Martina Devlin: A vile abuser enjoys freedom while Fiona remains jailed in private hell
Published 24/01/2013 | 05:00
A CONVICTED serial sex offender is walking the streets. He is free to make his way to a playground, to watch children on the slide and on the climbing frame – perhaps strike up a conversation with them if he chooses.
This has happened because old battles between a trial judge and a higher court influenced sentencing. So much for Lady Justice's blindfold.
Patrick O'Brien pleaded guilty to the repeated rape of his daughter over a 10-year period and was sentenced to prison. Astonishingly, he remains a free man pending an appeal. No wonder there is public unease, mirrored by disquiet in the political class, about this case.
An ongoing row between trial judge Paul Carney and the Court of Criminal Appeal, which has overturned some of his previous decisions, appears to be the reason why the judge granted bail until O'Brien's appeal.
Whatever Mr Justice Carney's reasons, it can never be acceptable for a victim – already obliged to draw on exceptional reserves of courage to press forward with their case – to end up squeezed, even temporarily, in a clash between members of the judiciary.
Public anxiety is justifiable, and is reflected in Enda Kenny's willingness to meet O'Brien's daughter to discuss how well – or otherwise – the system is working.
In sentencing, consideration was given to O'Brien's guilty plea, a mitigating factor because it spares wronged people additional distress. His 12-year sentence was also reduced to three years in view of his age (72) and infirmity.
But in delaying implementation of the sentence, how is weight being attached to Fiona Doyle's age when the abuse began – she says she was four or five – and defencelessness?
Let's review the details of this case – O'Brien's crimes were described by Mr Justice Carney as "heinous" and among the worst in his considerable experience as a criminal court judge.
Ms Doyle's father abused her on the beach, in the graveyard where her grandparents are buried and in her bedroom. It happened on the night before her First Communion, leaving her sore throughout the service. Instead of protecting her, her mother labelled her a "whore".
Dysfunctional does not begin to describe the O'Briens. When the rest of the family moved to Britain, Ms Doyle was left behind with her father so that he could continue to enjoy her innocent young body.
Time does not heal all wounds. The perversion of her childhood led to attempted suicide and prompted her to have plastic surgery – "a form of self-mutilation" as she says.
Thirty years on, she hoped for justice, sacrificing her anonymity in pursuit of it. No one can doubt 46-year-old Ms Doyle's sense of betrayal in the aftermath of her father's unusual treatment.
His release on bail obviously came as a surprise to O'Brien, too. Shots of him leaving court show he was carrying a bag in anticipation of being put behind bars: a reasonable expectation considering the serious nature of his crimes.
A three-year custodial sentence is hanging over him, but he remains at large. The net result is that justice is suspended for his victim, whose bravery and persistence are ill-served by the judicial system.
Inevitably, such sentencing anomalies will discourage other women from reporting sex crimes. Why would anyone put themselves through the ordeal when some convictions carry little by way of a deterrent?
O'Brien is elderly and unwell, but age and ill health are only alleviating elements in sentencing – they do not excuse a crime. When he had the opportunity, O'Brien acted the predator.
PUBLIC anxiety is not confined to the O'Brien case, but extends to other examples of sex crime sentencing. The DPP is appealing the sentence given to wealthy businessmen Anthony Lyons, who rugby-tackled a woman to the ground and sexually assaulted her. His defence? An "irresistible urge" influenced by a mixture of cholesterol medication, cough syrup and alcohol. He paid €75,000 to the victim and served only four-and-a-half months of a six-year sentence, being freed before Christmas.
It's not a great time to be a woman today if you're unfortunate enough to be on the receiving end of a sex attacker. The message is that rape and sexual assault rank at the lower end of the crime scale.
According to Christine Loudes, one of Amnesty International's campaign directors, this is not the case in Ireland alone. She told the Irish Independent: "We have done international studies and found exactly the same result. In front of a court, the victim can be victimised: the allusion is that it's their fault. This happens not just with sex crimes but violence against women."
Not an incentive to approach the law for redress, then. Or as Ms Doyle puts it: "How can I turn around now and advise another rape victim to go to the gardai?"
One solution is for the Government to sign the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women, and use its presidency to nudge the EU towards a strategy tackling this issue.
It might spare other women from becoming victims of "unspeakable horror", to quote the Taoiseach on the O'Brien case. Sympathy from the Oireachtas is welcome, but only action is truly helpful.