Victims of sexual crime may confront their attacker
New study on restorative justice calls for an agency to facilitate meetings with offenders
VICTIMS of sexual crime who want to confront their perpetrators should be supported by the State in doing so, according to a new study on sexual abuse and restorative justice.
Restorative justice, which deals with victims and offenders by focusing on the harm arising from crime and resolving the underlying problems which caused it, has previously been ruled out for cases of sexual assault.
But the new study, which interviewed victims, offenders and their families - as well as judges - has called for a new agency and pilot project to be established as a "matter of urgency" to facilitate meetings between victims and offenders.
The victim-centred pilot project would be confined to cases where convictions have been secured for crimes including rape and familial abuse amid concerns that Ireland's adversarial criminal justice system is "inherently ill-equipped" to address the psychological impact of sexual crime.
The collaborative study was carried out by Dr Marie Keenan of UCD'S School of Applied Social Science, Facing Forward - a restorative justice organisation - and counselling psychologist Bernadette Fahy.
Barbara Walshe, chairperson of Facing Forward, said restorative justice has the potential to meet the needs of victims, the vast majority of whom do not see their perpetrator convicted because of under-reporting and only a small proportion of cases being prosecuted.
"This ground-breaking report highlights the need for 'an additional justice system' for sexual crime, one that is not adversarial; where the victim is central to the process and where the offender is held accountable for the harm caused," said Ms Walshe.
The Sexual Trauma and Abuse: Restorative and Transformative Possibilities study found that many victims who had never experienced restorative justice or who knew little about it had been thinking, imagining and even "fantasising" about questions they wanted answered by the offender.
Although fearful of how the actual event might be, victims had "a deep need to understand the motivation behind the crime and to confront the offender".
The study says that restorative justice is not for everyone, but victims should have a choice on whether it is part of the criminal justice system or runs alongside it.
Garda Commissioner Noirin O'Sullivan will attend a conference today where the report will be launched by Aodhan O'Riordan, Minister of State for New Communities, Equality & Culture.
The report is based on 149 interviews, including 30 victims of sexual crime, 23 sexual offenders, families of victims and offenders as well as members of the judiciary and others involved in the operation of the criminal justice system.
It says that victims recognise "very quickly" that an adversarial criminal justice system reduces them - and the harm caused to them - to being a witness for the State.
They also experienced huge difficulties with long delays following reporting; lack of information, not knowing how to navigate the system and their "heartbreak" when high evidentiary requirements resulted in only a very small proportion of cases being prosecuted.
The offenders interviewed were unanimously supportive of the creation of a restorative justice programme for cases of sexual violence and said if they were asked to participate in a restorative meeting with their victim or victims, they would do so.
The study backs previous calls for mandatory training for the judiciary and lawyers in the dynamics of sexual crime and victim trauma.