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Dublin: 2 °C Friday 15 November, 2019

Column: Survivors of abuse are re-traumatised by our unsympathetic, unethical legal system

Survivors of child sexual abuse seeking justice are not met with understanding or sympathy in Irish courts – rather they are attacked, derided and denied psychological support. This cannot be viewed as justice, writes Mark Vincent Healy.

Mark Vincent Healy

IF THE ISSUES of clerical child sexual abuse can mark a horrific beginning to one’s life, and suicide a most tragic end – as I outlined in a previous article – then I wish to highlight what happens in the judicial process, as a campaign survivor of clerical child sexual abuse.

My main concern is with and for that most vulnerable group, survivors of clerical child sexual abuse. They are at risk if they remain silent and they are at risk if they break silence and enter redress processes seeking justice. The risk is life threatening as evidenced by my research where I found data on 55 confirmed or alleged suicides in Ireland as a result of clerical child sexual abuse.

Indeed in seeking redress there is no ‘risk assessment’ conducted regarding any litigation procedures outlining the dangers posed to survivors in seeking justice and redress.

Our rights as Irish citizens

We are reminded in the Citizen’s Information web service that Irish people have fundamental rights under our constitution. We have a right to life, where it states: “The Constitution specifically recognises and protects your right to life”; to bodily integrity, where it states: “You have a right not to have your body or person interfered with. This means that the State may not do anything to harm your life or health.”

In the Irish Constitution, Bunreacht na hEireann, we read the fundamental human rights that Irish Citizens enjoy under article 40 where it states the following:
40.3.1° The State guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate the personal rights of the citizen and
40.3. 2° The State shall, in particular, by its laws protect as best it may from unjust attack and, in the case of injustice done, vindicate the life, person, good name, and property rights of every citizen.

Re-traumatised by the very procedures of their redress

Indeed there are countless judgements protecting the rights of Irish citizens to ‘fair proceedings’ yet the fundamental rights of victims of clerical child sexual abuse seem to be abandoned when one considers the ‘high risks’ to which they can be and are submitted in seeking redress of their abuse as children.

So many re-traumatised by the very procedures of their redress are suffering premature death and suicide. Is there justice in exposing such survivors to the high risks of suicide or attempted suicide as evidenced from such tragic cases?

It is time to end the silence and abject failures to relieve those suffering life-long distress from clerical child sexual abuse.

My research

The SAVI Report, March 2002, page 220 states:

It was decided not to interview prisoners directly for this study. The reasons for this were twofold. Firstly, there are concerns regarding asking prisoners to disclose a history of sexual abuse in an environment where they spend many hours of the day alone and do not have the support of family and friends to deal with emotions raised in this way. The risks of damaging their well-being, including self-injury and suicide, are by no means insignificant.

A second ethical concern is about conducting such sensitive research with a vulnerable and captive group without being in a position to provide services to deal with issues that might emerge from the interviews.

If SAVI Report researchers considered interviewing Irish prisoners directly was risky then why should any survivor, especially one with a conviction against one of his perpetrators, assume any further indignity and abuse carrying such high risks in any judicial process?

Survivors are not an experiment, no more than a prisoner in Ireland, and the evidence is publicly available to show the procedure of a hostile interview is wholly unnecessary if not irresponsible, professionally unethical and a violation of one’s dignity. How can justice be served by such injustice and evident harm towards any survivor of the criminal offence of child sexual abuse?

Gruelling questioning has led victims to break down

Ireland needs to take note of events in the legal system in the United Kingdom as reported in the Telegraph in August 2013 where greater protection for child sex abuse victims has been called for following a case where a judge and prosecutor were criticised for describing a 13-year-old as ‘predatory’.

In another case, “proceedings had to be halted after the 17-year-old took an overdose of pills following her first day in the witness box” where she faced a gruelling session where she “was cross-examined by ten defence barristers representing the men from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, who faced multiple counts of rape and other child-sex offences” as reported in the Telegraph in August 2013 also.

The most serious incident noted in the same article which demands calls for changes in legal procedures in the handling of child sexual abuse cases involves Frances Andrade, a talented violinist. In January 2013 she took her own life after being called a “liar” and a “fantasist” in court by the barrister defending Michael Brewer. He was later convicted of abusing her when she was a teenage music student and he was her choirmaster.

