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One in Four

'Slicing myself open': Sexual abuse survivors say making statement to gardaí is re-traumatising

Participants in new research have called for reform within the criminal justice system.

SEXUAL ABUSE SURVIVORS have said that making a statement to gardaí can be re-traumatising, according to new research by One in Four.

The organisation is today launching research into the experience of 15 child sexual abuse survivors on their journey through the criminal justice system.

Participants had very mixed experiences of making a statement to gardaí, with some describing how upsetting and re-traumatising this was.

The participants call for reform within the criminal justice system, including the need for skilled support during the process; specialist trauma informed training for gardaí and legal professionals; reducing delays in proceedings; and a code of conduct governing the manner in which questioning can take place during a trial.

The research, The Victim Experience in Focus, found that:

  • 46% of participants had been abused in their own family
  • 33% of participants had been abused by more than one perpetrator

Some participants cited fear of upsetting family members as a major factor in deciding whether or not to make a complaint.

In five cases, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) decided not to proceed with the case to trial and participants described how this made them feel as if their experience did not matter.

Of the cases that proceeded to trial, a guilty plea was entered in six cases and four jury trials resulted in a conviction.

‘Slicing myself open’

The research heard reports of how painful and re-traumatising reporting sexual abuse to gardaí can be for a victim.

One survivor said: “It felt very invasive, like I was slicing myself open, showing this person these really dark places that I’ve never shown anybody … and then nobody helping you put it back together afterwards, you just have to leave.”

Participants in the research noted that the stop-start nature of recording a statement by hand and the sterile environment of an interview room added to the difficulty of making a statement.

Once their experience was reported to the gardaí, participants said the lengthy process of a criminal investigation and decision by the DPP to bring the case to trial or not was challenging and often triggered emotions linked to the abuse.

Based on the recollection of 10 participants, the average time between their statement and notification of the decision to prosecute was approximately 2.2 years.

Participants also reported being profoundly affected by the quality and quantity of communication and updates they received from gardaí during this period. The majority of participants reported a lack of regular updates or information from gardaí.

One abuse survivor said: “I hate silence. I have been silenced my whole life so to walk out of a room and think ‘what happens next?’ is like feeling abused again”.

Another said:

I remember one time ringing and the guard was just really annoyed that I was ringing and he said something like, ‘Have you seen the news of how much credit card fraud there’s been this week? We don’t have time for this.’

Five of the participants of this study reported that their criminal complaint resulted in a decision not to prosecute by the DPP, marking the end of their criminal redress process.

One survivor said: “I was so angry and let down.” Another said: “I felt very dismissed and felt that my experience … didn’t matter again.”

However, participants whose cases were sent forward to court reported feeling relief at being believed: “It was the being believed. After all of this that I had gone through, [I felt] that I was being believed.”

One in Four said the research illustrates how difficult it is to be a complainant witness in a trial of sexual offences. A common complaint was feeling on the periphery of the trial “a cog in the wheel”.

Giving evidence was also extremely stressful, as was the close proximity of the accused person to the survivor in court.

The recommendations include specialist training for gardaí, judges, barristers, solicitors and all legal professionals working on the frontline.

The research also notes the detrimental impact of prosecutorial process delay on a complainant.

An increase in resources such as judges and court facilities “must be prioritised, especially given the effect that pandemic related court closures have had on court lists”, the report notes.

The research, which will be officially launched this afternoon, was funded by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission (IHREC).