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Speak or Survive: Sexual violence victims still fighting roadblocks to justice

Survivors of sexual crimes tell Noteworthy investigation what needs to change to give victims a chance to find a voice, justice – and peace.

CHILD AND ADULT victims of sexual crimes face inadequate supports in both bringing their abusers to justice and receiving therapeutic help.

Noteworthy, the crowd-sourced investigative platform from TheJournal.ie, has interviewed close to 40 sexual abuse survivors, as well as experts in the fields of criminal justice, medicine and mental health, and can report that:

  • Across a range of institutions including gardaí, social services, the legal system, workplaces, youth services, the political system and mental health services, survivors feel repeatedly let down and, in some instances, have spent decades struggling to bring their abuse to light.
  • Children who experience sexual abuse often struggle to access therapeutic supports in Ireland, which can lead to lifelong health and education problems, and can also impact on a survivor’s chance of securing justice.
  • Campaign groups and survivors have called for the introduction of a victim’s advocate to help them navigate the criminal justice system from reporting to trial but believe that wider reforms are needed to encourage survivors to come forward.

Sexual assault allegations are traditionally one of the most under-reported and under-prosecuted areas in the criminal justice system. In 2002, the landmark Sexual Assault and Violence (SAVI) report found that only 1% of men and 8% of women reported sexual crimes committed against them.

The report estimated that one in four people had experienced a sexual crime against them in childhood and rape crisis organisations believe that reports are still only the “tip of the iceberg”. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre alone received 13,367 contacts to its 24-hour crisis helpline in 2017, including 7,423 first-time contacts and 4,330 repeat contacts, with 1,614 unknown.

(It should be noted that making contact with a support organisation does not necessarily mean that a crime has taken place. A person may also make several contacts to an organisation in relation to an individual case.)

In 2017, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) prosecuted 3,486 sexual offences in the Circuit Criminal Court and 121 cases of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault in the Central Criminal Court – although there is an inevitable time lag between sexual offences perpetrated in a given year and the year in which they may eventually reach court.

The crime must also be reported before the DPP can take action. The DPP told Noteworthy that it does not categorise files on receipt in the Office with respect to offences that might be prosecuted.

In 2018, 2,271 people reported sexual crimes to gardaí in Ireland. In the same year, Ireland rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding stood trial in Belfast for rape. The accused were acquitted on all charges. Following much public disquiet and controversy concerning the treatment of the complainant in the courtroom, then minister for justice Charlie Flanagan commissioned senior counsel and law lecturer Tom O’Malley to chair a review group into how vulnerable witnesses in sexual offences trials, particularly victims, are treated.

rugby-players-court-case-20-390x285 Paddy Jackson was acquitted of all charges relating to the alleged rape of a young woman in 2016. The trial, however, sparked a debate about the prosecution of sexual offences in court. Source: PA Images

The report from this group was published on August 6.

Many of its findings chime with discoveries made by Noteworthy including a recommendation that an intermediary should be appointed whose role is to “assess the communication needs of vulnerable witnesses and to advise police, advocates [such as NGOs helping victims] and the court as to the steps that are needed to assist such witnesses to give their best evidence”.

While the O’Malley report was largely occupied with the experience of complainants in the courts system, Noteworthy has also identified major challenges in even reporting an offence in the first place (an issue which the O’Malley report is also adamant needs to be addressed).

During this project, Noteworthy was contacted by around 30 survivors of sexual violence and followed up with every one of them. We also reached out to nine other survivors with whose cases or campaigning work we were already familiar.

We have also spoken in depth to a whistleblower within the HSE and to groups that provide therapeutic supports and advocacy for survivors of sexual crimes – including the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland, CARI and One in Four – as well as to representatives from the Director of Public Prosecutions, Tusla, the courts service and the HSE.

We have also looked in detail at the detailed examination and findings of one Tusla inquiry.

We have chosen to focus on the experience of survivors in order to help shed light on what happened to them, how it could potentially have been avoided and what they believe may have made their experience less traumatic.

Alice*: ‘Gardai knew, social workers knew, and my father was left at large’

Alice and her sisters were allegedly sexually abused by their father until, in the mid-1980s, social workers from a health board removed them from the family home. A report concluded that children in the family were “at great risk”. A senior social worker wrote to the local garda superintendent about the findings of the report but no Garda investigation was launched.

