Tuesday 10 December 2019

Liz O’Donnell: Fiona Doyle did all victims a service by fighting for justice

Liz O’Donnel

IT takes a big man to say sorry. Indeed, it is so rare for anyone in Irish public life to admit to error that when it happens the nation is gobsmacked.

But by admitting his mistake with abject regret and reversing his earlier decision to grant bail to a convicted child rapist, Mr Justice Paul Carney has demonstrated that there is hope for rape victims after all. Justice has been done.

Fiona Doyle had risked everything in her quest for justice. She had waived her anonymity. She had overcome many obstacles in pursuing her father for years of defilement.

Her utter grief and tears at seeing him walk free from the court deluged into our living rooms from the television. People were baffled and understandably outraged.

The rationale used by the judge for suspending so much of the 12-year sentence and granting bail pending an appeal to a higher court made no sense.

The case has catapulted sentencing policy for rape and child abuse back on to the political agenda, with calls for greater consistency, minimum sentences and even training for judges.

But the most compelling aspect was the length of time it has taken this unfortunate woman to achieve any measure of justice against her rapist, now a grandfather in his 70s.

Fiona Doyle spoke of how it had taken 20 years since she first reported the rape and abuse by her father. She was not believed then. A report made to the gardai 20 years ago was not acted upon and there is no record of it.

Her experience triggered memories of many cases of child sexual abuse and rape which were brought to my attention while I was a TD nearly 20 years ago and where decisions not to prosecute were made by the DPP.

At that time, I was my party's justice spokesperson in the Dail and the only way of raising this matter of public policy was to table parliamentary questions to the Taoiseach. Of course, individual cases could not be cited but I was anxious to tease out the policy or rationale behind such decisions and highlight the horrific impact of such decisions on victims.

The DPP is an independent office and does not issue reasons for non-prosecution. For victims who have complained of sexual abuse or rape, requiring formal statements to the gardai, a subsequent decision not to prosecute, with no reason given, is a denial of the opportunity for justice.

Whatever about taking their chances in court, for which all victims steel themselves, an official refusal to prosecute in such cases screams to the victim: "We don't believe you." There can be no other meaning from the point of view of the victim. This is the "loneliness, lack of support and isolation" to which Fiona Doyle referred.

On hearing those words, I thought of the many other nameless victims who were denied their day in court, their opportunity of vindication. I thought of all the children of clerical child abuse who spent years fighting to be believed and many who died without achieving justice.

All those years ago, when I looked at the numbers of cases of child abuse reported and compared this to prosecutions taken, the figures made no sense. There was no logic or correlation to them. It appeared at one stage that the outcome of hundreds of reported cases of child abuse was tiny numbers of prosecutions and even fewer convictions.

What was going on? Were the health boards and social services treating these cases in the therapeutic context of family dysfunction and not as crimes?

THEN there was the issue of mandatory reporting of child abuse, which was highly controversial and opposed by social workers and the Department of Health at the time. Later investigations revealed little or no co-operation between social services and gardai. This is the tragic narrative of dozens of cases in which complaints of physical and sexual crimes were ignored, neglected or disbelieved by social workers, health boards and gardai – sometimes with fatal consequences. This too was the story of Fiona Doyle.

Ms Doyle's courage and resilience in pursuing her father are heroic. There were many obstacles placed in her way and, as is typical in such cases, she was 22 before she could reveal the abuse – when she had a place of safety. She and her daughter spoke bravely about the impact the abuse had on her psyche and relationships. It was the same wounded testimony of those who were the subject of the Ferns, Murphy and other reports.

The Doyle family has done the State some service this week.

Irish Independent

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