Sex-abuse survivor: ‘I wanted a big brother without the abuse’

‘I was traumatised by being abused, not being believed by my parents and then being bullied’

Debbie Kiely has been moving on; feeling more hopeful and keeping busy with her family and her new house. Every year she feels a little stronger. She has found herself more willing to talk about her ordeal. Gradually she has come to accept the shame of what happened to her is not hers to bear.

It is seven years since her brother, Damien Kiely, was convicted for the sexual abuse he perpetrated on her. He was jailed, and he served his prison sentence in full. He has recently been released.

Damien Kiely is a convicted sex offender following his abuse of his younger sister. Debbie has waived her right to anonymity in order to tell her story to The Irish Times

She no longer sees him but word of him still comes through the grapevine. She has been told he claims he appealed his conviction, won his case and was released from prison early because his sister was proven to have lied during the trial in 2014. It’s untrue.

He served his sentence. He took an appeal but lost it, and his five-year sentence (with one year suspended) was upheld. His sister told no lies. She stood in court, told the truth and the jury believed her. The conviction stands.

Damien Kiely, who is 44, is a convicted sex offender following his abuse of his younger sister. Debbie has waived her right to anonymity in order to tell her story to The Irish Times.

The nature of the justice system means it’s difficult for Debbie to ensure the truth is known that her brother was convicted for his crimes and served his jail term in full.

Under the Irish justice system the victim of sexual crime is granted anonymity when their abuser goes on trial. It means, as the case unfolds, the media cannot name the victim and cannot publish any other details that might identify them.

It works well for those victims who would be greatly distressed if the news outlets named them and published their photograph in the context of them being raped or otherwise sexually abused.

A mechanism designed to safeguard Debbie's privacy also gave her brother anonymity. He passed through the system like a ghost

But when there’s a relationship between a perpetrator and victim, the situation is more complex. In Debbie’s case, for example, the only way to ensure her identity was not revealed was for her brother’s name not to be published. If he was named, anyone who knew the family would know she was the victim.

It meant the mechanism designed to safeguard her privacy, as a victim, also afforded anonymity to her brother as the convicted perpetrator. He passed through the system like a ghost. There are no newspaper reports from the trial  with Damien Kiely’s name in them.

This means that if there is any claim of a successful appeal and an early release from prison there are no newspaper articles – until now – to prove otherwise.

As part of her recovery process, Debbie Kiely, a 40-year-old mother of two based in Cork city, wants to tell her story. It's a complex tale, as inter familial sexual abuse cases often are; the love for family enduring longer than it should and only serving to facilitate and enable the offender.

When sexual abuse starts in early childhood, the victim’s perspective of family, sex and their relationship with their abuser can grow so muddled it can become a trap, as it did for Debbie Kiely. In her case perspective and truth struggled to emerge for more than 10 years. But they eventually prevailed.

At the centre of this case is a girl, now a woman, who spent years trapped between wanting the abuse to stop but knowing if she made a statement to the Garda a bomb would go off within her family.

When Debbie was 20 she effectively became homeless after she found herself with nowhere to go and had to move into a shared house where her brother was living. The abuse began again

For years she says she still loved her brother, clinging to the heartbreaking idea of “having him as a brother but without the abuse”.

Later in life, when she was 20, she effectively became homeless when she found herself with nowhere to go and had to move into a shared house where her brother was living. When she moved in the abuse began again. This time she responded decisively, though the story didn’t end there.

In 2014, Damien Kiely, then of Rath, Churchtown, Mallow, Co Cork, was convicted by a jury of 23 counts of sexual assault against Debbie. Those offences were committed by him from the time he was 14 until he was 20 years old. According to the time span of the 23 convictions, Debbie was abused between the ages of 10 and 16 years.

However, she says the abuse started at least two years earlier, when she was eight, and continued until she was 20.

In an account she wrote in 2014 she described the impact of the abuse, saying that while “growing up and trying to make sense of what was happening” she “lost track of what real life was supposed to be like”.

“I wash my body twice a day because I never feel clean, I feel like I smell. I wash my hair every day because I feel it smells. I wear make-up to look more feminine as I think I look like Damien without it.