At a case conference, a recommendation was made that the children should not have any contact with their biological father and that they attend therapy. Alice said that she did not have any such therapy and there is no evidence in the case files that the children received any supports.

They were placed in foster care where Alice says they were physically, emotionally and sexually abused by up to five men, including the son of the foster mother and other relatives of the foster family.

Noteworthy has reviewed extensive files and documents relating to Alice’s case, as well as a confidential internal case review published by Tusla this year. Tusla’s report found that there were no records of communication between Gardaí “regarding the risk posed in the community by her father”.

Alice’s mother died when Alice was a child. There was limited contact between social workers and the foster home where Alice and her sisters were allegedly sexually abused. Alice left foster care as a teenager and went to live with a relative. Two of her siblings remained in the abusive foster family until they were finally removed eight years after the case first came to the attention of social workers.

When Alice was in her late teens, after years of trauma and self-harm, she went to report the sexual crimes to gardaí; in the same year, a report by the Child Health Team confirmed that the son of the foster carers had perpetrated child sexual abuse against Alice’s sister.

Alice’s sister made a statement to the Garda and the alleged sexual abuser admitted what he had done. A file was sent to the DPP, who decided not to prosecute. In general, a decision not to prosecute is taken when the DPP believes there is insufficient evidence to secure a conviction beyond reasonable doubt.

In its review, Tusla could not find any evidence that the health board followed up with other children placed in the foster home about their experiences and ongoing welfare.

Alice complained to the HSE when she was in her mid-20s but no report was completed until four years after that complaint. This report recommended that the local social work department deal with her complaint about her experience of foster care.

“Records examined by the review team could not locate evidence to verify how this recommendation had been followed up by the social work department,” the recent Tusla report said.

In 2009, the HSE settled a High Court case taken by Alice and her sisters but did not refer its concerns to gardaí. “The absence of informing An Garda Siochana of suspected child abuse may have impacted on the ability of the Gardaí to carry out its statutory duty in conducting a criminal investigation,” the Tusla report found.

In 2018, Alice made a fresh complaint about childhood sexual abuse to gardaí. Just before Christmas in 2019, the DPP informed her that they would not be prosecuting because of insufficient evidence. Alice sought a review of that decision.

On February 20, 2020, the DPP’s office explained its decision. “The evidence available was insufficient to prosecute,” a senior prosecutor explained. “Our job is to assess if there is admissible, relevant, credible and reliable evidence available, which taken together, is sufficient so that a judge or jury could decide beyond reasonable doubt that the accused is guilty. It is not a question of this Office deciding who we believe… Before deciding to proceed with a prosecution our Office must be satisfied that there is a reasonable prospect of conviction.”

Since then, Tusla chief executive Bernard Gloster has apologised unreservedly to Alice, who has spent 22 years trying to have the abuse acknowledged.

“The failures predate the establishment of Tusla in 2014 but the past has gone and buried itself in agencies like the old health board and the HSE, whose files were taken over by Tusla,” said Alice. “We have to stop talking about ‘systemic failures; until people are held to account, it will keep happening.”

In spite of this, Alice said she has faith that Tusla is now trying to do right by her. She does not regret coming forward all those years ago.

“I have faith in Bernard Gloster, the CEO. He has met with me and acknowledged the wrongs done, as well as offered me an apology for the failures. This support has been ongoing and they’re providing me with free counselling for the rest of my life.”

Mick: ‘I don’t regret coming forward – otherwise, I would be living with torture and trauma’

IMG_20190110_001722_257 Mick Finnegan's allegations of sexual abuse against a volunteer with St John's Ambulance were deemed to be founded by Tusla this year, two decades since he first went to gardai. Source: Mick Finnegan

In one recent case, Tusla examined two allegations of child rape and sexual abuse against a volunteer with the St John’s Ambulance. On July 2 this year, they deemed the allegations to be “founded”.

The allegations, stretching back 20 years, were made by Mick Finnegan, who was a cadet and volunteered with the organisation as a child.