Victims told not to seek therapy during trial

Other important factors in the horrendously tragic case of Frances Andrade reported in the Telegraph on 10 February 2013.

The first is that according to her family that “despite having attempted suicide twice in the two years before the trial, her family claim she was advised by the police not to seek any form of therapy until the court case was over, in case it triggered ‘false memory syndrome’ and damaged her credibility as a witness.”

Her husband Levine told the Mail on Sunday: “She went to the doctor as she was having trouble sleeping. He suggested she speak to someone and said he could refer her – but she said she’d been told not to by the police.”

The risks of mandatory reporting

The second factor is that she is reported as a victim of child sexual abuse “who had not wanted to bring the case” in the first place which raises serious questions about ‘mandatory reporting’ which without ‘Safe Space Provisioning’, which I am calling for, poses risks which are unacceptably high where there is a risk of suicide.

The legal arena poses enormous dangers to witnesses and plaintiffs and is crying out for reform. Survivors are processed in a manner by the legal system which clearly inflicts violations to their constitutional human rights and dignity in unsympathetic, unethical and immoral practices representing real and present dangers to their well-being and lives.

It is perverse to seek justice and be a victim of injustice by the very process involved. Suicide, attempted suicide or self-harming are an unacceptable consequence of legal process. Indeed would a judge put his own child through such an arena carrying such unquantified and unqualified ‘high risks’?

Survivors are attacked in Irish courtrooms

There is not one survey into the rate of suicide amongst this identified vulnerable group of survivors of clerical child sexual abuse. The suicide rates in Ireland for 2012 run at just under two suicides per day according to CSO figures whilst another 34 attempted suicide according to the National Registry of Deliberate Self Harm Ireland.

On 24 July 2013, the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre noted in its Annual Report for 2012 that only three cases of rape out of 322 known actually succeeded in a criminal conviction showing that the crime of rape in general has less than a 1 per cent chance of a conviction for 2012.

In terms of clerical child sexual abuse, as I noted in my article in, of the 16 dioceses reviewed to date by the National Board for Safeguarding Children, there have been 164 allegations made in relation to 85 priests where there have been no convictions. This represents a third of the church authorities examined where not one priest was held to account.

I received the following information from a re-traumatised survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous, regarding ‘fair procedures’ and a ‘fair result’:

“Tribunals exercising quasi-judicial functions are frequently allowed to act informally – to receive unsworn evidence, to act on hearsay, to depart from the rules of evidence, to ignore courtroom procedures, and the like – but they may not act in such a way as to imperil a fair hearing or a fair result”. (Judge Kearns J, High Court Lawlor v. Flood [1999].

I cannot thank the survivor enough for sharing this and I’m so glad to share it here.

Justice cannot be served by injustice

The late Dr Michael Corry pleaded for greater care in tribunals. In his letter of 19 May 2005 on Paddy Doyle’s web site, Dr Corry tells of his pleading with the redress board. It is particularly distressful to read: “One patient was left alone, on the verge of a panic attack due to the intensity of his fear, to tell the board of a past littered with criminal behaviour, prison records, substance misuse, dysfunctional relationships, mistrust of authority, and family breakdown.”

Dr Michael Corry was far too familiar with the complex rupture and consequences to one’s life that follow clerical childhood sexual abuse, denied and diminished by perpetrators and those who facilitated them within the religious life.

Justice cannot be served by injustice. Justice cannot be served by re-traumatising victims of injustice. Justice cannot be served by exposing victims to the high risks of self-harm, attempted suicide and suicide. Justice cannot demand so much from the victims of crime.

Victims have a fundamental human right to justice and fair legal procedures without risking their very lives through risk of suicide.

Mark Vincent Healy is a survivor campaigner seeking ‘Rescue Services’ and ‘Safe Space Provisioning’ for survivors of clerical child sexual abuse.

If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article you can contact the following organisations:

  • Samaritans 1850 60 90 900 or email
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634
  • Console 1800 201 890
  • Aware 1890 303 302
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email

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About the author:

Mark Vincent Healy

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