Speak no evil; how victims of sexual abuse are treated once they report

Victims of sexual abuse are encouraged to report the crimes against them – but when they do, they can often find themselves isolated from family and friends, with little support from the authorities and the legal system that are supposed to help them.


In the past 20 years, Irish society has undergone a sea-change in relation to sexual abuse. Institutions have been held responsible and people have been jailed. Talk of ‘Children First’ and mandatory reporting may lead you to believe that allegations of sexual abuse are now handled with greater sensitivity; victims are respected and believed; rapists and abusers are punished.

Yet it’s difficult to imagine our response, if such abuse happened to us. Would it be to go straight to the Garda station, to the GP, to do what we could to ensure the perpetrator is punished and ensure they didn’t get a chance to do the same again? However, in many cases, abuse victims’ response is still to keep it secret and try to forget.

The recent case of Fiona Doyle, whose father Patrick O’Brien was convicted of raping her over a period of years and was jailed, was a rare ‘victory’ for a sexual abuse victim in the Irish criminal justice system. O’Brien was sent to jail after the trial judge reversed his decision to release him on bail pending an appeal. The decision to grant bail triggered a public outcry.

The 2002 SAVI report found that 42 per cent of Irish women and 28 per cent of Irish men had experienced some form of sexual abuse or assault in their lifetime. Approximately 7 per cent of those abused had reported it to the Gardaí. Only 10 per cent of reports result in prosecution, and between 5 per cent and 10 per cent of prosecutions result in convictions.

This tells us that there are a lot of Fiona Doyles who have not seen justice done.

The reporting process can be a fraught one for victims of sexual crime. Between the time of their initial report and – in a small minority of cases – the DPP’s eventual decision on whether or not to prosecute, the victim can feel that they are peripheral to the process.

Onus on victims

Legislation on mandatory reporting of sexual abuse is designed to prevent reoffending, but those working in the area say it could act to place the onus on one victim to ‘save’ potential others. There are also questions surrounding the amount of support victims receive throughout the process.

Furthermore, because victims are treated as witnesses of the state in court cases that may result from their evidence, they may not be entitled to legal representation during the reporting process. If they do seek legal advice, that fact may be used against them in court.

The Criminal Justice (Withholding of Information on Offences against Children and Vulnerable Persons) Act 2012 came into law in August 2012. The penalties upon conviction for not reporting are outlined as a fine or imprisonment or both, with arrange of sentencing options up to life imprisonment for more serious offences. The person against whom the offence was committed, however, cannot be found guilty of this.

The act includes a defence for organisations working with victims, if the victim has expressed a desire to keep the information from the Gardaí, if the victim is a ‘vulnerable person’ or a child under the age of 14. (‘Vulnerable person’ is a fairly strict definition under the legislation and includes mental illness, intellectual or physical disability that prevents them from keeping themselves safe.)

The Children First Bill, published last year in April, has been prioritised to be passed in the next Dáil session. The provisions of this legislation are what most concern people working with abuse victims, because it introduces mandatory reporting for social services, agencies and public sector organisations dealing with abuse victims.

The bill provides that “an organisation whose employees or volunteers have access to children, or work directly with children, and where a child can attend without a parent or guardian will come under the proposed Children First legislation”. The HSE is to be heavily involved in the reporting process, and the punishment for not reporting under this can be a fine or imprisonment of up to five years, or both.

So, with mandatory reporting in all cases likely to become law before the end of this year, counselling centres that are the refuge of abuse victims are now obliged to report their knowledge of possible sex offenders to the HSE.

They say this can result in victims feeling less confident in talking about their experiences, for fear of inadvertently entering a formal legal process, which may be too much for a vulnerable person who is just beginning to come to terms with what has happened to them.

Mary Crilly of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre says that there has been a drop-off in the number of people attending the centre this year. Rather than this being evidence of a reduction in sexual crime, Crilly says it is due to coverage of recent high-profile sexual assault and rape cases.

Just 25 per cent of those who attend rape crisis centres have ever reported their experience of sex crime to a formal authority, including the Gardaí. The figures drop for those whose first point of call is a crisis centre; the percentage of those making a formal report is just 16 per cent.