Tusla’s finding was on foot of an appeal by the alleged rapist against Tusla’s initial finding, which was also deemed to “founded”, against him in September 2019. Tusla noted that the alleged rapist’s solicitor had advised him not to meet with them.

The alleged child rapist – who is now in his mid 80s – has denied all allegations, and vigorously defended his reputation. His solicitors say that he is considering legal action to quash the Tusla findings.

“I was in the St John’s Ambulance for 10 years,” said Mick, who won the organisation’s Novice Cup during his service. “[The alleged child rapist] would come to the house with the ambulance lights flashing. Mam was so proud; she thought I’d become a paramedic.”

Mick was 17 when he first reported to gardaí but, he said, no DNA or medical tests were carried out on him. In 2001, the DPP decided not to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence.

Mick told Tusla that he approached the St John’s Ambulance about the abuse in the late 1990s but no proactive investigation took place and nor was he given any support.

In 2015, two more victims of the alleged child rapist came forward, and a garda worked closely with them to reopen the investigation and put the offender in jail. Again, the DPP decided not to prosecute, citing insufficient evidence to secure a prosecution beyond reasonable doubt.

Mick told Tusla that being raped as a child has left him with permanent physical injuries requiring ongoing medical support. Noteworthy has seen a medical report carried out by a consultant and dated August 2, 2018, which details these physical scars as well as Mick’s psychiatric history including post-traumatic stress disorder. However, we understand that this forensic evidence was not sought by gardaí and ultimately never submitted to the DPP.

In August 2018, Mick’s legal representatives – who also represents two other victims of the alleged child rapist – wrote to the DPP about its decision not to prosecute. They pointed out that St John’s Ambulance’s own internal investigation was never referred to gardaí.

“The corroborative nature of the complaints by the individuals, allied to the clear attempt to thwart a full and proper garda investigation ought to be reason enough to proceed to a prosecution,” the law firm said. By this stage, Tusla had already concluded that two of the cases were founded, while a third allegation occurred when the alleged victim was over 18 and therefore it was outside Tusla’s jurisdiction.

In a response on January 7, 2019, the DPP said that it did not prosecute because there was “insufficient evidence” to secure a prosecution. “Every allegation must be considered separately and on the basis of the individual evidence available,” the prosecutor said. “Other persons may allege similar incidents occurred in similar circumstances, at different times and places, however that is not corroborative of your client’s allegation.”

Similar fact evidence can sometimes be permitted in cases alleging sexual violence, as for example in a 2018 case, when the similarity of three allegations against a now-convicted rapist, Patrick Nevin, allowed a judge to rule that the jury could hear them together

In recent correspondence to Mick, seen by Noteworthy, Professor Patrick Plunkett, a former commissioner of the St John’s Ambulance who took up his post after the alleged rapist had left the organisation, said: “I’m not sure it will ultimately soothe your soul, but the [recent] Tusla decision is right.”

Now 37, Mick, like many other survivors of sexual crimes – particularly crimes committed against them as children – was severely traumatised by his experience and spent years in homelessness and despair. He is now a student at Trinity College Dublin and a mental health campaigner, and hopes to become a social worker.

Mick wants to see a beefed-up Tusla where An Garda Siochana and social workers collaborate closely to ensure children are protected, survivors of abuse are kept informed and health services ensure that medical and therapeutic supports are available.

“I don’t regret coming forward,” said Mick. “If I hadn’t, I’d still be living with torture and trauma, I’d still be thinking I can smell him. Speaking up has helped me to find stability.”

In a statement through a public relations firm, St John Ambulance Ireland said it is “aware of historic allegations relating to a former volunteer. However, as court proceedings listing St John Ambulance Ireland as a co-defendant are underway, we are not in a position to comment… St John Ambulance adheres to a robust child protection policy in accordance with best practice safeguarding guidelines and principles in compliance with Children First obligations.”

In a statement, the alleged abuser’s solicitor said that their client “has been extensively interviewed by An Garda Síochána and denied any criminal wrongdoing whatsoever in relation to these matters. Following careful consideration of the Garda file, the [DPP] directed that there be no prosecution. We have previously written to Tusla, following the decision of the appeal panel, and confirm that Judicial Review proceedings are being considered with a view to having the findings quashed.”

