THE public needs to change its attitude towards sexually violent crimes and to support rape victims to tackle a long-term decline in convictions.
Director of Public Prosecutions James Hamilton and President Mary McAleese urged people to change their ways, on the 30th anniversary of the setting up of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC).
During an emotional speech, Mrs McAleese said a culture of non-reporting or under-reporting of sexual crimes -- fuelled by fear and a lack of faith in the criminal justice system among victims -- leads to a "rapists' charter" that gives sexual offenders "free rein".
President McAleese, a senior counsel and former human rights lawyer, appealed to communities to support victims of rape and sexual assault and warned that not doing so would "utterly compromise" the common good.
"Every time a victim faces down an attacker in court, they deserve support, respect and gratitude from the public," said Mrs McAleese at a conference entitled 'Rape Law: Victims on trial?'.
"For theirs is not just a personal service or a personal crusade but a crucial public service."
She said it was hard to believe that the "long shelf-life of attitudes" persisted in the area of sexual offences.
She added that the use by suspects at trial of a victim's prior sexual history was "still a neuralgic and fraught" issue.
The President's remarks came just weeks after the sentence of Danny Foley. He was convicted of the sexual assault of a woman in Listowel, Co Kerry.
At his sentence hearing, up to 50 people -- mostly middle-aged men -- queued to sympathise with him. The incident divided the town and convulsed the country.
There was no specific reference to any individual rape case at the conference, organised by the DRCC. However, responding to moving testimony from a rape victim after she spoke from the floor, Mr Hamilton admitted there was a "huge problem" with attitudes in Irish society.
"The criminal justice system can not change the attitudes of neighbours or people in small towns," he said.
He highlighted how juries were more willing to convict when a complainant had put up a physical struggle or sustained injuries.
Mr Hamilton was responding to ongoing research conducted by the DRCC and Senator Ivana Bacik of the law school at Trinity College. It showed that 70pc of rape suspects who apply to have their alleged victim's prior sexual history entered as evidence at trial are permitted to do so.
Mr Hamilton said there needed to be a legal scheme that allowed evidence of previous sexual history where it is properly relevant. But the use of evidence where it is intended to incite prejudice against a complainant should be excluded, he added.
The DPP will record, in all future cases, the basis on which applications to cross-examine complainants about their sexual history is made.