Crilly says the Cork Sexual Violence Centre informs victims about their options in pursuing a formal criminal case. She adds that their emphasis is always on the victim, rather than bringing the perpetrator to the attention of the authorities.

“If someone who comes to us wants to be ‘anonymous’, then we’ll respect that anonymity. If someone comes in and says their name is Mary, I’m not going to ask if I can see their birth cert. Counselling is all about trust,” she says.

However, abuse victims attending the HSE’s adult counselling service must provide full details of their name, address, family doctor and next of kin, before counselling can proceed.

“There would be situations where someone comes in and they say: ‘I really can’t report; the guy who raped me could be quite dangerous’, and maybe their life is in danger. I’m not going to say: ‘Well, I’m sorry, I’m going to go off and report this, and you can go out and be in more danger’,” says Crilly.

Because of the upcoming changes in the law surrounding reporting of sexual crimes, Crilly says she is aware the centre’s approach could bring them into conflict with the law. “You can’t report someone if they are in danger. We are keeping note of people; the rule is mandatory reporting.

“However, there are times when you have to look at a situation, and if somebody’s life is in danger because they might be suicidal, or because their life is physically in danger from somebody else, that’s my first priority. You have to weigh things up.”

Journey to the DPP

While there is an abundance of information on abuse counselling services, the journey between the initial reporting of a crime and the Gardaí turning over a file to the DPP for prosecution is a less-explored part of the process for victims.

It would seem that there is little incentive for a victim to come forward, apart from the possibility that in so doing, they could prevent their attacker reoffending. Those reporting abuse risk years of uncertainty and the stress associated with an impending confrontation, the fear of ultimately not being believed, and the personal risks associated with reporting a crime.

For many, the experience of reporting can be a traumatic one, and that’s before a case ever goes to court.

One in every three rape cases that reach the DPP’s office is prosecuted, according to a 2009 Rape and Justice in Ireland report. “Lack of evidence” is usually cited as a reason for non-prosecution of a reported sexual crime. The consequences of reporting can be far-reaching, and can include family problems.


Reporting: Anna’s experience

As a child, Anna* was abused by her father’s friend, and had ‘reluctantly’ been referred to counselling. At the end of her once-off session, she was told the man was being reported to social services.

“I thought that the process would be confidential, but in telling my story I inadvertently triggered an investigation into his past behaviour,” she says.

Anna was offered additional counselling and assured of sensitivity. However, she says, she was treated anything but sensitively. She was called, out of the blue, at work, and asked to give a statement over the phone. She then had to stop mid-statement, in order to collect her child from playschool.

“The remainder of the statement was only gathered much later, leaving me with an almost physical sense of an open wound, and a dread of my phone ringing, until I could be finished with it.”

The sense of urgency that marked the beginning of the investigation soon gave way to an odd role-reversal, where Anna felt she was chasing the social workers, making numerous unacknowledged calls so that she could conclude her statement, or to get information about when her abuser would be notified about the investigation.

“I was aware that this could happen at any time, and I wouldn’t know it; it was a prospect I found terrifying.”

More than a year after the initial reporting of the abuse, Anna was finally asked to go to Dublin to make a statement.

She has also made a statement to the Gardaí, which took two days, and she is still dreading her phone ringing unexpectedly.

“I gave the statement in the station at my nearest small, rural town. The cop was a family man. His shock at this story that was so familiar and unremarkable to me, took me by surprise.

“I had spent most of my life downplaying the experience, diminishing it, rationalising it, and blaming myself. The garda appeared visibly moved at times: ‘If that were my daughter . . .’

He apologised for interrupting the statement, but he wanted to remind me, gently, that I was describing a crime, that no child should ever have to go through that.

“The untrained sincerity of his responses was a surprise and significant for me. I would even say, healing. This was the most beneficial – arguably the only beneficial aspect – of the process for me: to have my story met with a certainty that the experiences I was describing were unquestionably wrong, when I had struggled, and struggle still, not to blame myself. But these moments were chance, not an expression of good practice or some wider awareness of victims’ needs.

“Minutes later, the same garda would interrupt me mid-sentence to answer personal phone calls on his mobile, at the table. The phone remained on the table for the two days, and was answered every time it rang. Stop, start. Urgent, mundane.

