When the news of their 17-year-old daughter’s death was broken to Arlette and Hans-Pieter Riedo on October 9th, 2007, it was every parent’s worst nightmare brought into their lives. Their only child, Manuela, who was away from home for the first time on her own, had been raped and murdered only three days after arriving in Galway city to learn English.
What keeps the Riedos going nearly nine years after the loss of their “angel” is the impact that the foundation set up in her memory is having in raising awareness of and preventing sexual crime in Ireland.
The work of the Manuela Riedo Foundation, explains founder and volunteer Shane Lennon, ensures that the young Swiss woman is remembered not only for that terrible night in October 2007, but also for proactive and vital work in the prevention of sexual crime in Ireland.
This work includes funding counselling at Galway Rape Crisis Centre to reduce the waiting list; funding a specialised training programme for voluntary counsellors at Mayo Rape Crisis Centre; providing funding to the North East Rape Crisis Helpline, and funding a Child at Risk in Ireland (Cari) support worker to accompany every child aged 14 and under while attending the Child and Adolescent Sexual Assault Treatment Service in Galway and the adult Satu at the Rotunda Hospital, Dublin.
Comfort and solace
Through the foundation, the people of Galway and Ireland
have been able to pay their respects to the Riedo family, and express their sorrow at the loss of Manuela, which the coroner at her inquest described as “one of the worst tragedies to ever happen in Galway”.
In turn, Arlette and Hans-Pieter take comfort and solace from their annual trips to the city that they have taken to their heart, and the work being done in their daughter’s memory.
The small charity is run from Shane Lennon’s home in Galway city. It is 100 per cent voluntary and Lennon is keen to stress that 100 per cent of the money raised goes directly to the work of the charity, there is nobody on a salary and its audited accounts are on the Companies Registration Office website available for all to read.
“What happened to Manuela touched everybody in Galway because it was so horrific,” he says.
“I remember hearing on the radio while I was driving that a body had been found, but I never for a second thought it would have the impact on my life and so many other lives that it did. I was really struck by her father’s victim impact statement.
“He spoke of how he would never lead his daughter as a bride to the altar, and his wife would never knit baby clothes for a grandchild, and they wouldn’t have anybody to look after them when they were old.”
Coming up to the second anniversary of Manuela’s death, Lennon made contact with the Riedos to explain that he was interested in organising an event to mark the occasion, with all proceeds raised going to the foundation that they had set up themselves in Switzerland.
Not only did the Riedos agree to the event going ahead, they said they would like to attend. There were 1,200 people at that first concert in the Salthill Hotel where all of the artists played free and €54,000 was raised.
“At the end of the night, some of the artists went over to say hello to the Riedos. When people leaving saw what was going on, they turned around and, one by one, almost 1,200 people shook hands with the Riedos. It was like Galway and Ireland finally got a chance to pay their respects to the family,” says Lennon.
One day shortly after the event, Lennon was walking with his dog wondering whether they had helped the Riedos or had just reopened old wounds.
“I was doing a lot of soul searching that day on the Prom when a woman approached me and told me that seeing the Riedos so forgiving and so full of strength and dignity on the night of the concert had inspired her. She had been raped and never dealt with it, but after meeting the Riedos in Galway, she decided that if they could deal with what they had to deal with, she could too.
“She said she had been dead inside for years, but was now starting to get her life back on track because of Manuela. I have never met that woman since, but she made me see that the foundation could be more powerful than we could ever have imagined.”
The Manuela Riedo Foundation Ireland (MRFI) has raised just under €250,000 since 2009, funding vital services run by established charities and professional agencies in Ireland who provide practical and therapeutic support for victims of rape, sexual violence and their families. They are also involved in education, awareness and prevention of sexual assault and rape.
With rape crisis services being cut around the country, Lennon explains that the MRFI is funding counselling services and training in various areas of the country in an effort to reduce waiting lists.
“There are about 20 people on the long-term waiting list for counselling at Galway Rape Crisis Centre. These are people who have been assessed, and it has been established that they need long-term counselling, but they are told there is a six-month waiting list. That’s where we lose a lot of people, where the doubts kick in, they start blaming themselves . . . sometimes people turn to self-harm, substance abuse and, sadly, suicide,” he says.
The foundation aims to build a nationwide, evidence-based education programme targeting 15-16-year-old transition year students in the area of sexual violence prevention.
Lennon believes the initiative has the potential to be a powerful prevention tool to reduce sexual violence by empowering young participants with the necessary skills, knowledge and behaviours.
Once the pilot project has been completed and assessed, Lennon says they will look at whether they should be targeting students at an even younger age.
“If we can change thinking and behaviour, this might have an impact on reducing the number of serious assaults and rapes we are dealing with. Our judicial system completely fails victims and survivors of sexual crime.
“Until we can get the message out that it is never okay to rape no matter what somebody is wearing or how much they had to drink, sexual violence will keep happening.”
In June of this year, Lennon and four other members of the foundation team travelled to Manuela’s home in Bern for the first time. Lennon was brought to see Manuela’s room which remains like a shrine to the teenager. He also went to her grave overlooking a lake in the verdant Swiss countryside, which he describes as “the most beautiful, peaceful resting place I have ever seen”.
"When we were leaving Fribourg at the end of our trip to get the train to the airport, the Riedos insisted on bringing us to the train station. As Arlette was giving me one of her huge hugs, she told me 'This is where we said goodbye to Manuela for the last time and this is our first time back here since, we did not have the strength before.' It was so emotional."
The Riedos, who are patrons of MRFI, return to Galway every year, paying for their own flights, and they donate money they have to the charity.
All major decisions are run by them before being made, and they have told Lennon that knowing what is happening in Ireland in their daughter’s memory is what keeps them going.
Since he started working in this area, Lennon has been contacted by many people who have shared their traumatic experiences with him, many of which have left him shaken
and unable to sleep at night, he says.
“I know immediately when I meet a victim; you can see the years and years of torment and pain in their eyes. Many have turned to substance abuse or self-harm.
“In many cases, they have been abused by a family member or somebody close to them, so they are full of mistrust. They are often ostracised by family members as it is easier to support the perpetrator than to believe they are capable of this act.
“I often talk to people who were raped 10 or more years ago and it is festering away inside them. The impact it has on their lives and their family’s lives is horrific.
“When you meet a ‘survivor’, you can see they have come out the other side. So many people do not make this jump [to ‘survivor’, in his words] which is why we are funding projects all over the country.”
For more information on the Manuela Riedo Foundation Ireland, visit manuelariedo.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org