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'Good men need to speak up': Call for GAA officials to stop giving character references in rape trials

Justice Minister Helen McEntee has written to the victim in the Conor Quaid trail but cannot meet her as an appeal has been lodged.

File photo of a football pitch
File photo of a football pitch
Image: Shutterstock/mark_gusev

THE KERRY RAPE and Sexual Abuse Centre is set to write to GAA officials in the county next week to formally offer sensitivity and awareness training amid ongoing controversy about the submission of character references in sexual assault and rape trials.

The offer is being made following an outcry over a GAA official in Dingle writing a character reference for a man convicted of raping a woman, a family friend, while she slept in her own bed in 2018.

Conor Quaid was convicted at the Central Criminal Court last September and was sentenced to six and a half years in prison last month. In the hearing, Judge Mary Rose Gearty noted that Quaid had shown no remorse.

Justice Gearty said Quaid had violated the sanctity of the victim’s home. She said he was in the house because he was a trusted family friend.

She imposed a sentence of eight years, with 18 months suspended, and said the court had little scope to reduce this because of the absence of a guilty plea or of remorse.

Quaid had pleaded not guilty and his legal team launched an appeal on Thursday.

In a character reference, John Diony O’Connor, who is now vice-chair of Dingle GAA, spoke highly of Quaid’s good character and his commitment to Dingle GAA.

The reference was among eight handed into the court ahead of sentencing.

Kerry GAA has distanced itself from the reference, saying O’Connor was acting in a personal capacity. However, the situation has reignited a conversation about character references and who can write them.

The office of Justice Minister Helen McEntee contacted the victim’s family on Wednesday afternoon, The Journal has confirmed.

There have been reports that McEntee wanted to set up a meeting with the family but, as an appeal has been lodged, a spokesperson said “it would not be appropriate for the Minister to meet with the victim and her family at this time”.

GAA policy

A spokesperson for the GAA said the organisation’s Code of Conduct “does not permit character references from our officers”.

However, they added: “We don’t control the activities of members and what they do in their private lives away from their activities with the Association.

“The same applies in other areas of civic life ie the positions people adopt in politics or referenda, which sometimes is linked to the profile they have because of a link to our games.”

O’Connor’s character reference stated: “I have known the Quaid family for over 20 years and, as a consequence, I have known Conor since he was a small boy. I am aware of his recent conviction.

“He was involved with Dingle GAA club as an underage player and always played as a team player and got on extremely well with all the mentors and teammates and always listened and took advice.”

O’Connor told the Kerry’s Eye newspaper that he wrote the letter in a private capacity.

The GAA’s Code of Conduct notes the following:

4.3.4.3. Officers not permitted to provide any form of character reference for an individual as part of legal or Court Proceedings, in his or her capacity as an Officer of the GAA (if applicable). For the avoidance of doubt, GAA Participants may not use GAA-related letterhead nor sign any such character reference in their capacity
as an Officer of the GAA. Furthermore, any character reference, whether provided by an Officer or a Member should specify that it is being provided in a personal capacity and not in any way on behalf of or as an Officer or a Member of the GAA.

Following on from the controversy, Vera O’Leary, director of the Kerry Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre, offered sensitivity and awareness training to the GAA in Kerry during an appearance on Livelive last week.

The Journal has learned that a formal invitation to such training will be sent to Kerry GAA chair Tim Murphy next week.

O’Leary said she hopes GAA officials in Kerry will take up the offer and use it as an opportunity to develop a policy on character references and related issues.

She said the assertion that O’Connor wrote the character reference in a personal capacity is “passing the buck” as “he wouldn’t have written it if he hadn’t been involved in the GAA”.

A GAA spokesperson said the issue of officials and members in Kerry taking up sensitivity and awareness training is a matter for Kerry GAA. Repeated efforts by The Journal to contact Kerry GAA this week were not successful.

O’Leary said there needs to be stricter rules on who can write character references, adding that GAA officials and people of note in other organisations should not be allowed to submit these testimonials.

“This has been a repeated issue of concern. I naively believed it had died away because I felt that the judiciary were no longer using any character references as a tool in deciding sentencing. This judge very obviously didn’t do that which is very heartening,” O’Leary said.

“Unfortunately, this didn’t become a bump in the road until the courage and the bravery of this young woman and her family, and them calling it out.

“I would like the judiciary to come out and state maybe very clearly that they’re not used as a reason to reduce sentencing when somebody is found guilty or pleads guilty [to sexual assault].”

O’Leary noted that there are rules around what victims can include in victim impact statements, and called for more clarity on character reference guidelines.

In her victim impact statement, read by Garda Sergeant Ernie Henderson in court, the victim in the Quaid trial said everyone in the local area knew about the rape.

“You (Quaid) did whatever you liked. I had no choice on that night. You made me feel like I was worthless,” she said.

“I know some people held me responsible and that is difficult when I am the victim.”

O’Leary noted that the character references provided by a number of high-profile sporting figures in the trial of former Irish Times journalist Tom Humphries – who was jailed for 2.5 years for child sex offences in 2017 – raised similar concerns.

O’Leary said, even if they state they are acting in a personal capacity, a reference letter from an official in a body such as the GAA, could be seen to carry more weight and imply the organisation supports the guilty party.

As stated above, the character reference mentioned Quaid’s involvement with the GAA and called him a “team player”.

“They need to have a policy where if you’re in an influential position within any club, you do not write a character reference,” O’Leary said of the GAA.

