Blaming the victims of sex crimes lets the perpetrators off the hook


‘DEAR VICTIM,” the letter began. “To be honest I’m not bothered or sorry about the fact I burgled your house. Basicly [sic] it was your fault anyways . . . Firstly you didn’t draw your curtains . . . Secondly your [sic] dumb you live in a high risk burglary area and your [sic] thick enough to leave your downstairs kitchen window open.”

This letter, which was written by a teenage offender in Yorkshire as part of his rehabilitation programme, did the rounds on the internet last year, after it was released by police as a warning to homeowners.

The occasional self-righteousness on news and social-media sites in recent weeks, in response to the disappearances of Jill Meagher and April Jones, reminded me a bit of the warped moralising of the teenage burglar. In some ways, his version is more honest: at least he made no bones about blaming the victims for their own misfortune.

If there is one silver lining to awful, distressing events, such as the rape and murder of a young woman, or the abduction of a child, it is that they can bring communities together. And in both cases they did, with huge demonstrations of public support. But away from the physical communities, in the more extreme virtual communities of the internet, something else was happening.

While most people online rightly expressed sympathy for the victims and their families, a surprising number did not. Even on the official Facebook pages set up for Jill Meagher and April Jones, some would-be well-wishers began by expressing sympathy to Jill’s family, or stating their hope that April would be found. Then they’d get to the point.

Why was Jill out drinking without her husband? Why was she wearing those heels? Why didn’t she let a colleague walk her home? Why did she take that obviously dangerous route?

And where were April’s parents? Why did they let her out to play unsupervised at 7.30 in the evening? Why was she outside in the cold at all, if she has medical problems?

On Websleuths (yes, the warning is in the title), someone posited that since Jill Meagher “seemed like a lady who liked a drink – she is Irish”, he could safely conclude she wasn’t sober – as though her abduction, rape and murder were unfortunate by-products of her nationality.

Meanwhile, the Australian DJ Neil Mitchell said he hoped she was “off partying somewhere – judging from her Facebook page she likes a good party”.

Even when it became tragically apparent that Jill had not been off partying, and that April wasn’t coming home, the wave of victim-blaming-masquerading-as-empathy didn’t let up.

And we wonder why more people don’t come forward to report crimes. According to the Rape Crisis Network of Ireland, there are two reasons why we indulge in victim-blaming: the first is that we perceive the world as largely just, and therefore cling to the belief that bad things can’t happen to good people. The other reason is that we do it “to maintain a sense of [our] own, or [our] loved ones, invulnerability to rape” or other crimes.

By making the victim partly responsible, however, we are playing into the hands of the perpetrators. It is precisely this fear of being blamed, shamed, or ridiculed that makes victims of rape or child abuse still so reluctant to come forward.

Unfortunately, these fears are still sometimes very well grounded. Just a few days ago, in Connecticut, the conviction of a man who had been found guilty of raping a woman with severe cerebral palsy, was overturned. The victim cannot speak and has the intellectual function of a three-year-old. But the state supreme court found that, because Richard Fourtin couldn’t ask outright, and because she hadn’t kicked or bitten him, her consent was implied.

We’re dab hands at victim-blaming in this country too. The attitude to clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church here for many years appeared to run along similar lines to that expressed last month by one Fr Benedict Groeschel, of New York.

He wrote an article for the National Catholic Register, in which he said: “Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster – 14, 16, 18 – is the seducer.”

It’s because we have been surrounded for so long by attitudes like this that the abuse allegations aired last week about Jimmy Savile – and the alleged victims’ reasons for not coming forward before now – felt so familiar. Substitute the words “the Church hierarchy” for “the BBC” and swap “Sir” for “Fr”, and you felt you’d heard it all a hundred times before.

It now seems the earliest abuse allegations against Savile emerged in 1959. The BBC – whose Panorama programme has done excellent work investigating child abuse in the Catholic Church – appears to have been turning a blind eye to the issue on its own doorstep.

And it wasn’t just in the BBC that people were overly impressed by Savile’s celebrity and reputation for good works. The day after the ITV documentary aired, Dickie Rock went on Liveline to remind us of the presenter’s charity work in Ireland and to wonder aloud “what motivated” these women to come forward now – though he was careful to stress he wasn’t accusing them of lying.

But the emphasis shouldn’t be on the good character of the alleged perpetrator, or on the behaviour of the victim.

Women shouldn’t have to worry about wearing high heels, or having a few drinks, or walking home alone. Children should be able to play on the green in front of their house. Homeowners should be able to live where they want, and leave their curtains open.

And we should all stop blaming the victims.

The great HSE cover-up: staff told  to tackle the deficit in their outfits

It’s always commendable to see staff in the HSE preoccupied with closing a deficit. So hats off to management in the HSE Mid-West, who are apparently determined to tackle the fabric deficit in the attire worn by female staff.

Reports yesterday revealed that women working at hospitals in the region – Mid-West Regional, Croom Orthopaedic, Regional Maternity, Nenagh and Ennis – have been warned they face disciplinary action if they dress provocatively or reveal too much flesh.

In a 10-page draft dress code issued to staff, a list of proscribed clothing includes miniskirts, skin- tight clothing and halter-necks. Nail polish, all forms of nail art and tattoos are also banned on the grounds that they are “provocative”. What exactly a glimpse of nail polish or a bare shoulder is likely to provoke the code, sadly, doesn’t say.

Now they’ve tackled that issue, maybe they’ll get on with dealing with the €30 million deficit in the finances of hospitals in the region.

Will Mick take a hit for radio revelation?

JUST LIKE I remember exactly where I was the night Pádraig Flynn went on the Late Late Show to bemoan the challenge of running three households on a net salary of £100,000 a year, I suspect I’ll always recall the moment I stood in my kitchen and listened to Mick Wallace describe how he had discussed with a “hitman” how to recover money that was owed to him.

Wallace was on the Marian Finucane Show on RTÉ Radio, when he recounted how he met a debt collector in a pub and asked how he might recover an unpaid debt of £20,000.

The man said that for a fee of £4,000, he would “go out to his house at eight or nine o’clock at night and knock on his door. ‘I’d put my foot in the door and I’d have a gun with me and I’d give him seven days to pay.’ ”

Wallace stressed he had no intention of ever using a “hitman”. He may love all things Italian, but he presumably draws the line at actually re-enacting scenes from The Godfather.

The most surprising thing about Wallace’s account wasn’t that he talked to the man – it was his apparently enthusiastic telling of it on radio.

It was this lack of self-awareness – especially since he has been unable to pay off debts owed by his firm to the Revenue – that reminded me so much of Flynn’s 1999 Late Late Show gaffe.

Nine months after that, Flynn retired from politics for good. Is anybody giving Wallace nine months?

Twitter: @jenoconnell.

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