Aoife*: ‘I gave up trying to report – I just didn’t feel safe’

Even where a sex offender is convicted for one crime, some of their other victims may never get justice.

John* served three years in prison for sexually abusing and raping his nephew, James*, over a nine-year period. James was a child when the abuse occurred.

James’s sister, Aoife, alleges that she also suffered sexual abuse at the hands of John and another man. “I don’t even know when the abuse started,” she said. “The other man took sexual photos of me with a disposable Kodak camera when I was about six; I still remember the sound of it winding up. Those photos are still out there.”

Aoife did not feel confident that gardaí could keep her safe if she went ahead and reported. She said that she tried to report to two different Garda stations.

“One time, I was giving a statement and the garda said she had to leave because Travellers had just moved into the area and they had to move them on; this infuriated me because I work with Travellers and see the everyday discrimination that these lovely people face. Eventually, I just gave up trying to report.”

As a result, a file was never sent to the DPP and John and the other abuser have never faced a courtroom to answer Aoife allegations. However, John was prosecuted for his crimes against James. He pleaded not guilty.

“The trial was so traumatic for James, and so hard to go through,” said Aoife. “The family left when the details were raised in court so James could speak freely. We had to face the abusers in court including the man who was never charged with abusing me; I was petrified.”

Like Mick, Aoife has suffered lasting physical damage as a result of child sexual abuse; organisations working with victims say that is not uncommon. Aoife’s medical records show that she has had genital reconstruction surgery carried out because of the damage done to her as a child. She suffers anxiety attacks. She rarely drinks alcohol.

“I wish things had been done differently,” she said. “But I have never regretted coming forward and having my voice heard.”

She is broadly happy with the O’Malley report recommendations although she is disappointed about the lack of separate legal representation for victims throughout the trial. “But I really appreciate that the minister for justice, Helen McEntee, is working hard on this and is treating it as a priority.”

Claire*: ‘My uncle sexually abused my mother – then came for me’

In a trial reported on by a local newspaper in 2002, Claire’s uncle was sentenced to two years in prison for repeatedly sexually abusing her over a four-year period.

Claire had regularly spent weekends with her grandmother, where her uncle also lived. “I was around 11 when I became brave enough to tell him that I wanted this to stop. I told his sister, my aunt; she told me to say nothing. I wrote to a teacher about it and she took action. I regretted it when it first came out, but I don’t now.”

She said the gardai were “okay” but that she found the physical examination at a hospital “horrendous, traumatising”. Her uncle pleaded guilty but while she didn’t have to give evidence at a trial, she remembers “the morning of the sentencing being woken up and told I had to go to court. It was the first I knew of it and looking back, I should have had someone to help me through the process. I was hugely vulnerable because Mammy was in and out of psychiatric hospitals.”

As a child, Claire’s mother had been sexually abused by her brother – the same man who went on to sexually abuse her. “Mam didn’t really have a life: she was abused, had us, suffered post-natal depression and then spent most of her life in a mental institution.”

Pamela: ‘An advocate would help you navigate the system’

Early on in this project, Noteworthy met with Pamela McLoughlin, who was sexually abused by her neighbour, Kenneth Treacy, when she was four years old. The abuse continued until she was eight. Treacy was 15 when it began and 19 when it stopped.

“The case first came before the courts in June 2016, and Treacy pled guilty in November 2019,” said Pamela. “That is a period of five years. During this period, I was not offered access to any of the free services that he has been given access to. The criminal justice system seems to place more emphasis on the wellbeing and rights of abusers than on victims.”

During this period, Pamela made an attempt on her own life.

“I am a first-time mother to an amazing 18-month-old little boy and the guilt I felt when I saw him again after trying to kill myself will never leave me,” she said.

“I have a tattoo of a semi-colon on my wrist to remind me that I can pause but I cannot stop. I need to look at this tattoo on a regular basis to remind myself that my life is not over and that I could even though I could end my sentence, I choose not to.”

Speaking after Treacy received a suspended sentence, Pamela said that there needs to be a greater emphasis on the rights of victims.

