'I'm afraid this is not a landmark case'
Women who have been victims of rape or sexual abuse reflect on the decisions this week in the trial of Patrick O’Brien
On Monday this week Fiona Doyle watched, appalled, as her father, Patrick O’Brien, walked free from court, released on bail. He had started to rape her the night before her First Holy Communion, in 1973, when she was seven, and continued until 1982.
He had been found guilty, and sentenced to 12 years in jail, but Mr Justice Paul Carney said he was taking the 72-year-old’s poor health into account in suspending part of the sentence and granting bail, pending an appeal. There followed much public criticism of the decision.
Three days later Judge Carney revoked that bail, expressed his “profound regret” for the distress his original decision had caused Doyle, and sent O’Brien to prison.
For Fiona Doyle, at last, it was a moment of justice. “I feel vindicated – and that was all I wanted,” she said outside court.
Doyle’s legal ordeal, and the appalling treatment at the heart of the case, have highlighted the experiences of other sexually abused women who have been through the courts. What do the events of this week mean to them?
Joyce, June and Paula Kavanagh, who are sisters from Dublin, were all sexually abused as children by their father, Kevin. In 1990, when he was 69, they brought a case against him, and he was sentenced to seven years in jail. He served five.
“On a positive note, this result about his bail being rescinded is fantastic for Fiona, and it’s also fantastic that a judge has apologised,” says Joyce.
“The negative is that this has only happened because this case took the heart of a nation – the whole country was appalled. But lots of other abuse cases have been poorly sentenced, and you don’t hear anything about them,” says June.
“I’m afraid to say this is not a landmark case,” says Paula. “By the end of this week, it’ll be in the background again. The challenge is to keep the momentum going. I mean by momentum that the media keep covering this subject, even when they are not headline cases.
“Lawyers, judges and politicians need to be educated about the impact of abuse on victims, because they are clearly not aware of it. We would like to challenge judges to sit with us and educate themselves on the impacts of sexual abuse. We feel this would help them when they are making decisions about victims and abusers.
“When you are abused, you think you’re responsible. That’s the nature of abuse: the victim takes on the guilt and the shame of it all. When women like Fiona waive their right to anonymity, they are praised for being courageous. Why? If it was any other crime, nobody would see that as being a courageous act.”
“The depth of the impact on the victim can’t be emphasised enough,” says June. “And the age of the perpetrator when he comes before the courts shouldn’t matter: the courts should not be sending a message that if you’re old, you’ve missed the bullet on your crime. Unfortunately, I think the outcome to Fiona’s case is a one-off.”
“Our father was 69 at the time he was locked up, and at that time he was lining up other children to abuse, so it’s a mistake to think that the harm is gone out of them when they’re old, or that it decreases with age,” says Paula. “The message has to be sent out that it doesn’t matter how long it takes: if you abuse someone, you will be accountable for it.”
“If you’re going to consider ill health due to age when it comes to sentencing, you also have to consider the mental health of the victim,” Joyce says. “Just because you can’t see her scars doesn’t mean they aren’t there.”