Changing Voices


With some recent court persecutions for sexual abuse being surprisingly lenient, Isobel Fergus looks at the changing difficulties facing victims in reporting abuses

With the recent release of the Rape Crisis Network and the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre annual statistics report, and with SAFE Ireland set to release their report later this month, figures on both domestic and sexual abuse in Irish society are being put out in the open. Hopefully, these statistics will reflect the changing attitude in Irish society towards victims of abuse. However, the numbers are still sure to show the ongoing battle to prevent both sexual and domestic abuse in Ireland.

Unfortunately, we are no strangers to stories regarding sexual abuse in this country. The release of the Ryan report in 2009 marked a dark past in the case of state institutions in Ireland. As horrific as this report was, it was hopefully eye opening in giving both the State and ordinary people an opportunity to learn from the past. A positive effect from the Ryan and Murphy reports is that it has encouraged more and more victims to speak out.

Domestic and sexual violence is becoming less taboo to talk about than it was in the past. Both female and male victims used to feel a certain stigma in coming forward, though thankfully this attitude is, admittedly slowly, becoming increasingly a thing of the past. According to Caroline Counihan, Legal Officer for Rape Crisis Ireland: “[The reports] had an indirect effect not just on people who had actually been the victims of this kind of sexual violence perhaps in institutions historically, but also people who had suffered something similar in their own families”

It is important to remember that both domestic and sexual violence affects all walks of life, across all ethnicities, social classes, cultures and genders. In the last decade, more men are beginning to speak out on the subject. According to the 2010 Rape Crisis’s Network report of the 1,545 survivors of sexual violence, 15% were male. This was up just marginally from 14.8% in 2009. The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s 2011 report revealed that 18.8% of those that called their helpline were male up from 17% in 2010.
More men are also speaking out about domestic violence issues. Groups like the Men’s Development Network in Waterford are working to provide services to men who are experiencing domestic violence. Caitriona Gleeson, Communications manager for SAFE Ireland emphasises that: “There is a certain need for more research into what are the needs for male victims and what is the effect of domestic violence on male victims, so there can be a needs led service response for them as well.”
Although, there is an increase in victims coming forward, there are still major problems when it comes to both domestic and sexual violence. Low prosecutions are a constant problem in relation to domestic violence. With regard to these low levels of prosecution, Gleeson says: “Members are coming to us and we are hearing, if any, there are very low prosecutions. In Ireland, because we don’t have a code that captures crimes committed in the context of domestic violence, we don’t have the national information to the levels of prosecutions. The number of people on probation who are there because of crimes related to domestic violence would be in the very low percentage, of between 2-5%.”
The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s 2011 report said that in 304 cases, where the reporting status was known, 91 cases were reported to the Gardaí, a reporting rate of 29.93% and of these 91 cases, only seven cases (7.7%) were tried, resulting in four convictions or guilty pleas and one acquittal.
The problem with situations like this is it deters victims from coming forward. There is a feeling of not wanting to go through the traumatic side of prosecuting someone if you are unlikely to see the results. Especially when in most domestic violence and sexual abuse cases the perpetrator is someone the victim knows. This can make coming forward all the more difficult, and simply not worth it when it seems the courts are against you.

According to the 2010 Rape Crisis Network’s Statistics and Annual Report, only 30% of survivors reported the sexual violence to the police. There are worries that this trend will continue if some of the lenient sentences that have been reported recently become the norm. As unimaginably hard as it is to come forward as a victim, this must be multiplied when you watch your perpetrator walk free in a court of law. This is what happened recently to a young female victim when her attacker was fined €15,000 and given a suspended sentence after sexually assaulting the young girl. Another man was given a three year suspended sentence after pleading guilty to abusing his two adult nieces on different occasions. Judge Martin Nolan explained that the publication of his name was punishment enough.

Counihan says: “We did get some outraged reaction from survivors who were fearful of what might happen in their own case. Certainly, I remember being asked about that myself and my advice would be if you feel the sentence is unduly lenient you can certainly write a letter to the DPP. She’s independent in the exercise of her functions and she will make her own decisions, but at the end of the day, you, the victim of the crime, have got a right to express your view on it and don’t be behind the door about doing it if you really feel it is inappropriate.”

