The ombudsman, Dr Michael Maguire, recommended that four officers be disciplined over shortcomings in how police handled Mairia Cahill’s complaint.
His investigation also found that senior RUC officers had information about the alleged abuse 10 years earlier, but did not investigate it.
In 2010, Ms Cahill, who is a member of a prominent republican family, told police she had been sexually abused by alleged IRA man Martin Morris from 1997 to 1998, when she was just 16 years old. She also alleged that in subsequent years she was subjected to an IRA ‘investigation’ into her claims and was forced to confront her alleged attacker. Two other women also said they too had been abused as children by the same man.
The PSNI initiated investigations into both matters, which resulted in a number of people being prosecuted.
However, in 2014 the case against Mr Morris and those accused of involvement in the IRA investigation collapsed when Ms Cahill and the two other women withdrew their evidence, citing a loss of confidence in how the matter had been dealt with.
Mr Morris, who strenuously denied all the allegations against him, was also acquitted of being a member of the Provisional IRA.
In 2015, a review by Sir Keir Starmer found that the Public Prosecution Service had “let down” the women.
Ms Cahill, who is now an SDLP councillor, made a series of complaints to the Police Ombudsman’s Office about the PSNI’s handling of her report to them.
Having met Ms Cahill to discuss his findings, Dr Maguire said that while the PSNI investigation was “disjointed” and had failed the victims, he did not support the allegations that officers chose not to arrest some of the individuals concerned because they were police informants, or that the matter had been subject to political interference.
The ombudsman found that the PSNI had an “inconsistent approach” in its investigation of some of the people suspected of IRA membership, which in one case led to an individual not being arrested and questioned. He found no evidence, however, that anyone had been protected from prosecution.
Stating that he found no evidence that the PSNI probe became subject to political interference, Dr Maguire said: “There is no doubt that this case was among those which caused considerable discussion among republicans and their political representatives. Despite this, we have found no evidence of adverse political influence on the investigation.”
According to the ombudsman, three of the officers recommended for action have been disciplined, while the fourth has retired.
Dr Maguire also criticised the PSNI’s decision not to hold a serious case review and made recommendations for changes to several PSNI policies.
In relation to the RUC’s role, Dr Maguire said officers had failed to make enquiries despite receiving intelligence in 2000 and 2001 that a man had abused children and the IRA were investigating the matter.
“I am satisfied that current police practices would not allow such information to go uninvestigated today,” he concluded.
A statement issued by Ms Cahill’s solicitor, Joe Rice, welcomed Dr Maguire’s report and thanked the ombudsman and his team for their “diligence, courtesy and professional efforts” on behalf of his client and the other alleged victims.
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said: “At the heart of this report are three victims abused as children, who were then failed by their police service.
“I apologise unequivocally for the hurt and distress caused to them and for the failures in the police investigation.
“The Police Service of Northern Ireland fully supports the Office of the Police Ombudsman. It is an essential part of the mechanisms by which we can be held to account.
“The report found failures by the RUC in 2000, to share vital information which linked a man to the alleged abuse of children.
“Whilst PONI has stated that they are satisfied that current police practices would not allow such information to go un-investigated today, the report noted other failures in the PSNI’s investigations. These standards fall very short of the high expectations that I and my officers set ourselves and that the public expect.”
“I accept the report and we have since implemented all the recommendations made by PONI for changes to PSNI policies.
“There is now a better understanding of the importance and the need to work collaboratively across departments within the organisation.
“I can also assure the community that there have also been many changes to the PSNI since this initial report was made. One of these changes is the introduction of a dedicated Public Protection Branch in 2015, with specially trained officers with overall responsibility for protecting and safeguarding the most vulnerable members in our community and this demonstrates our commitment to building a safe, confident and peaceful Northern Ireland.”