O’Leary stressed that she was not saying “sex offenders should be locked up and throw away the key”.

“They need rehabilitation, they need to know that they will have family and friends there for them when they come out.

“We’re very aware if that we’re to reduce sexual violence, the offenders need to be rehabilitated, they need to get support.”

‘Good men need to speak up’

O’Leary said, particularly in a small community, the submission of character references in sexual assault trials can have a lasting impact on a victim and their family.

“We’ve always said that sexual violence affects the community. The victim is obviously the person that’s most hurt and most traumatised, but it also filters out, and the ripple effect of it on the community can be really, really traumatic and difficult.”

Since Quaid was sentenced, the centre in Kerry has had a marked increase in the number of people contacted it to disclose they are survivors of sexual assault. O’Leary said the centre has also received numerous offers of support from local people to pass on to the victim in the Quaid trail.

She said this type of support – and the wider conversation people in Kerry and across Ireland are having – shows that society has moved forward in recent years.

In 2009, dozens of people lined up in court to shake hands with or hug Danny Foley, a man convicted of sexually assaulting a woman.

O’Leary said the juxtaposition of the reaction to these two famous Kerry court cases show that some progress has been made.

“People are starting a conversation which I think is good. “When I hear comparisons being made to the Listowel case, which was 11 years ago. I think, my god, society has moved on.”

However, she added, much more needs to be done.

If you look at all the character references [in the Quaid trial], they were all written by men. We know the majority of men are really good, honest men that would never commit a crime against women or children – and we work with men here in the centre – but we also know there are an awful lot of good men who are standing by and not speaking out.

“I am even hearing anecdotally from the area [Dingle] that an awful lot of men are really angry that this has happened. But we need good men to actually speak up, we need them to be calling out inequality, sexism, violence, abuse.

“We need them to challenge each other if they see somebody acting in a way that is not appropriate. Hopefully, society is now mature enough, in a way that it wasn’t 11 or 12 years ago, to be able to have this conversation.”

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O’Leary said some people who write character references for people convicted of sexual assaults have “a total lack of understanding of sexual violence”.

“Even though it’s the second most serious crime in our statute books, they don’t see it as something that warrants a certain level of their awareness.

“If this was any other crime – if this was maybe drunk driving or beating up an elderly person or something like that – I think they’d be thinking twice about giving the character reference.

“But I think that there is still a cohort in society who do not recognise what sexual violence is, what it constitutes and how it damages people’s lives – that they can struggle for years to be able to repair it.”

O’Leary said victims of sexual assault need to know they will be supported and protected by gardaí if and when they come forward. She said the outpouring of support for the victim in the Quaid trial will hopefully encourage more people to report sexual crimes.

“Nowadays, it’s so different than it used to be. We have protective service units in all the Garda district areas and they’re very highly skilled and very committed to really in-depth investigation and compassionate care of the victim.

“Victims should be confident that when they come forward now that they will be believed and supported. I think we have to keep reiterating that.

“And we have to try and move forward ourselves and find solutions, rather than just say ‘this isn’t acceptable’. We need to ask ‘what can we do?’ and do something and be proactive. It’s only then that society will start changing.”

‘Victim-centred legislation’ 

The Rape Crisis Network of Ireland (RCNI) told The Journal it will be advocating for guidelines on character references to be included in the new Criminal Law (Sexual Offences) Bill due end at this year.

“As part of that advocacy we will be writing to the [Justice] Minister shortly on this matter,” Dr Clíona Saidlear, executive director of the Rape Crisis Network Ireland, said.

“Our position is not an outright ban but certainly more rules and control around them, what they can say and how they are to be treated.

“There has to be a place for legitimate character references, i.e. where the gravity of behaviour and jury verdict or plea is acknowledged and the convicted perpetrator has both reflected on and attempted to reform/make reparations.

“There should be agreed guidelines on what should and should not be included in them, as there are for Victim Impact Statements (VIS), and they should focus on what is legitimate mitigation and what is not in any character reference.

“These rules on content for example would state that no character references should contradict the jury verdict/plea or say something which is mere speculation and/or demonstrably false, or suggest that an appeal against conviction is advisable.”

Saidlear said the RCNI will also advocate that the new Bill “should consider creating an express statutory power to edit and, in extreme cases, disregard altogether any character reference or part thereof which is outside such guidelines”.

The RCNI is also calling for training of judges and lawyers to include material on this issue and how it affects survivors.

When asked about the issue of character references, a spokesperson for Justice Minister Helen McEntee said: “In relation to court proceedings and sentencing, the judiciary is independent in the exercise of its judicial functions, subject only to the Constitution and the law.

“It is not open to the Minister to comment or intervene in any way in relation to how particular court proceedings are conducted, or on the outcome of those proceedings. These are matters entirely for the presiding judge.”

The spokesperson added that McEntee is “committed to creating a more victim-centred criminal justice system through the implementation of the Supporting a Victim’s Journey (a report published in August 2020)”.

“This is a priority for Minister McEntee which is reflected in the Justice Plan 2021. The Minister is working to improve the system to better support and empower victims and give them the confidence to engage with the criminal justice system knowing they will be supported, informed and treated with respect and dignity at every point and by every person they come into contact with.

“Understanding the lived experience of victims is very important for helping identify changes that may need to be made to the system and the Minister is very grateful to victims who share their experience and commends their bravery,” a statement noted.

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