“Now, if I think back to the abuse, I recall my statement alongside conversations the garda had with his wife about dinner, or with a neighbour about borrowing a trailer. Maybe it is progress of sorts.”

Anna warns other victims that the process of reporting abuse takes years, not weeks or months; that nothing may come of it; and that they will need support. In cases where family members or family friends are accused, a common outcome is a family split in which victims receive no support from siblings or even parents.

Anna’s advice to other victims is cautionary. “Your family and friends may be more supportive than you dared to imagine. Or, they may find it all overwhelming, or even be hostile to you. Be prepared for the stuffing to fall out of you, to feel drained of everything, to find all your coping mechanisms faltering at once. It’s a difficult process, so be kind to yourself, and take support wherever you can find it.” Asked if, in the end, reporting abuse is worth it, she says the question doesn’t make sense.

“I’ve heard people talk about ‘revenge’, but honestly, the thought never crossed my mind. I can’t see it being a motivation for anyone else; the cost to the person doing the reporting is too high. In my case, I just felt that it had to be done.

“If I heard that another young person had been affected while I did nothing, I would find it very hard to forgive myself. However, each person should have the freedom to make their own decision. The pressure on victims to report is enormous, yet the support is almost non-existent.

“Beyond the constraints of the legal process, Ireland remains in chronic denial about the nature and prevalence of sexual abuse in our country.

“In a place where a community lines up to shake the hand of a rapist and shuns the victim, and where for supports for victims and for the necessary Garda resources is cut, no one should be required to expose themselves to further trauma or additional damage.”

Not her real name


Reporting: Joan’s experience

From the age of 12, over approximately two years, Joan* was abused by someone in a position of authority. Now, as an adult, she works with young people. Only the worry of her abuser reoffending encouraged her to report. Because her case is still under investigation, details cannot be revealed as this may affect the outcome of any court action.

Reporting is not something Joan has done for herself, she says. She is not expecting affirmation or vindication from a court case, but knows the reality of how difficult it will be for her.

“The only reason that I have done any of this reporting is from a form of guilt, really, that through my inaction, someone else, who maybe does not have my advantages, may well either be suffering the effects of having been abused by my abuser, or that they may in fact now be at risk. I am fortunate, in some ways, that I was aware before I began the process that it was going to be like this – I am afraid that many others walk headlong into it expecting affirmation or vindication and are horribly disappointed.

“I am fairly sure that I have nothing to gain from reporting my abuser – I do not need revenge, and my life is unlikely to be made better or worse according to whatever the result of this case may be. I may well regret the amount of time and emotional energy I have invested in this, but the feeling that I don’t want to be a person who has allowed an abuser to act at liberty and with impunity is what motivates me to continue.”

Joan first reported the abuse to her local HSE office more than a year ago. Nearly four months later, not having received any follow up from the HSE and having had her concerns heightened by a chance meeting with her abuser at a social event, she made the same complaint to the gardaí.

After making her first report to the HSE, it took Joan more than seven months of chasing up with phone calls and trying to make appointments before she succeeded in giving her initial formal statement to the gardaí. Until a signed statement is provided, the gardaí cannot launch an investigation.

While the individual gardaí she dealt with were courteous and supportive, continued difficulties in making and keeping appointments and a lack of follow-through have made the experience far more difficult than she feels it needed to be. She says she has felt the effects of this both in her personal and professional life.

Joan says that these delays, which may have seemed minor to those investigating, were traumatic for her.

“The thought of having to recount the specific details of my own abuse to strangers is so daunting that, on every occasion when I made an appointment to give my statement, my apprehension built up, so that for the last few days before the appointment I would be stressed, wound-up and unable to sleep. So you can imagine that each cancellation left me exasperated and annoyed.”

Joan says that it is not the difficulty or complexity of the case that is causing the delays. She says that the length of time it has taken so far seems to be due to a lack of priority, and that it seems the guard investigating the case has a full workload of normal day-to-day tasks, which means that her case is only progressed any time there is a spare few hours.

In some cases, a lack of Garda resources also seemed to be the cause of these delays. As part of the investigation, Joan had to show the gardaí to the various locations at which she alleges the abuse occurred. On more than one occasion, this appointment was also delayed because the station had no available Garda car.

