‘The systems need to be gutted’: Natasha O’Brien leads rally for justice at Dáil

Punishment must fit crime, protesters say outside Leinster House before TDs in Dáil chamber pay tribute to assault victim

Assault victim Natasha O’Brien said the trauma of her physical attack was preferable to the “soul-destroying” court experience . Video: Enda O'Dowd

Limerick assault victim Natasha O’Brien said the trauma of her physical attack two years ago was preferable to the “soul-destroying” experience she encountered in the criminal justice system, but has welcomed early signs of change.

Speaking before a Tuesday evening rally in support of an overhaul of court and legal processes for victims of gender-based violence, Ms O’Brien said her case – the latest to propel the issue into the national spotlight – appeared to be having an effect.

“The system – so many systems – need to be gutted to create the society that we all so desire and deserve. But we are making a genuine start and I do feel like we are starting to turn a new page,” she said.

Serving soldier Cathal Crotty (22) beat Ms O’Brien (24) unconscious in Limerick in 2022 and later boasted about the attack on social media. He pleaded guilty to assault but the three-year suspended sentence he was given has sparked widespread controversy.


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“What happened to me at the hands of one man ... is horrible, is traumatic,” Ms O’Brien said.

“However, when you’re absolutely disregarded and just completely destroyed by a system that’s put in place to protect you, that is another level of trauma. And if I was asked which experience would you go back to, I would choose two years ago time and time again.”

Protesters in support of Natasha O’Brien speaking at a protest outside Leinster House to show solidarity with all survivors of gendered violence organised by the Rosa socialist feminist movement. Photograph:Alan Betson

Ms O’Brien, who had received a standing ovation inside the Dáil chamber earlier on Tuesday, was given a rousing welcome by hundreds of protesters gathered outside its gates.

She cited the “insensitivity” of Judge Tom O’Donnell, who presided in the Limerick case, and positive comments on Crotty’s character delivered by his superior officer as key grievances.

“The punishment has to fit the crime, otherwise everything breaks down,” said Siobhán McGovern, a demonstrator from Dublin, who said that while cases can be complex, Crotty’s had been a “new low”.

“And obviously it’s resonating with the ordinary person on the street and I suppose it creates a fear among people that people aren’t safe.”

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Kathyan Kelly, another attendee who works indirectly with victims of gender-based violence, similarly commented on the “amount of women who will not report any violence or abuse because [the criminal justice system] is just another form of abuse”.

Although Ms O’Brien’s case drew universal political support in the Dáil chamber, it is not the first such case to a provoke a public backlash. Further protests are planned this week.

Natasha O’Brien and Ruth Coppinger at the protest outside the Dáil on Tuesday. Photograph:Alan Betson

People Before Profit councillor and protest organiser Ruth Coppinger highlighted the experience of a woman pursuing her attacker through the legal system only “to hear at the end of it: ‘Well, you’re lucky he pleaded guilty.’

“That seems to be the standard for women who experience brutal violence in this country,” she said.

Ivanna Youtchak, the National Women’s Council’s violence against women programme co-ordinator, pointed to a report from her organisation that showed “the courts are harmful, even tortuous, for women survivors. The legal process causes ongoing distress and is detrimental to the mental health of victims.

“Along with addressing the violence done to women on the streets and in our homes, we must also fix how survivors are treated within the justice system. We have been here before.”

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard

Mark Hilliard is a reporter with The Irish Times