“An advocate should be made available immediately when a report is made. I had never gone into minute detail about my abuse, so to have to sit down with a garda was horrendous; I know it needs to happen, but an advocate would help you navigate the system. We also need to see a tighter timeframe between the first court sitting and final sentencing, while an ‘early guilty plea’ needs to be defined – mine came after three years and five months.”

(In court, Treacy’s defence counsel argued that the delays were due to the necessity of carrying out cognitive tests on their client, who has a low IQ).

While the O’Malley report stopped short of backing calls for victim advocates, it has called for the introduction of specially trained intermediaries – who sign up to a formal register – from the early stage of an investigation, particularly for more vulnerable victims including children and persons with disabilities.

pamelamcloughlin Pamela McLoughlin outside court during the trial of her abuser, Kenneth Treacy. Source: Peter McGuire

Pamela said that there should be harsher sentences for child sexual abuse. “There should also be more active work done to prevent people offending in the first place; I know that people baulk at this but we need to identify risk factors so that other children are not harmed.”

Pamela has no regrets about coming forward, but acknowledges that there are many factors that may make other survivors come forward. “I think that talking can help erase stigma and help people understand that they are not alone.”

Who is listening when someone speaks up?

When a complaint of child sexual abuse is made to Tusla, the State agency investigates to see if a case is “founded” or “unfounded.” International evidence suggests that between 2 and 10% of child sex abuse allegations may be false or based on misunderstandings.

Tusla said that, of the 3,909 referrals of child sexual abuse cases in 2019, they “do not currently collate” data on how many cases are deemed founded or unfounded. Several sources say that an “unfounded” allegation is widely regarded as a poor indicator of risk as it only means they haven’t been able to find sufficient evidence to state categorically that the abuse didn’t happen.

Only 4% of cases of child sexual abuse investigations result in a prosecution; less than 2% result in a criminal conviction.

“Both Tusla and the Gardaí have responsibilities under Children First in respect of responding to allegations of abuse,” a spokesperson for Tusla said. “Our joint working arrangements are set out in our Joint Working Protocol for An Garda Siochana/Tusla and Child and Family Agency which explains in more details the role of the Garda and the role of the social worker.”

The main avenue for reporting sexual crime is of course the gardai. As evidenced in some of the testimonies above, in particular those of Alice* and Aoife*, the experience of complainants can be, at best, an uneven experience.

How an alleged victim is treated from the very moment they try to speak up is imperative for their chances of some sort of recovery, according to Cliona Sadlier, executive director of the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland.

Sadlier points out that the justice system sees only a relatively small proportion of all sexual crimes. “We need to think about the rest of the process which begins with treating someone with dignity, respect, support and a chance to be heard.”

Detective Chief Superintendent Declan Daly is from the Garda National Protective Services Bureau, which works to bring sexual criminals to justice. He says: “It is difficult for victims: after this crime happens, they then have to go on a difficult journey through the system.

“They have to give evidence and tell very personal stories about the crime. We have taken steps to make this journey as easy as we can.”

1122 Garda media briefing Det Supt Declan Daly hopes specialist protective services units will better equip gardai to respond to complaints and needs of victims. Source: Leah Farrell via RollingNews.ie

Significant changes have happened in recent years. In 2017, An Garda Síochána introduced a child sexual abuse reporting phoneline (1800 555222), while the force also has specialist child interviewers. Specialist divisional protective services units (DPSUs) are being rolled out throughout the country; there are currently 21 of these in place and Daly anticipates that every Garda division will have one by the end of September with specialist, continuously trained gardaí responding to complaints and to the needs of victims.

“The DPSUs are relatively young but we have seen positive feedback from victims and the NGOs that support them,” said Daly. “We can’t diminish the rights of the accused or our own impartiality, but we can conduct a fair, open, transparent victim-centered investigation.

“We do have to ask difficult and robust questions including, with historic allegations, why a person is only making the complaint now, as this is a requirement for the DPP. False complaints do happen, of course, but they are rare, and we investigate all allegations.”

Regarding child abuse, Daly said that Tusla and gardaí are are in “constant” contact, sending about 26-27,000 notifications to the child protection agency every year and having regular strategy meetings to assess risks to children.

Daly pleads with victims of sexual crimes to come forward, and several survivors we spoke to singled him personally, as well as garda colleagues, as among the most supportive people in the whole judicial process.