The repeated delays and waiting have had a serious impact on Joan’s life, with a constant feeling of uncertainty and stress.

“For me, this whole process is hugely draining and energy-sapping. During it, even though most of the time I am not involved, I have to be prepared to be picked apart emotionally every time I am required to make a statement, or participate in some part of the evidence gathering.

“And I reckon I am reasonably resilient, maybe more so than most, but for me at least it has certainly contributed to difficulties with my work.

“I have not got my normal energy to pursue openings, nor the confidence in myself that I generally would have, but neither have I the financial wherewithal to just give myself a break and wait for it all to be over – which in any case is at least six months from completion in the event of no charges being brought, or maybe up to two years, in the event of him being charged.”

As in most cases of sexual abuse, Joan’s knew her abuser, and they share many acquaintances. The investigation will involve interviews with people in her locality, she knows, but at this point she is unaware of who has been interviewed and what they know about the case.

Not her real name


Reconciling with the legal system

If the estimates that one in four people in Ireland have been sexually abused are accurate, then this situation is one that could be replicated thousands of times all over Ireland.

The ANU Campaign for Truth, Rights and Justice, set up by victims of sexual violence including Fiona Doyle and the Kavanagh sisters, has begun to lobby for a change in how the legal system treats victims, and for education for judges to sensitise them to the issues surrounding sexual violence.

Barrister Paul Anthony McDermott believes people should be encouraged to come forward, despite the “slow and inefficient system”.

“It’s not a mathematical test of truth and lies,” he says, even though the victim will always be approaching a case from the point of view of knowing what happened to them.

However, that must be thoroughly investigated, and objectively proven in court.

“You have to factor in the possibility that occasionally – and this doesn’t happen very often – allegations can be made against the wrong person. If an allegation is being made 40 years later, and you were five or seven years old, and you believe you’re sure it was one teacher but it may have been another, that has to be proven.

“Obviously, the legal system is set up on a basis of presumption of innocence.” This is something which McDermott says can be difficult for victims to reconcile with.

Joan would like to see a procedure put in place for fast-tracking the investigations of sexual abuse, so that the stress and problems associated with the process do not become a secondary psychological trauma for victims.

While she agrees that everyone has the right to a fair legal process, including those who have been accused of perpetrating sexual crimes, she says a drawn-out process serves no one.

She also expressed her concern for others who may have gone the whole way through the process and not succeeded in securing convictions, due to a lack of evidence.

“If most of these cases are not successful in securing convictions, then there has to be a large group of people out there who have reported and not received a positive outcome. They are enduring the after-effects of having done something that is very much in the public interest, at a huge personal cost to themselves,” she says.

“So far, no child is safer because I have reported my abuse; my abuser is at large and knows I have reported him – he may be liable to harm others or indeed himself if he knows he’s ‘caught’ anyway, as he put it when I spoke to him.

“I am a passenger in a process that requires huge commitment from me – even though, most weeks or months, there is no progress, and at its conclusion it is quite likely that I will have spent this effort and time to no avail,” Joan says.

In the event of her alleged abuser being convicted, Joan says it is unlikely he will serve a serious sentence. “Therefore, to ensure he is not a risk to others, it will be up to me to decide whether or not to renounce my right to anonymity, at a cost of pain to my family and my parents and others who have nothing to do with it at all.

“From my point of view as a victim, it is a lose-lose situation and, as it stands, it would be really hard to recommend anyone else to take the path of reporting unless they were very sure of their own capacity to withstand the whole process. This is clearly not a tolerable system.

“In order to decrease the incidence of child abuse and sexual violence in our country, we need to address this problem urgently. People who come forward to report should be provided with an efficient and streamlined process that minimises the stresses involved wherever possible.”

Joan feels that it is possible for our system to be improved hugely, without any negative effect on the alleged perpetrator’s rights to a fair trial.

“If this doesn’t happen, despite the strides made in education and in legislation, it is likely that we will continue to fail in our duty to protect children and other abuse victims,” she says.


For more information, see anucampaign. org, or call the National Rape Crisis Helpline at 1800-778888.

This piece was published in the Sunday Business Post Magazine, 21/04/13. See more at www.businesspost.ie. Many thanks to those interviewed.

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