Stormont should close child abuse loophole, says NSPCC

Stormont ministers should close a legal loophole enabling some adults to have sexual contact with 16-year-olds in their care, the NSPCC has said.

Religious leaders and sports coaches could be banned from having sex with 16 and 17-year olds in their care under the Westminster government's plans to expand child abuse laws.

NSPCC Northern Ireland renewed its calls for the Department of Justice to extend the law in Northern Ireland to protect teenagers from predators with power over them.

The charity's policy and public affairs manager Natalie Whelehan said: "While we are delighted to welcome the news that the Westminster government has agreed to take this action, it is disappointing that the Northern Ireland government has not yet acted to close the legal loophole here that enables some adults to abuse their power and have sexual contact with 16 and 17-year-olds in their care."

Currently in Northern Ireland, it is a crime for teachers, social workers and other statutory sector workers only who are legally in a position of trust to engage in sexual activity with 16 and 17-year-olds in their care.

Ms Whelehan added: "We are calling for this law to be extended to also make this illegal for all adults in positions of trust with equal influence over young people, such as sports coaches, faith leaders and driving instructors, to give all under-18s legal protection from abuse by adults acting in a position of trust, regardless of the sector they work in."

The Department of Justice has already pledged to extend the position of trust offences to protect all 16 and 17-year-olds from sexual abuse by adults in positions of trust.

NSPCC Northern Ireland is now calling on them to deliver on this commitment as a matter of urgency in this Assembly mandate so that all children and young people will be protected in law from abuse by adults acting in a position of trust to them.

The organisation added: "It is time to bring about a change to the law in Northern Ireland to ensure that all children are protected from sexual contact by adults in a caring role, these are the very adults that young people should be able to look to for support and guidance."

The UK Government's move would close a legal loophole under so-called position of trust laws, which already apply to teachers and doctors among other professions, and would make sexual relationships between people in these positions and those they supervise illegal.

The Government's pledge follows prolonged calls from campaigners amid concerns predators in such roles could exploit the influence they have on young people, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.