'I'm afraid this is not a landmark case'

Sat, Jan 26, 2013, 00:00

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“On a positive note, this result about his bail being rescinded is fantastic for Fiona, and it’s also fantastic that a judge has apologised,” says Joyce.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.”

The sisters urge other women who have been abused to go to court. “Not everyone needs to give up their anonymity,” Paula says.

“Without a doubt, going to court was the pinnacle of our lives at the time,” June says. “It was acknowledgment that there had been a crime against us. It was the first time we ever experienced a power higher than our father’s.”

“In a family where there’s abuse, a tremendous amount of grooming goes into play,” Joyce says. “The only adult in the house is the abuser. He’s the controller. Everyone else gets brainwashed and controlled, and you only realise that when you finally come out the other end.”

“The problem most people have when stories like Fiona’s come out is that everyone wants to know about the mother – why she didn’t intervene – and it takes the focus off the father and the abuser,” says Paula. “But, in most cases, the mothers are as much the victims.”

“We need to make it okay to be able to discuss sexual abuse,” June says. “To normalise those conversations in society, even though it is an uncomfortable topic.”

They all say that if the original outcome of this week’s case had happened and been upheld before they considered reporting their father’s abuse, it would not have put them off going to court.

“We wanted our day in court, and we wanted him in court. But I think some women would have been put off,” Paula says.

“In some ways, the damage is done, even though bail has been rescinded,” says June. “I spoke to someone early in the week about the initial court finding. She has been abused and was considering reporting it. She told me that she wouldn’t bother now.”

When Trish Kelly was living near a small town in Co Mayo some years ago, she was sexually assaulted by a male relative. She felt she had no alternative but to go to court. “It was suicide or report him,” she says. “His actions penetrated my mind, my heart, my body, my soul, every fibre of my being, and I could not forget it.”

Trish kept her anonymity during the case, but she discovered that her identity was known anyway. “Word got out. There is no such thing as anonymity in small-town Ireland. I thought going to court would prove it happened to the community, and that I was right, but instead I got abuse.

“The hardest thing about court is that I felt I was the one on trial: before, during and after court. The waiting for the case to be heard was almost as bad as what had happened.”

The perpetrator, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced to five years, with the last two suspended. He served less than a year. “I had no knowledge that he was coming out,” Trish says.

The personal impact of her case, and the way she perceived it was being discussed in the community, made Trish move abroad.

“I had to leave, because essentially I was only going home there to sleep. People pretended they didn’t know me. I felt like the dirt on my shoes was worth more than me; that’s the way I felt. I was treated like the perpretator and he like the victim. I knew there was no future for me there.

“I got justice in court but not in society. I thought the outcome of the case would make other people believe it was true, but I was ostracised. And I was the one who had done nothing wrong. I was the victim.

“Sexual crime against adult females is today’s cancer. There is so much stigma out there about being a victim. The thinking is: she asked for it. Nobody can blame a child, but when it comes to the female adult, blame by others takes on a totally different perspective.”

The Kavanagh sisters have written a book about their experience, Click, Click . . . Was His Signal. Their website is healingthroughhopeandhumour.com

The mothers: 'They are usually victims too'

One the most striking images, as Patrick O’Brien emerged slowly out of the Courts of Criminal Justice on Monday, having been released on bail after his conviction for the sustained rape and assault of his daughter when she was a child, was of the 72-year-old being assisted along the road by his wife, Bridget.

Reporters ran towards them, and one asked if he had any remorse for the abuse of their daughter, Fiona. Bridget O’Brien, one of her hands resting on her husband’s walking frame, urged him, “Don’t answer. Don’t answer.” The victim’s mother seemed to protect the man who had violated her child.

Fiona Doyle, giving evidence in the trial at the Central Criminal Court, had told how her father’s attacks were as “common as having dinner” and of her belief that her mother knew it was happening. “My mother went off to bingo, leaving me at the mercy of my father, almost certainly knowing what he would do to me.” The court heard from Det Garda Darragh Phelan that Doyle’s mother would call Fiona a whore while beating her.

The sexual-abuse support organisation One in Four sees cases of mothers supporting abusers “very regularly”, according to its director, Meave Lewis. In fact, abuse victims can be “almost more damaged” by the impact of their mothers’ apparent failings than by the abuse itself, says Lewis.

But she adds that it would be “very wrong” to blame the mother. One in Four runs a treatment programme for sex offenders, and wives and partners take part. “Initially they are often very supportive of the abuser, placing the blame on the child. Often the mother will have met the man when she was very young. Then, because of her own experiences – she may have been abused herself – when she meets this man who showers her with attention she feels special for the first time, and a deep dependency develops.

“She may see herself as in competition with her children for his affections. It can be as if psychologically she hasn’t grown into an adult role and she can’t see her role as a parent.”

June, Paula and Joyce Kavanagh, the abused sisters whom Rosita Boland interviews on this page, describe in their book, ‘Click, Click . . . Was His Signal’, his control over everyone in the home, including their mother, Joyce. She said in 1991 that she had no idea the abuse was going on. The sisters believe that she did but that she didn’t want to confront it.

In another case, Lorraine Mulvey, a 42-year-old from Cork whose father, Ray, was imprisoned last year for raping her over a period of 12 years, described how he drove a wedge between her and her mother. “If my mother said no to something, my dad would say yes. [He] coached me to detach from my mother, to grow apart from her, and to eventually hate her.”

According to Lewis, in case after case of paternal abuse, people ask where the mother was or, worse, how she could have protected him. “Abuse couldn’t happen in the home without some degree of collusion. It would be a tragedy to blame these women, though, who are usually victims themselves on some level.” - KITTY HOLLAND

The 24-hour national rape-crisis helpline number is 1800-778888

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