Saturday 22 October 2016

It's time we started to put rape victims first, instead of the rapists

Niamh Ni Dhomhnaill was raped by her partner and then abused by our justice system

Mairia Cahill

Published 19/07/2015 | 02:30

ROUGH JUSTICE: The experience of abuse related by Mairia Cahill, left, on BBC ‘Spotlight’ resonated with Niamh Ni Dhomhnaill, who was raped by Magnus Meyer Hustveit
ROUGH JUSTICE: The experience of abuse related by Mairia Cahill, left, on BBC ‘Spotlight’ resonated with Niamh Ni Dhomhnaill, who was raped by Magnus Meyer Hustveit
Fiona Doyle
Magnus Meyer-Hustveit
Louise O'Keefe from Bandon Co. Cork

I've never met Niamh Ni Dhomhnaill, though over the last week, I've spoken to her daily. Last year, she sat down to watch the interview I gave to reporter Jennifer O'Leary on BBC One's Spotlight about my experiences. It resonated with her. She was "under enormous personal stress" at the time. "I was sick in bed, I hadn't slept, I was so weak I was barely even able to get tea. I was physically at my weakest when I watched it."

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There were similarities in my account of having been asleep when my abuse as a child started, and the effect that this had had, and in Niamh's account of being raped and sexually assaulted multiple times while she slept by her then-partner Magnus Meyer Hustveit. "It was how you spoke without fear about such a frightening experience that really struck a chord with me," Niamh told me. "I had wanted to go public, but that programme was a game-changer for me. I guess I just saw aspects of you in me."

I felt exactly the same when I heard the very disturbing details of her case. We both simultaneously contacted the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre to enquire about how the other was doing, and the centre put us in touch. The rest, as they say, is fate. It shouldn't be, though I am delighted at our newfound friendship.

The reason our paths have crossed is not only because of horrendous abuse, but also because we both felt let down by respective criminal justice systems, North and South.

In Niamh's case, she made a complaint in 2012. Her perpetrator did not confess until four weeks before trial, - to one count of rape, one of sexual assault and the disclosure that it had happened on multiple occasions. Had he confessed to the court at a much earlier stage, he would have spared his victim three years of added misery.

He used her body as a receptacle, and in doing so, not only objectified her, but completely traumatised her. He violated her at a time when she was at her most vulnerable. His own assertion in a written confession to Niamh that he "saw it as a victimless crime" should have caused alarm bells to ring. He will never spend a day in jail for his crimes - having been given a seven-year suspended sentence instead.

Niamh is feisty and articulate, and describes herself as "stubborn at times". She could have gone back to trying to pick up the pieces of her life, but instead, feeling rightly outraged that her rapist's sentence may deter other victims from reporting their abuse, decided, to her credit, to speak openly in the hope that this would affect change for others.

She made the point that "no abuse victim should have to waive anonymity in order to challenge failings in the criminal justice system." The fact is that it is only because of victims having done so that failings have been exposed. The sad indictment of our system is that despite this, the problem of victims feeling failed continues. "It's hard to do it", she says, "but if none of us do it, then fewer will have the courage to come forward."

Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy referred to a "very exceptional case". "In truth, this case comes here today out of his own mouth."

The case came because the victim had the courage to report. His confession didn't alter the fact that he committed the crimes in the first place. It is the exception rather than the norm that cases of rape proceed to successful prosecution. It is also unusual for the majority of those abused to report their rape. Is it too much to expect that when those abused do report rape, that custodial sentences would be handed down, with court orders for rehabilitative treatment, coupled with monitoring when a person is released? The introduction of minimum-tariff sentences for offenders, and a victim-centred process are very real things that would make a difference to confidence in the system.

Confidence is something that Niamh had completely knocked out of her as a result of her rapes. She described her fear in her victim-impact statement.

"I couldn't be in Dublin, it was too hard. Trauma for me has meant in the past few years that I never feel relaxed . . . I am always on edge . . . I have lost everything you can claim to have or be. Above all, I have lost my sense of identity and self-worth."

She talks of detrimental coping mechanisms she used to try and regain control over herself. It is a harrowing read, laced with pain. "Admitting that someone you allowed into your life raped you is incredibly difficult, and I have felt like the criminal in how some people have responded to this . . . the result [of the rapes] is that sleep and beds no longer represent a place of sanctuary and rest, but in fact a place of both physical and mental unrest and torture . . ."

I'm not ashamed to say that I am crying as I type this piece. Out of deep sadness for a young woman who has lost her sense of safety, her career, her inner calmness. For the stealing of her body, and the fracturing of her mind, through no fault of her own.

Tears in frustration at a criminal justice system that still doesn't recognise that there is an onus to pass deterrent sentences, not only to make people think twice before they violate another human being, but to also instill confidence in victims who are yet to come forward. I am crying in anger that Niamh's perpetrator is now free to go back to his country of origin, with no preventative rehabilitation work, or monitoring.

But I'm also crying with relief that still through it all, Niamh has pulled strength right up from her core and is passionately raising her case in order to help whoever is unfortunate enough to come after her. I understand that feeling of wanting to do so. She will make a difference.

I'm glad and humbled, that Niamh, and Paudie McGahon, and others who contacted me, felt that my speaking out helped them in some way. They found their own courage from within. And I know that they in turn have helped others find their voices. This country has heard their pain, and that of Fiona Doyle, Louise O'Keefe, and hundreds of other abuse victims.

It's time we seriously tackled this issue once and for all, so that when people do report their experiences, they can do so in confidence that they will be properly treated as a result. It's time we started putting victims first.

Sunday Independent

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