 text messages in just one four-month period, a type of interaction Barnardos CEO Fergus Finlay said posed a difficulty for all parents.
The ISPCC has previously called for a cyber safety strategy, calling it “the child protection issue of our age”, and Ms O’Sullivan said: “The only way that we are going to protect children is for the Government to acknowledge that they need a cyber strategy. This needs to come from the Department of the Taoiseach.”
Ms O’Sullivan said any strategy should include lessons at primary school about the potential dangers posed by online content, referencing cases presented to the ISPCC’s Childline service where children as young as 10 have come across explicit material and then later outline fears over “performance anxiety”.
“We had a case recently where there was a child who was eight who had unlimited access to the internet 24 hours a day,” she said.
In addition to parental responsibility, she said the longer young people went without a phone the better, while the practice of ‘sexting’ left teenagers open to possible prosecution for the distribution of child pornography.
She also said tougher legislation was needed, stating: “The reality is we have been stating for years that sentencing for sex offences against children is too lenient.” She added that this should also incorporate a greater level of monitoring of sex offenders leaving prison who, following assessment, are not deemed to pose a lower risk to the public than when they entered prison.
As for the use of character references in these cases, she said: “I don’t think the issue is around character references, I think it is around the weight that is given [to them] by any particular judge.”
Mr Finlay, meanwhile, said the new Criminal Law Sexual Abuse Act 2017 which could not be applied in the Humphries case, was designed to address this type of crime and that the case indicated how sentencing was “a bit out of touch” with how the law now stands.
In the Dáil, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar signalled possible changes to the grooming laws would be examined before Christmas in light of public concerns over the perceived leniency of sentences. In response to questions from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, the Taoiseach said: “The legislation on sexual offences will go to pre-legislative scrutiny in this session.”
Meanwhile, the Law Reform Commission has said it is open to looking at the issue of sentencing and character references in its upcoming programme.
Raymond Byrne of the Commission said it already had “80 or 90 ideas” for topics and welcomed suggestions from all quarters.