Saturday 27 August 2016

Joyce Kavanagh: Silence and secrecy only empower abusers

Published 23/01/2013 | 17:00

FIONA Doyle may feel that she did not receive justice on Monday when her abusive father walked free from court on bail, but it is important that she knows that she has been vindicated, not only by the courts but by the whole country.

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Judge Carney imposed a 12-year sentence on her father, Patrick O'Brien, who admitted to a decade of abuse and rape, with nine years suspended. He has to serve three years, pending appeal, and was given bail pending that appeal.

We are all aware of who the guilty party is. Fiona has taken the brave step to speak up and place the shame and guilt at the feet of her father and what he chooses to do with that is his problem. He does not deserve another ounce of anyone's time. Fiona, you have suffered enough pain and injustice and you should be feeling a great sense of pride.

Fiona's actions have prevented further abuse by this man. The whole country now knows about him and she is free to reclaim her life. Abuse can only survive if we continue the silence, empowering the abusers with our secrecy. As a society we need to acknowledge our culture of silence and our resistance to confronting anything uncomfortable.

Although we may be feeling outraged about this case, it may be better to focus on what we as individuals can do. We need to educate ourselves on the impacts of sexual abuse which would help us support those who have been victims of these types of crimes.

Expecting the system to resolve our issues, ease our pain and find solutions is not realistic and ultimately it is disempowering.

As children, my sisters and I were abused by our father for many years. No one stepped in to save us and we feel many systems let us down throughout our lives, including education, religious institutions, health and justice. It took us many years to recover, to reclaim our lives and to take responsibility for our own healing.

This was in no way a quick or easy journey. However, it has been the most rewarding journey we have ever taken.

It took time to let go of the outcome, of our desire for justice, of our disappointment at being excluded by the justice system throughout the court process. On the day our father appeared in court for sentencing, based on our stories, our lives, we were informed that there were too many of us to be allowed in the court. So we are aware of the frustration involved.

Furthermore, the option of waiving anonymity was not available to us at the time and whilst this is appropriate for many, we believed keeping his name out of the paper was further protecting him.

Our anger drove us for a long time, but through talking and writing we realised it was hurting us and not him. Fiona may not yet feel vindicated, that will take time, but for us the most important thing arising from our court experience was that finally we were believed. We hope Fiona will eventually come to this understanding too.

Victims of abuse are often confused about how they feel towards their abuser. They may love them, not want to cause them hurt or pain, especially if the abuser was a family member, and possibly protect them.

Victims can also be stuck in anger and vengeance, focusing their energies on how to punish their abusers.

We believe the only way forward is to encourage victims to speak up and speak out. Tell your story and begin to build a life for yourself. Take control over what happens moving forward. Give attention to your own healing. The abuser has taken enough and does not deserve any more. Now that you have broken the silence you can begin to understand the full impact the abuse has had on how you feel about yourself and your place in the world.

And for those of you who know someone you suspect has been abused, offer a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on, and a non-judgmental place to think.

Fiona has been incredibly brave in speaking out, waiving her anonymity. In this society, that's incredibly difficult. But we should ask ourselves, why are we so surprised by her actions? We wouldn't consider her particularly courageous for reporting her bag stolen, or her bike robbed. She was the victim, she was not responsible. She should carry no blame or guilt.

We should never stop being shocked at the horrors of abuse. But in order to move forward we must begin the conversations, educate ourselves on how abuse impacts on victims' lives and those around them.

Victims need to understand that speaking up is vital if they are ever going to leave their abuse behind. They need to be given the clear message that they are not responsible and it is not their shame to hold.

Joyce, June and Paula Kavanagh are the co-authors, with Marian Quinn, of 'Click Click', the true story of their sexual abuse by their father from a young age. See for all the podcasts.

Irish Independent

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