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Abuse survivor says legal profession should 'bring their morals as well as law books into courtrooms'

Leona O’Callaghan said the government and judiciary needs to stop pointing at each other and step up to make changes.

Leona O'Callaghan spoke at an event to promote International Women's Day earlier this week.
Leona O'Callaghan spoke at an event to promote International Women's Day earlier this week.
Image: Niall Carson/PA

A WOMAN WHO waived her anonymity after the conviction of the man who sexually abused her as a child has said there needs to be a major reform of this country’s judicial system and how it treats rape victims.

Leona O’Callaghan was speaking this week at an event which called for mass walkouts on 8 March – International Women’s Day – to protest against, among other things, gender-based violence. 

Patrick O’Dea was already serving 15 years in prison for raping another girl when he was convicted of the sexual assault and rape of Leona on dates in 1994 and 1995. He was 28 when he groomed a then 12-year-old Leona before raping her in a graveyard. He continued the abuse for a period after this. 

He received a life sentence for his crimes against her, but this sentence will run concurrently with the one he was already serving when he was convicted. 

“Bias, blame and unfairness was at the heard of my experience. Despite support and media coverage around the #MeToo movement and #ThisIsNotConsent protests last year, only a matter of months ago I stood in an Irish court where my abuser’s defence were permitted to indicate that I as a child had given a sign of consent due to not physically fighting back during rapes on me,” Leona O’Callaghan said this week. 

“The judge was asked to take this as a mitigating factor. A child cannot consent.”

The judge in her case did not mention this as mitigating factor in sentencing O’Dea to 17 years in prison. She suspended the last 18 months in recognition of his the plea of guilty and his willingness to take part in a psychological assessment.

She also imposed a post-release supervision order on O’Dea of three years.

Consent

O’Callaghan said this country does not have sufficient legislation to adequately deal with the issue of consent. 

“We remain participants in a victim-blaming Ireland where the perpetrator has the right to legal representation, but victims and survivors do not. We remain in a country where there is inadequate education in our church-led schools that fail us by not providing the knowledge and guidance needed to put an end to victim blaming, to highlight what consent is and to teach men not to rape rather than teaching women how not to be raped.

The men of our country are not so weak that a piece of clothing would affect whether they are willing or capable of being a rapist.

O’Callaghan said a judicial system that enables these insinuations “fails and insults our men along with our women”. 

‘Review of courtroom conduct’

Last year, after the public debate around the trial of Ireland and Ulster rugby teammates Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding, the Irish government commissioned a review of the conduct of rape trials. 

Both men were last year unanimously acquitted by a jury of raping the same woman at Jackson’s Belfast home in June 2016.

Jackson was cleared of a further charge of sexual assault, while their friends Blane McIlroy, 26, and Rory Harrison, 25, were also found not guilty of charges arising from the incident.

A similar review was launched in Northern Ireland after the discussion sparked by the trial. 

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said in December that the review here has been delayed and he is not expecting it to complete its work until the first quarter of this year.

His department told TheJournal.ie that Flanagan is “very conscious of how difficult it can be for victims of rape and sexual violence to go through a trial process” and this is why he had commissioned the review.

“The review is being chaired by Tom O’Malley, who has significant knowledge of the law in this area and he is joined on the working group by representatives from An Garda Síochána, the DPP, the Probation Service, the Courts Service and this department,” a spokesperson said.

The review is examining the entire legal process around sexual offences, from the initial reporting of an offence through to the end of any court proceedings. It is looking at issues such as training for An Garda Síochána and legal professionals dealing with witnesses in trials, and practical supports that can be put in place for vulnerable witnesses.

“The working group has received a large volume of submissions which it is examining. It is also continuing to consult with stakeholders and expects to finalise its work at the end of April.”

‘Pointing fingers’

Leona O’Callaghan said she believes judges are wary of changing their approach, in particular with concurrent sentencing, because they may appear to be inconsistent and could open grounds for appeal. 

And then we have the government saying ‘well we can’t be seen to be interfering with individual cases’ so they’re putting their hands up a little bit . What we really need is for the government and the judicial system to work together to draw a line in the sand to say just because we are making a change it doesn’t open grounds for appeal for people that are subjected to this change.

She said she wants the government and the judiciary to “be brave enough to stop just pointing at each other because obviously it can happen”.

While she said she would welcome a legislative change, she also thinks the court room culture has to be examined. 

“I suppose what we’re asking is that as well as bringing their law books in that they’re bringing their ethics and their morals – and that is about culture.”

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