Brendan O'Connor: Jailing of rapist is a victory for all victims
The letter of the law deferred to the spirit of humanity when Judge Carney sent Patrick O'Brien to prison
Published 27/01/2013 | 05:00
THERE was a disturbing undercurrent to the story of Fiona Doyle's abuse. Fiona has spoken about how, at the age of eight, she was known as her father's whore. Elsewhere, Fiona has said that her own mother would actually refer to as a whore, when she was beating her. It is a strange thing to call a child, isn't it?
But in fact Fiona Doyle thinks that her mother, who seems, as far as we can see, to be still standing by her husband, knew about the abuse. Can a woman really know that her husband is raping her daughter every time she goes to bingo and not do anything about it for nine years? Can that mother actually, in some weird way, blame the young girl? Can she really, as Fiona Doyle thinks, cast this young girl as the "other woman" in the marriage, as if a young child can be a temptress who seduces her own father, a sexual rival to the mother?
This disturbing thread was evidenced too in the mention of how Fiona Doyle dressed as a child. Patrick O'Brien had initially denied that he had raped his daughter as a matter of course for almost a decade. He claimed that his daughter was making up the accusations because, in his words, "I was very hard on her because of the way she was dressing". Again the suggestion that this young girl was some kind of tramp, who dressed inappropriately. Indeed, in this lie, Patrick O'Brien very much portrays himself as an upright man trying to protect his daughter, the "whore", from inviting unwanted attention. There is an undercurrent there that suggests she was "asking for it" in the way she dressed.
Of course, this was a lie, and, in fact, Fiona Doyle went out of her way to say last week that as a teenager she dressed "like a nun". Fiona Doyle should not have to defend how she dressed as a teenager. Neither should any teenager feel the need to dress like a nun, but against an undercurrent of being portrayed a whore, the other woman, someone who invited unwanted sexual attention, you can see why she might have dressed as a nun.
In some way, this could have been the same twisting of Fiona Doyle's sense of herself and her femininity and her sexuality that caused two marriages to break down and that caused her to, as she puts it now, "mutilate" herself with plastic surgery. Fiona certainly blames all that on the abuse.
These undercurrents are all about one thing. Fiona Doyle's abuser, and any co-dependent who was embroiled in enabling him, tried to make Fiona Doyle believe that what happened to her was her fault, that she invited it. She was even, it seems, punished for what happened her by her mother.
As shocking as that might seem to you, it is not that rare a mindset. A certain kind of person can tend to imply that children who are abused are in some way at fault. Though obviously it is said using more delicate words than "whore". People use phrases like, "Shure, those children in institutions were all very troubled anyway".
There are often suggestions too that some kids who came into contact with the same priest or the same abuser didn't get abused the way others did, because they dealt with it better, fought it off more decisively, or maybe it did happen to them but they kept it in proportion. And they didn't allow it to happen again. Some people will often vaguely suggest that if those children weren't complicit in some way, why did they keep "allowing it" to happen. There is almost a suggestion that they wouldn't have kept going back for more if they didn't like it. And shure, weren't those children in institutions starved for any kind of love or affection, anyway. And they all wanted to be one of the favourites.
These are repulsive notions but we have all heard them expressed in various ways.
That mindset would explain why so many children like Fiona Doyle were not listened to when they tried to report their abusers. Fiona Doyle's vindication was all the sweeter for her because she had felt very let down by the system – by her family, by doctors, by the health authorities and by the gardai – when she was younger. She wonders now why no one stepped in when she was treated for a sexually transmitted disease when she was 13 years old. Was it because her parents implied to people that despite their best efforts, she was trouble? A whore? Is that what her father convinced the rest of Fiona Doyle's family too? Is that how he turned her siblings against her? Is that how he convinced everyone for 20 years that she was crazy?
All of this is why what happened in the Central Criminal Court on Thursday was so important for Fiona Doyle and for so many other victims of abuse, and in a sense, for all of us.
There is no doubt that Judge Carney had what he saw at the time as legitimate reasons for letting Patrick O'Brien walk free from his court last Monday. We don't need to get into the complexities of it but there was history here. This is perhaps why, in trying to second guess the reaction to his case from within legal circles and outside them, and bearing in mind experiences he had had in the past with the DPP and the Criminal Court of Appeal, Judge Carney made the decision he made. He seemed to be trying to make a legal point and he seemed to be trying to cause events to play out in a certain way and he seemed to be trying to do this while operating within the strictures of the law. Carney has seen a lot of these cases and he certainly isn't someone who is soft on abusers.
While we would come to partially understand over the next few days the complexity of Carney's decision, people in general, and victims of abuse and sex crimes in particular, had little sympathy for the niceties of legal politics on Monday. They just saw one very simple thing. They saw a woman, who had bravely waived her right to anonymity, left without justice, as the man, her own father, who had perpetrated the most disgusting, monstrous and unnatural abuse against his own daughter, thus ruining her life, walked from the courtroom.
As a symbol, it was too ambiguous, in an area that is riddled with the kind of unfortunate ambiguity we discussed above. In a country where we claim now to stand four-square behind victims of abuse, to be full of horror and contrition at what happened in the past, it was just plain wrong to see an abuser walk free while the anguish of his victim, his daughter, continued. It was a victory for all those people who mutter quietly that there is more to these stories than meets the eye. It sent the message that the system still doesn't support the abused, and that the abuser is in some way harmless and does not deserve to be punished if he is only a frail old man.
And it sent the message that even if you were finally believed by the system, you still weren't taken seriously. None of this, it should be said, was intended by the judge, who seems to have had only good intentions, but that was the simple image that emanated from the case on Monday: You can put yourself through a very painful process and struggle to prove you were telling the truth all these years, and be brave enough to go public about it, but you could still be left in pain at the end.
No wonder the likes of the Rape Crisis network were inundated with calls from victims concerned about reporting abuse or going ahead with cases against their sexual offenders – the biggest deluge of calls since States of Fear first aired, according to some. It is a hard enough thing to go through the rigours of a court case like that without thinking that it could all be for naught even if you win.
And then some kind of miracle happened on Thursday. It was presented as being a technical point of law, that the judge had made a procedural error in giving leave to appeal, but in reality you wonder if that wasn't just a fig leaf, if someone somewhere didn't just find a point of law to turn the whole thing around.
You have to wonder if what happened in reality wasn't that Judge Carney realised too late the meaning of the symbol of O'Brien walking out of court. Maybe the judge had to see it play out to see what he had done. On Thursday, the judge admitted that he made, at the very least, a procedural error, but far more important than that was the language he went on to use. He admitted that letting O'Brien walk free was "insensitive" and "inappropriate", and he expressed his regret. These are not words we are used to hearing judges use about themselves in court.
You could interpret this as Judge Carney saying that while he had got the law wrong, this wasn't about getting the law wrong, it was actually about something beyond the law. You could interpret it as the judge saying that whatever about the law, he was recognising the distress of the victim and even the wider public.
While no one is suggesting that judges should react to every bit of uproar in the papers about a sentence, you have to think that the day that reality met the arcane world of the law on Thursday was not only a great day for Fiona Doyle, but it was a great day for victims everywhere and for Ireland. Fiona Doyle and her family certainly think that it was the public response to her case that caused Thursday's outcome.
It was a day that we accepted that there is a place where the letter of the law intersects with humanity and with what kind of a society we want to be, and, in its own stuffy way, the letter of the law deferred to humanity.