“I know some people have a bad experience and that not all cases lead to prosecution – which is disappointing for us, the victim and the DPP – but we are learning.

“How we investigate crimes today is different from how we did 15 years ago, and it will be different in 15 years to come. The recommendations in the O’Malley report will add to the service we provide and in the wider criminal justice system.”

Daly said that the Garda have a policy of keeping complainants informed. “We have to get a balance between the people who want to know everything and those who want to know very little. There can be delays in historic cases, such as where we might be searching for school records from the 1960s or ’70s.”

Daly said that it is “not a perfect system” – so what might a perfect system look like?

“There will always be changes to make and ways of doing things better, but we are getting there. We’re in the middle of a review of resources and it is likely that more resourcing will be recommended. Domestic violence and sexual crime have particularly vulnerable victims and they are a high priority for us.

“It is so important that people come forward to report this crime: my colleagues and I want victims to be heard and to get the best possible service, and we want perpetrators held to account – this drives me to work in the morning.”

The long road to a prosecution

In 2017, 269 sexual crimes were prosecuted in the Circuit Criminal Court, of which 106 of the accused (40%) pleaded guilty, six (2.2%) were convicted on a lesser charge, three (1.1%) were acquitted at the direction of a judge and 126 (46.8%) were “for hearing” (meaning proceedings may have been halted by judicial review, the defendant may have absconded, a jury may have disagreed, or the case has not come to trial). Juries convicted defendants in 14 (5.2%) of cases and acquitted them in eight (3%) cases.

In the same year, 116 rape, four attempted rape and one aggravated sexual assault case reached the Central Criminal Court. Of the rape cases, 76 (65.5%) were still for hearing at the end of the year, 16 (13.8%) of the accused pled guilty, five (4.3%) were convicted on a lesser charge, one (0.87%) was acquitted on the direction of the judge, ten (8.6%) were found guilty by a jury and five (4.3%) were acquitted by a jury.

A spokesperson for the DPP said that the time taken for an investigation to be completed by the Garda Síochána can vary, but that once a file is received by the DPP, around 70% of cases are decided upon within four weeks. “Files vary in size and complexity and in some cases further information or investigation might be required before a decision is made, so some cases might take longer than three months for a decision to be made.”

The DPP does not categorise files on receipt with respect to offences that might be prosecuted, nor do they publish the numbers of prosecutions by offence category. The DPP is establishing a specialised sexual offences unit with ten staff which will be fully operational next year.

Who exactly is in the dock?

The O’Malley report, making recommendations to improve the experience of alleged victims of sexual crime in the criminal justice system, has been largely welcomed by the Rape Crisis of Network and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre.

015 NO FEE O Malley report Senior counsel Tom O'Malley relaying key points of his review on how sex crimes are investigated and prosecuted, as Justice Minister Helen McEntee looks on. Source: Sam Boal via RollingNews.ie

Some of the key recommendations included that:

  • Victims should not receive their own separate legal counsel during sexual offence trials unless they are giving evidence about their own sexual history.
  • Preliminary trial hearings should take place to deal with issues which could delay the overall trial process and reduce the amount of adjournments, an issue that arose as a frequent concern of victims in both O’Malley’s investigations and in Noteworthy’s interviews with survivors.
  • Anonymity for people accused of rape or aggravated sexual assault should be extended to all person accused of sexual offences.
  • Greater inter-agency communication between state agencies, voluntary and non-governmental agencies dealing with vulnerable victims; clearer guidelines for victims about the process and their rights and supports, including a dedicated website; an app for members of the Garda to advise them of the information they should provide to complainants; improved court familiarisation for vulnerable witnesses including victims; a rollout of improved courts supports for all victims of sexual crime.
  • Extensive training should be provided to judges, barristers and gardaí working with victims of sexual crimes.
  • A Government sponsored programme for public education around consent.

The O’Malley report rejected a suggestion that testimony, cross-examination and re-examination be recorded in advance of trial.

Speaking to Noteworthy, Eve Farrelly, executive director of Children at Risk Ireland (CARI), which provides therapeutic support for sexually abused children, said: “Whilst the recommendation to establish preliminary trial hearings to address issues that may cause delay at a later stage is welcomed, CARI fears that for delays in trials involving children, this may not be enough.

