Saturday 20 December 2014

Killing your spouse is no alternative to divorce

There's no excuse for taking someone else's life and depriving children of a mother, writes Carol Hunt

Published 12/10/2008 | 00:00

IT WAS during the trial of Brian Kearney (convicted of murdering his wife, Siobhan) that myself and a few male friends -- who were married, with mortgages and children -- had a rather unsettling conversation. We were discussing the increase in the number of reported cases where men killed their partners.

What most of those convicted had in common was the fact that their relationships were in trouble (if not already over). Rowing was common. And they were the parents of young children. In some cases divorce was a very real prospect, with the possibility of losing custody of these children while having to pay out large sums to maintain their ex-partner in the family home.

Last week we saw yet another man convicted in connection with the death of his partner -- Michael Dermot McArdle now awaits sentencing. But his case is different from some of the more recent high-profile ones in that he was not convicted of murder but for the aggravated manslaughter of his wife, Kelly-Ann Corcoran, in the Costa del Sol in 2000. And, while there was evidence of rowing, there was no suggestion that the couple had irretrievably reached the end of their relationship. Another difference is that the death of Kelly-Ann sprang from a heated argument, rather than a cold-blooded plan.

This was a particularly heartbreaking trial, as Kelly- Ann's son Mark was called to testify that he had witnessed the death of his mother as a four-year-old, afterwards commenting, "Daddy bold, Daddy pushed Mammy."

Since 1996, 146 women have been killed in Ireland. This is frightening enough, but what is really alarming is that the majority of these deaths were at the hands of the woman's partner, or ex-partner, within the home.

And, horrifyingly, some fit the description of "divorce substitute" killings.

Which brings me back to the conversation I had with my male friends during the Kearney trial. One commented that, while all violence against women is clearly wrong and should never be condoned, he could understand what drove these men over the edge -- what made them believe that "her" death was the only solution to their marital problems.

He went on, "Just consider if my marriage breaks down: My wife throws me out of the house. I have to fight to get to see my children at weekends. They are introduced to a new 'Daddy', yet I have to finance the whole set-up while I live in penury in a shoebox.

"That's what many men believe will happen if they separate from their wives. And we wouldn't be human if the thought, 'If she was just out of the picture, everything would be peachy,' didn't flit through our minds at least once.

"Of course, the difference is that most men would immediately shake that thought off -- 'I made my bed, etc, and have to face up to my responsibilities.' But some men obviously don't, they go for what they think is the easy way out."

"And," adds another male friend, "not only is the 'problem' [wife] out of the picture, but it also solves a lot of financial issues -- you'll get her insurance, and the mortgage paid off too. I can see why some men would be tempted, if they are at a stage when real hatred has set into the relationship."

As well as spousal homicides, there has been an increase in the number of male suicides and murder/suicides committed by men in Ireland recently. (We have had at least seven cases of murder/suicide in the past two years.)

The big difference between the perpetrators of homicide and murder/suicide (or suicide) is that the latter are, in the vast majority of cases, suffering from mental illness, usually depression. Their anger and frustration has been directed inwards, where it corrodes their mental health and they end up committing actions which they would never have carried out if they had been of well mind. (Separated men are nine times more likely to commit suicide than separated women.)

But most perpetrators of homicide or spousal murder avoid depression by turning their anger outwards on to the person whom they believe is the cause of all their problems: their partner.

Sometimes, men (and, sadly, it is nearly always men) decide to kill their wives because they see it as the easiest way to end an unsatisfying, unhappy marriage while maintaining full control of their homes and bank-accounts (Brian Kearney) or marrying their mistresses without losing custody of their children (Joe O'Reilly).

These men are not hardened criminals; on the contrary, they are suburban, middle-class, amiable business- men, with ordinary families from ordinary backgrounds.

Their friends and neighbours find it hard to believe that this nice, sane guy could choose the possibility of a prison sentence over a messy divorce and custody case. But we have to face up to the fact that this is precisely what some men are choosing to do.

Recently, I had a chat with a man who told me in detail about a custody battle he was having with his estranged wife.

"The social workers have a file on her an inch thick detailing how she abused our children. She lives in our old family house with her boyfriend, while I pay her maintenance and the mortgage," he says.

"I have custody of the children at present because she didn't want them, but I have to work double shifts just to pay for her maintenance when I should be at home with them.

"She continues to abuse the children when they visit her. And now she has applied for joint custody -- which my solicitor tells me she will probably get."

The frustration of this ordinary hard-working man is evident and completely understandable.

"Tell me, what can I do?" he asks.

"The judge said that because I married her I am responsible for her until the day I -- or she -- dies. He also believes that she is entitled to care for our children, no matter how much she abuses them."

"It's in the Constitution, you see. It places the emphasis on family support rather than family intervention, so when marriages break down the mother is still seen as being the best carer for her children, no matter what the actual circumstances really are," he says.

We discuss the fact that in many cases children usually are better off left in the care of their mother, and that most mothers who genuinely want the best for children, are only too happy to have the father spend as much time as he wishes with his children.

"But there are always exceptions -- we don't hear about them because family court is held in camera. And judges need to start assessing cases individually and not just according to the idealism of the Constitution."

It's hard to disagree with any of these comments, and it all adds to the general feeling that many fathers face considerable bias when they take their cases to the family courts.

And also that the rights of the children involved are rarely considered.

Yet, most men still choose to trust the system, no matter how unfair they consider it, and just get on with the job of caring for their children as best they can.

Worryingly, though, a small but increasing number of men are taking the nuclear option. These are men who cannot bear the thought that their ex-partners are legally entitled to half (what they see as) "their" income, half "their" property and -- most probably -- full custodial rights of "their" children, and they take steps to make sure it won't happen.

Whether it involves planning the death of their wife to look like an outside murder (Rachel O'Reilly), or a suicide (Siobhan Kearney), some men are prepared to risk a jail sentence for the chance of continuing to remain in full control of what they see as their own property and children.

What many of these men have in common is a history of physical violence against their partners.

And the most dangerous time for the woman is when she starts to empower herself, decides she's had enough, and makes an attempt to leave.

The issue is essentially one of control and fear: a man's control of his partner, his children and his assets, and his fear that he won't be treated fairly in the law courts.

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