Tuesday 25 June 2019

Colette Browne: 'Reform is needed to give victims of sexual crime the confidence and faith in the system to come forward'

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Colette Browne

Colette Browne

In order to fully understand the utter devastation caused by sexual violence, the harrowing victim impact statement of Leona O'Callaghan is essential reading. In it, Ms O'Callaghan, who was first raped in a graveyard when she was aged just 13, describes the myriad ways in which her rape and sexual abuse destroyed her confidence, her self-worth, her family relationships and very nearly resulted in her death.

Describing a number of suicide attempts she had made in the wake of her abuse, Ms O'Callaghan said one of these included an attempt to take her life in the graveyard where she was first raped.

"I wanted all the pain to end where the pain began… you are the reason my kids' memory of Christmas Day 2015 was opening their presents in a psychiatric unit with a bandaged-up mum who had lost the will to live," she said.

Ultimately, Ms O'Callaghan was able to stand up to her attacker, face him in court and see him jailed for 17 years on Monday. In an act of incredible courage, she also waived her right to anonymity so that her rapist - Patrick O'Dea - could be named.

But, it took almost unimaginable personal strength for Ms O'Callaghan to do all of this - and the trial process, which took four long years, took a significant toll on her mental health.

"The current process is not OK, it's not working, I barely made it through. It tore me to pieces," said Ms O'Callaghan, speaking to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan on RTÉ on Monday.

Not every victim of sexual violence can be as strong as Ms O'Callaghan. Nor should they have to be.

As it stands, according to the Rape Crisis Network, 65pc of those who suffer sexual violence do not report it to gardaí because of a multitude of fears. Fear of not being believed, of damaging family relationships, of their attacker and of the legal system.

Of all these fears, the State is best in a position to ameliorate the last one and ensure the criminal justice system does not unnecessarily traumatise victims, because justice cannot be served unless victims of sexual crime have enough confidence and faith in the system to come forward.

While there have been some positive developments in recent years, including the passage of the Criminal Law Sexual Offences Act last year, in which a statutory definition of consent was finally introduced, promises for reform have not always been matched with resources.

For instance, last year there was broad welcome for new specially trained Garda units to handle cases involving vulnerable witnesses, such as child abuse and sexual crimes. Initially, four such units were established - in Cabra, Clondalkin, Cork and Co Louth - with the intention they would be rolled out across the country to every division.

However, earlier this month it was reported that cuts to Garda budgets meant some officers were being informed they could not undergo specialist training - raising fears there will be delays in the opening of further units.

Given that, to date, just four of these units have been established, with six more supposed to open by the end of the year, it defies belief that ringfenced funding to provide essential training for gardaí has not been provided.

Gardaí have the difficult task of meeting victims when they first report these crimes and they require support, and training, to ensure they handle these cases with sensitivity, empathy and professionalism.

A study from Denmark earlier this year also suggests that, without this training, investigations into rape can be closed prematurely as police are simply not equipped to conduct them.

While a review of the investigation and prosecution of sexual offences is currently under way in Ireland, a preliminary report published in Northern Ireland yesterday can also provide some immediate lessons.

In his comprehensive report, retired judge John Gillen addressed every aspect of the criminal justice process - and found that many areas were failing victims.

Some of his recommendations, including that trials of sexual crimes be held in private and the accused remain anonymous until they are charged, are already the law in this country.

In fact, defendants in Ireland are only named once convicted if, as in the case of Ms O'Callaghan, a complainant waives their right to anonymity.

But the section of the report that deals with combating pervasive rape myths is timely given the public debate that has ensued following the reference to a 17-year-old complainant's underwear in a rape case in Cork last week.

Ultimately, Mr Gillen finds that rape myths are a recurring feature of criminal trials because they are so deeply embedded in the society from which jury members emerge.

In an effort to combat this, Mr Gillen recommends jury members be shown a video, at the outset of trials of sexual offences, in which these rape myths are dispelled. He also advocates that judges robustly intervene to prevent rape myths being invoked during criminal trials and states that judges should be given discretion to issue written directions to juries about these myths, and legal definitions of the crimes being prosecuted, at the outset of trials.

He proposes these directions be given at the start, rather than the end, of a trial to ensure juries understand their role, and the crime they have to adjudicate on, in advance of evidence being called.

Emphasising the importance of education when it comes to permanently eliminating rape myths, the report suggests an awareness campaign in schools, television, radio and the internet be funded by government.

The introduction of sexual history evidence in rape trials was also cited as an issue of concern, with one study in Ireland of rape trials between 2003 and 2009 finding this kind of evidence was introduced in two-thirds of cases.

Given lawyers have to make an application to a judge to admit this kind of evidence, it is concerning that it could be a feature in such a large number of cases - and may mean the statutory restrictions currently in place are not working.

Hopefully the review currently under way will contain a more up-to-date analysis of cases to determine if this is an issue.

Reforming the criminal justice system to make reporting and prosecuting sexual crimes less traumatic for victims does not mean stacking the decks against defendants, who are entitled to the presumption of innocence and a fair trial.

It simply means making it easier for victims to come forward and ensuring complainants can navigate the court process without feeling like they are the ones on trial.

VIDEO: TD holds up thong in the Dáil in protest at 'rape myths' 

Irish Independent

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