Saturday 7 December 2019

Maeve Sheehan: Horrific rape of young girl lies at the heart of X Case

Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

SOMEWHERE out there is a woman in her mid-30s who must find it hard these days to avoid casting her mind back to her 14-year-old self. As a child, she was known as Miss X, raped by her parents' friend, pregnant, suicidal and trapped in a month-long nightmare as the State attempted to stop her from travelling abroad for an abortion.

Her trauma was compounded by notoriety; the divisiveness of the abortion debate; a split in her community; her family forced to move home, the media in pursuit of her story.

In the end, she miscarried. The Supreme Court ruling of March 1992, that allowed her to have an abortion because her pregnancy put her own life at risk through suicide, remained in place for future girls and women whose lives were put at risk by an unwanted pregnancy. Successive governments failed to pass that ruling into law.

The death of Savita Halappanavar of blood poisoning following a miscarriage in a Galway hospital last October has forced the issue. Over three days last week, professionals and bishops trooped before an Oireachtas committee, outlining their views on abortion as the Government prepares to legislate 20 years after the Supreme Court ruled on her case.

There were stark facts and figures, hypothetical scenarios, theology and legal argument. It is easy to forget the horrific rape of a child that sparked it all.

The girl had been abused over 18 months by an older man, who was in his 40s. He was a married man and a father of three children, the youngest just a baby. Their families were close. On one occasion, he raped Miss X in the sitting room of his home, while her parents were away in Lourdes and his family slept upstairs. Another time, it happened in a car park and that was when she became pregnant.

The girl and her parents had the pregnancy confirmed by a GP on January 27, 1992, They reported the rape to gardai and the girl expressed her wish for an an abortion. Her parents were anxious to know whether the foetus could be tested afterwards to provide proof of paternity in the rape case. A garda inspector asked the Director of Public Prosecutions whether such evidence would be admissible in court.

The DPP told the Attorney General Harry Whelehan. Once told of the planned abortion, Harry Whelehan later explained, he had a duty to act to uphold the 1983 constitutional amendment and put the right to life of the unborn child on an equal footing with that of the mother's. All of this happened in a matter of days.

The girl and her parents were already in England for the planned abortion when they were told that Mr Justice Declan Costello had granted the AG's application for an interim injunction on February 6, 1992.

The family returned home to Ireland. The High Court heard the full application over two days on February 10 and 11, in camera, away from public scrutiny. The Irish Times got wind of it and broke the story. By the time Mr Justice Declan Costello ruled that the girl could not travel for an abortion, the plight of Miss X was international news. The girl and her family appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled in March 1992 that abortion was permitted where the mother's life was at risk. She was by then more than three months' pregnant.

The girl and her family travelled to a hospital in Manchester days after the injunction was lifted. While there, she miscarried, rendering an abortion unnecessary.

Months later, her abuser, the family friend, was charged with nine counts of sexual assault and unlawful carnal knowledge. He wasn't named in order to protect his victim's identity. He pleaded not guilty and tried to throw the blame on to a local youth who lived in the same neighbourhood. But gardai had DNA evidence to show that he had impregnated the girl. He later changed his plea, admitting to two charges of unlawful carnal knowledge and sexual assault.

He begged for leniency, citing his humble beginnings in inner city Dublin, and how he had worked hard to get on in life. He had lost his wife and three children, and his business.

But the judge presiding over the case pointed to the devastation visited on the girl and her family by his crime, how he had deliberately violated their trust, and had tried to shift the blame to an innocent youth. He sentenced the man to 14 years in jail.

He later appealed. The Court of Criminal Appeal took into account, amongst other things, his remorse. It heard a "portrait of a hardworking, good family man". He had lost his business but, the court was told, there was hope of a family reconciliation: they visited him each month in prison. The court took a view that he was not likely to re-offend and cut his sentence to four years.

After his release in 1997, he applied for – and got – a taxi licence. In August 1999, a 15-year-old girl hailed his taxi in Donnycarney to take her to a cinema in town. He brought her to a dark laneway nearby, where he told her "there were no cameras" and he sexually assaulted her. He eventually agreed to drive her back to her friends.

The girl memorised his taxi badge number and reported him. He was sentenced to three years in jail for sexual assault and false imprisonment. The judge described him as a serious menace to society and banned him from driving a taxi for 10 years.

This man is now 62 and has finished his jail sentence. His identity is known. He was named during his second trial for sexual assault and he is listed on the sex offenders' register. So, even though his ban on driving a taxi expired last year, he would no longer qualify.

Miss X's identity continues to be protected by the courts. After her abuser's conviction, she sought court orders restraining certain newspapers from reporting on depositions in court, from publishing stories that purported to be coming from her, and in the case of one newspaper, from watching and besetting her.

During her abuser's successful appeal against his 14-year sentence, the court heard from a psychiatric report, which said that with help and treatment, Miss X could, regain "a normal healthy joie de vivre". Hopefully that much, at least, has proved true.

Sunday Independent

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