It is clear from the prospective of all sides that there is a need for greater transparency when it comes to sentencing. Counihan urges there is a strong need for guidelines in relation to sexual violence cases. “It is now time for everybody concerned to be looking at some form of sentencing guidelines being introduced. I think they would really help and it’s just very empowering to have a publicly available set of guidelines that are totally transparent. I think also it would be helpful if judges, certainly in serious crimes, and often they do, but it would be great if they always provided outline reasons why they imposed a particular sentence in a case. It’s the old saying: knowledge is power. If people understand the reasons for a decision and they can see a rationale and if it seems broadly in line with sentencing guidelines, well then that’s much easier to come to terms with and then its much easier also to make a judgement in terms of whether it would be appropriate in writing a letter to the DPP to ask her to consider putting an appeal against the sentence as being unduly lenient.”

If we are to work towards a society free from abuse then ordinary people need to come forward if they recognise signs of abuse. There are many ways to help the victims and to get involved. Gleeson states: “Two immediate ways that I would think of would be to make contact with your local service and there is always a need for support around fundraising and raising awareness, to see what the service could do with and any way they could volunteer and then secondly, I think it’s really critical that we are all informed about what domestic violence is and what are the signs and symptoms of it.”

Fundraising is such an important factor in helping to not only raise awareness but to help see the decline of both domestic and sexual abuse in Ireland. The recession of the last years has made it difficult for state funding and other organisations to help victims across all sections of society. “There are fewer resources within family and within community, so where a woman may have been able to make escape routes or have escape through family networks, those resources may not be there and more critically at the moment. What we’ve seen quite drastically over the last three years is the huge depletion of the other agencies capacity to respond, so particularly within state agencies there has been a huge cull of personnel at the frontline, and also there is much more stricter application of allowances that are critical in supporting women,” says Gleeson.

SAFE Ireland recently couldn’t open a refuge in Kildare due to lack of funding and unfortunately problems like this have become more frequent in the past few years for chartable organisations. According to Gleeson: “The site, the refuge was built and completed in December last year, so the keys were handed in January of this year and it’s a state of the art facility. It’s been built with the insight and experience of many refuges across the country and with the experience of women and the women’s needs so it’s a purpose built unit facility and I understand that there is ongoing negotiations but to date there has been no secured funding that will allow them to open the service and run it a way that can comply with health and safety standards”

The government’s launch of COSC in 2007, an office within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform to tackle domestic and sexual violence problems was a major step in the right direction to end the abuse. The aim of COSC was to have all instances of sexual and domestic abuse recognised as unacceptable and to have increased safety for victims. It is the aim of this strategy that all incidences of domestic and sexual violence will be understood and recognised with an improved level of service provision and accountability to perpetrators by 2014. The latter aim still remains to be seen from recent evidence, services in these harsh economic times are declining and accountability to offenders is far from the norm.
The COSC aim to identify domestic violence as wholly unacceptable is happening on a frequent basis. More victims are being heard and more people are taking a stance against all types of abuse. The recent refusal of the Original Rudeboys to support Chris Brown at the O2 in December due to his assault on then girlfriend Rihanna was a great indicator of the changed attitude in Irish society, especially amongst young people. On the John Murray show on RTE1, bandmate Sean Walsh declared, “Even though it’s a huge opportunity to play in the O2 with a major hip-hop star and a substantial fee was offered, we are completely against Chris Brown’s assault on Rihanna. With our latest single ‘Blue Eyes’ being about domestic violence, it goes against everything we are about as a band and supporting Chris Brown would send out the wrong message to our fans.”

The exact same issue has come up again with the Students’ Union Entertainments Office in Trinity College last week offering tickets to a Chris Brown concert as part of a Facebook competition, and being met with resistance and criticism from students. Numerous complaints were made that TCDSU shouldn’t be condoning or supporting domestic violence, and in the end, they cancelled the competition and released a statement apologising for their actions. People actively speaking out in defence of victims of abuse can only be a move in the right direction.

The last 20 years have seen public attitudes to domestic and sexual violence change from that of secrecy and shame to voices that are no longer willing to be silenced. However, domestic violence is an extremely complex and sensitive issue and in a difficult economic climate, there is still a lot to be done to completely change the patterns of abuse.