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'Weaknesses all over the system': Call for review of 'State failures' in family rape case

The victims have questioned whether the fact that they are Travellers was a factor.

Image: Shutterstock

THERE HAVE BEEN calls for an investigation into ‘failures’ by State authorities to intervene in the case of a Tipperary man who repeatedly raped and sexually abused his younger sister and seven daughters over a 23-year period. 

James O’Reilly (75) of Killeens, Ballynonty, Thurles, Co Tipperary was jailed for 20 years yesterday for the offences.

He had pleaded not guilty to 81 counts of rape and sexual abuse. Last December, after a five-week trial, a jury convicted him of 58 counts of rape and nine counts of sexual assault.

In a statement read on behalf of the victims, they questioned how their abuse was allowed to continue for so long.

They asked where the protection from the State authorities was and whether this would have been allowed to continue for so long if it had been a settled family in Ireland.

“They were vulnerable Traveller children forced to live on the edges of Irish society. Already looked down on, discriminated against and denied their basic human rights.

“Does this denial of their rights also extend to their right to protection as children?” the daughter of one of the victims asked outside the court after sentencing was handed down. 

Where were the different parts of the State authorities, when vulnerable and defenceless children needed protection? Schools, social workers, medical professionals who had a duty of care, turned their backs and looked the other way time after time when the evidence was hitting them in the face.

“God knows what they had to suffer could have happened in any family but we all know the response of this State would have been different and there’s a good chance that much of the suffering could have been spared or avoided.

They are asking you not to ask how could this happen to a Traveller family. Do ask how this could happen in any family and also ask were they not protected because they were Travellers?

Chair of the National Traveller Women’s Forum Sandra McDonagh has echoed their calls for questions about the failure of State services in this case to be addressed.

“Violence, including sexual violence, is unacceptable and it is crucial that supports and access to justice are accessible to all communities including the Traveller community,” she said in a statement.

“Their decision to be public about their personal experience is brave and we hope that it encourages other Traveller women to seek support”.

The Tipperary Rural Travellers Project has also called for “a full investigation into the failure of a range of statutory agencies” to investigate or intervene in the situation over the 23-year period. 

“We are asking people to support our call, and the call of the family, to initiate an independent investigation into the state engagement in this case over the years,” the organisation said after the sentencing yesterday.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland today, Jack Griffin of the Tipperary Rural Travellers Project said the State “relies on a number of agencies to be the eyes and ears in terms of supporting vulnerable children, from schools to GPs, social care workers, social workers, projects like ours that will support them”.

“What we’re looking at here was a systems failures in terms of this family, these eight women, the supports really having failed them,” he said. 

The family in this case did not come to the attention of any State agencies during the 23 years of abuse.

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Sharon O’Halloran from Safe Ireland said “what we do know about coercive control is that people do know about it”.

“We can talk about red flags but in cases like this people do know, so there are failures here. There are State failures and systems failures and all of this has to be looked at and I think these women’s questions need to be answered by all of us.”

She said the fact that the women were Travellers was “a compounding factor here, there is no doubt about it.”

“There’s weaknesses all over the system that need to be addressed, but there’s particular weaknesses when it comes to understanding coercive control and domestic violence and when that’s compounded by racism it’s much more difficult.”

Jack Griffin said this question should form part of an independent review of the circumstances around this case.

“Travellers experience racism and discrimination in Ireland and with that comes an incredible sense of powerlessness. So there can be a lot of fear and anxiety in engaging with State services. When State services are engaging with families there needs to be a continued dialogue to understand the culture of the community.

“I do think there needs to be a review to look at this particular case and what can be extrapolated and learned from that in terms of how State agencies engage with what is an extremely discriminated against and marginalised community.”

- With reporting by Declan Brennan.

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