“Children reside within a special phase of rapid growth and development. Time simply works differently for children then for adults. Four years for a 30-year-old means they give evidence when they are 34. Four years for a 4-year-old means they are giving evidence at 8. From a physical, social, emotional and cognitive perspective, these two ages are worlds apart.”

Farrelly also said that an overfocus on forensics and witnesses continues to place responsibility on the shoulders of victims. “The actual experience of a sexual assault can keep people silent in the moment, and society has to accept more than just a criminal justice response so it can enable survivors of any sexual crimes to come forward, at any age.”

New hope on the horizon?

A courts insider said that, ten years ago, trials could take three or four years to reach court, but this is now down to 9-18 months depending on the case. Where a defendant pleads guilty, this waiting time is even less.

“We have more staff and streamlined processes, pre-trial hearings and investment in courthouses nationwide. We have victim support rooms and work closely with voluntary groups offering court supports, particularly Victim Support at Court (V-SAC). Laws on bringing in a complainant’s past sexual history have been tightened, which is why there was such uproar when a barrister showed a defendant’s underwear in Cork.”

The source is cautious about any suggestion that complainants would have their own legal representation.

“The State is the prosecution for their case and it is the State that jumps in to defend them. Victim impact statements were put on a legislative footing and take the victim’s view into account after a conviction. But when you go to court as a defendant, the entire weight of the State can be used to prove your guilt: you’re up against the gardai, forensics, witnesses, summonses, home raids, your phone records, and all you have is your good name. There is a massive power imbalance where all the defendant has is their good name, so the axis of attention does shift towards ensuring a fair trial.”

The #MeToo movement has seen the emergence of a phrase – “I believe him/her” – when someone makes an allegation of sexual crimes. However, as the O’Malley report points out, the presumption of innocence is a cornerstone of the legal system, expressly protected by both article 38.1 of the Irish Constitution and article six of the European Convention on Human Rights.

O’Malley said that “every accused person has a constitutional right to a fair trial, and trials must be so conducted as to ensure that this right is fully vindicated. Victims, however, have their own rights. Most notably, they have the right to be treated with fairness, dignity and respect. They should not in any circumstances be subjected to degrading or humiliating treatment.”

Legal experts have expressed concern that the presumption of innocence is potentially eroded in a climate where complainants are automatically believed, although victims and survivors who spoke to Noteworthy have repeatedly said that they have often been disbelieved or felt disbelieved.

But besides the O’Malley report, there are other positive changes happening right now, advocates say. “One of the major reforms is that we have specialist garda units dealing with sexual crimes,” said Cliodhna Sadlier.

“We are hearing from survivors that this is making a positive difference. But general gardaí still need more specialist training, and there needs to be more proactive efforts to keep survivors informed instead of them having to ring every few months for updates. Some of the recommendations in the O’Malley report suggest this will now happen.”

Headlines about sexual crimes appear with regularity in the media and on front pages. “We are obsessed with it and yet we ignore it: we have been promised an Government commitment for an audit around sexual violence and I hope that comes soon,” Sadlier said.

“It’s time for investing and for change. This Government, through its reviews, promises of an audit, actions and words would indicate they are really up for the type of change that has been demanded by the public.”

*Names have been changed

***

Part two of this investigation which focuses on the poor mental health supports and outcomes for survivors is now online: 

Speak or Survive: Does Ireland write off survivors of sexual violence?

***

Support/helplines:

  • Dublin Rape Crisis 24-hour national helpline: 1800 778888
  • The Samaritans: 116123, jo@samaritans.ie
  • HSE counselling services
  • One in Four: oneinfour.ie 01-6624070
  • Cari (Monday-Friday, 9.30am-5.30pm): 1890-924567 helpline@cari.ie
  • For details of sexual assault treatment units, see hse.ie/satu

***

This investigation was carried out by Peter McGuire for Noteworthy and edited by Susan Daly. It was proposed and funded by you, our readers. 

Noteworthy is the investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie. You can support our work by helping to fund one of our other investigation proposals or submitting an idea for a story. Click here to find out more >>

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