The marks he has left on my body – the bites on my neck, bruises on my thighs from kneeling on them to keep my legs open, on my wrists from pinning my hands down – I remember where they were and I can still see them

“I wear my hair down as it hides my face and I look less like him. The marks he has left on my body – the bites on my neck, bruises on my thighs from kneeling on them to keep my legs open, on my wrists from pinning my hands down – they have long gone but I remember where they were and I can still see them.”

The abuse began in the town of Glanmire, about 9km from Cork city, where Debbie grew up, living with her two older brothers and her parents. Most of her early childhood memories are based around abuse at the hands of her brother Damien.

“I was in Damien’s room playing and he came in and he was saying ‘take off your clothes, pull up your skirt’,” she says of her earliest recall. “The first time he was asking me to take off my underwear and then he was looking at me.”

“He’d make me stand with my hands apart and my legs apart and he’d be looking at me. It started maybe once or twice a week and then it developed. He’d come into my room at night and he’d get into my bed and he’d lie down next to me. He’d start putting his hands inside my clothes and inside my pyjamas, and he started touching me. Then he started coming in more times a week; four and five times a week. It’s like he’d suss out what he thought he could get away with and then he’d do it more and more.”

When she was 11, she recalls telling her mother what was happening. However, when her mother spoke to Damien he said Debbie had “just misinterpreted” their play. And so life, and the abuse, went on.

This aspect of the case was referred to years later when Mr Justice John Edwards of the Court of Appeal noted that when Debbie gave her victim impact statement at the trial, she said “her disclosures did not receive the support from her parents and other family members to which she was entitled”. The Court of Appeal described her original victim impact statement as both “powerful and moving”.

Debbie knew if she raised the alarm and persisted then the guards and social workers would have to get involved. What would happen to them? Would the family be broken up?

As the abuse progressed during her national school days, Debbie said, it “wasn’t [touching] outside of my body any more”. Her abiding memory from around the time national school was ending was being digitally penetrated. “I remember the pain, I remember it hurting so much,” she says, adding even though she was young and very confused and conflicted, she knew what was happening was wrong.

But fear and anxiety gnawed away at her and effectively locked her into what was happening. She knew if she raised the alarm and persisted then the guards and social workers would have to get involved. What would happen to them? Would the family be broken up? Would she be “put into another family”?

But mostly, she constantly wanted to press the reset button on her relationship with her brother. She wanted him to become a big brother without the abuse. In her innocence as a child, and her confusion as a child sexual abuse victim, she longed for her suffering to be displaced by the sudden onset of normality. She knows now that was never going to happen, but back then she believed that it would; at least that it might.

When she was 14 the family moved to Whitechurch, a village about 12km north of Cork city, and while the abuse escalated, so too did her efforts to stop it. She began to try and physically fight her brother off.

But as the abuse continued, Debbie said she struggled academically and was picked on and bullied in school. She found it impossible to make friends. Any relationships she managed to strike up never lasted.

“I was traumatised by a mixture of being abused, not being believed by my parents and then being bullied at school,” she said, adding when she was very young this form of isolation meant her brother was a big figure in her life. Despite the abuse, she needed him and was even proud of him. When he learned to drive she relied on him for lifts. When he began working as a DJ she latched onto that as she had no social life apart from going to gigs with him.

I had no friends, I wasn't close to many people. There was nothing cool about me but that was the one cool thing I had: 'My brother's a DJ.' I'd want to go with him to gigs. But the repercussion of that was on the way home I'd be abused

“I had no friends, I wasn’t close to many people. There was nothing cool about me but that was the one cool thing I had; ‘my brother’s a DJ’. I’d want to go [with him to gigs]. But then the repercussion of that was on the way home I’d be abused.”

He would pin her down, kiss her and give her so-called love bites. He’d also try to force her to perform sex acts on him while driving him from gigs. She said years later she would blame herself for the abuse “because I put myself in the car”. But she also understands that as a victim of childhood abuse her perspective during those years was simply not what it is now.

The first big blow-up inside the family came when a teacher noticed Debbie, then aged 16, had begun to self-harm and was now very frequently missing school. A case conference was called. Social workers were brought in and her family and the Garda were informed.

But when it came to fully disclosing the abuse to the child welfare professionals and making a Garda statement, Debbie backed down. She couldn’t do it to her family and still couldn’t do it to her brother; the dream of “a big brother without the abuse” was not quite ready to die.

No further criminal investigation was pursued even though significant concerns about the 16-year-old’s welfare had been raised.

“I felt at the time that ‘this is still my brother, this is still my brother’. Because, beneath it all, the laughs, the friendships, we still had that. In my head that wasn’t fake. That was us without the abuse. At that time, my family was all I knew. I mean, they’re my family.

“So it was a case of ‘of my God, I don’t want to be taken into another house, I don’t want to be taken away from them; they’re my mam and dad’. But now I look back and wonder what type of upbringing I would have had with another family if I’d been taken out of the house. What kind of opportunities, education, would I have had?”

When her brother began coming into her room and trying to force himself on her, she got up and ran out of the house. She was offered emergency accommodation in a women's refuge and finally decided to go to the Garda

Though she did not give a statement to the Garda, her brother Damien was asked to move out of the family home and Debbie began to attend counselling. During the year Damien was out of the house, Debbie said he apologised for “everything I put you through”. She thought this might be the moment she had longed for for years. But after a year away, he moved back in.

And the pattern of creeping back into his sister’s room – when she was 17 and he now 21 – resumed.

She said she was in disbelief she was “back in this situation again” and now more afraid than ever of disclosing it to anyone given what had happened, with social workers becoming involved, a year earlier. However, as she got older she became more adept at avoiding being alone with him and the abuse became less frequent.

When she was 20 Debbie moved in with her boyfriend at the time, but when they split up she couldn’t afford to pay the rent and had to give up the apartment. She was unable to move back home, and so “with nowhere to go” she moved into a shared house where her brother was living with other tenants.

There, when her brother began coming into her room and trying to force himself on her, she got up and ran out of the house. She was offered emergency accommodation in a women’s refuge and finally decided to go to the Garda.

However, instead of receiving an understanding reception the gardaí seemed to have little or no understanding of the years of abuse she had been subjected to or how hard it had been for her to finally come forward.

Debbie was effectively told to go away and cool off. She recalls the garda advising her to go away and have a think about it. She found out years later that that contact with the guards was never recorded

She was effectively told to go away and cool off. She recalls the garda advising her to go away and have a think about it and if on Monday she still wanted to make a statement then to come back and make a statement.

Debbie never went back; the moment had passed. She found out years later that that contact with the guards was never recorded. She moved back in for a period with her parents before getting settled on her own.

Through her 20s Debbie worked, went back to college and started her family. As she built that life, she began to suspect her brother had reoffended. This prompted her to finally make an official statement of complaint to the Garda about the years of abuse she had been subjected to.

They carried out a full criminal investigation and the DPP recommended her brother be charged. When the case went to court in 2014 Debbie had become so stressed her hair fell out. But when the verdict was returned – he was convicted on 23 counts of sexual assault – she was elated.

“I felt relieved, I was believed.” She was vindicated some 25 years after her nightmare had begun as an eight-year-old.

She now works as a masseuse and has been shortlisted for national awards. Her sons are her life, and they all recently made an exciting move to a brand new house. She no longer sees any of the other members of her family.

“It still affects me in some way. But I have recovered,” she says of the years of abuse.

“I’m doing counselling, I’m doing great. I never want anyone to go through the trauma I did, especially on their own. If someone needs me, I’m there. I’d always want people to know they can come to me with anything

"When the heavy cloud comes over me, I have ways of [coping], like psychotherapy. And I do a lot of self-care to get me through the dark days. And there are dark days, but not as much now. I am in a better place."

If you have been affected by the issues covered by this article, help and support are available from rapecrisishelp.ie (1800-778888), connectcounselling.ie (RoI 1800-477477; NI and GB 0800-47747777) and samaritans.org (116-123)

Conor Lally

Conor Lally

Conor Lally is Security and Crime Editor of The Irish Times