Aftermath of abuse ‘like battery acid under your skin’

‘This country has to wake up to paedophilia,’ says woman assaulted by her adoptive father

Suzanne Connolly: ‘The system just isn’t right. It degrades victims and disincentivises people from coming forward.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Suzanne Connolly: ‘The system just isn’t right. It degrades victims and disincentivises people from coming forward.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Suzanne Connolly was 14 when she first told the RUC that her adoptive father, John Rossi, had repeatedly sexually abused her. That was in 1985. She is 47 now. It has taken 34 years for her to get Rossi to court. She does not know why it took so long. “My case seemed to go from pillar to post,” she says.

Passing sentence, Mr Justice Kerr said on Wednesday it was “extremely hard to understand why no action was taken” in 1987 after Rossi admitted abusing her – admissions which were noted at a social services case meeting, records of which were not, it appears, supplied to the police. Rossi later retracted his confession.

Suzanne Connolly has waived her right to anonymity to The Irish Times, meaning that John Rossi can be named.

Rossi ruined Connolly’s childhood, and she has struggled with the aftermath of the abuse throughout her adulthood. “Sometimes,” she says, “It is like battery acid under your skin. It is like walking through a house that is on fire.” She is driven by the determination that others may not suffer. “This country has to wake up to paedophilia,” she says.

Prosperous

She was born in Belfast in 1971 to a single mother who could not keep her and gave her up for adoption at three months. Her new parents changed her name to Victoria Catherine Rossi. If social class was all that mattered, the baby girl would have been seen to have landed well. John and Barbara Rossi were prosperous. He ran the famous Rossi’s Ice-cream parlour and Fish and Chip shop on Belfast’s Atlantic Avenue, and the family lived in a large house on the Malone Road, with a holiday home in Bundoran in Co Donegal. They adopted six children (three girls and three boys). Suzanne was the middle girl. Rossi had the look of a man who enjoyed his own produce too much – he was, and is, obese.

Since it was him, I just assumed it was normal

“I adored him,” says Connolly. “I’d have done anything for him. Every day when he came in from work I got a basin of water and washed his feet. I’d sit in his armchair with him when he watched TV. He was a classic patriarch.”

She thought it strange when he began, during “rough-housing” play to put his hands on her chest, “but since it was him, I just assumed it was normal”.

Soon he progressed to touching her breasts and genitals under her clothes. He called this “having a wee feel”. Then to “inappropriate kissing”, making her masturbate him, sharing the bath, digital vaginal penetration and other acts. Suzanne hated what was going on. “I was self-harming, running away, screaming at my mother. One day I cut my wrists. My mother washed the blood off the knife and put it away.

“He said, ‘Don’t ever tell anyone or I’ll be sent to prison’.”

He told her she was his “special girl” and that what he was doing was normal. “At one point he said, ‘let’s run away to Gretna Green’.” (The Scottish border village was infamous as a venue for runaway weddings of minors).

When a schoolfriend confided a family secret to her, Suzanne was emboldened, and reciprocated by telling her what her father was doing. “She said, ‘Victoria, that is awful. That is not right’.”

Because of what Mr Justice Kerr yesterday referred to as “behavioural problems”, Barbara Rossi had brought her to see a psychiatrist. Suzanne told this woman she needed to get out of the house, but not the reason. “I didn’t want her to think I was lying,” she says.

She was placed in a home in Sydenham on the eastern outskirts of Belfast and confided in the kindly couple who ran it.

John Rossi rang her. “I told him he had to tell Barbara. He said, ‘you are crucifying me’. He then told my adoptive mother the truth.”

After she was moved to a second care home, Connolly was again brought to the police, but was told by a social worker to respond to questions only with “no comment”.

I was an emotional mess. The carnage was embedded in me.

When she turned 17, Connolly traced her birth mother and met her. “Mum was very supportive,” she says. Her birth mother spoke with the social worker to whom Rossi had confessed his guilt and taped their conversation. She and her husband took Connolly into their family in Newry, Co Down, and she went to the local technical college, and from there, to Brunel University in London to study law. “I was an emotional mess. The carnage was embedded in me. Everything about the abuse was unresolved in my body. I had a level of absolute distrust, zero self-worth and I was in a constant state of hyper vigilance.”

She relied on alcohol and became depressed. When she came back to Ireland, to Dublin, in 1995 to do a master’s at UCD, she went to the Rape Crisis Centre for counselling. “They saved my life,” she says. “I was in a dark hole and they got me out of it.”

‘It doesn’t end’

Connolly’s mother “kept pushing” the police. “She was great – I didn’t have the emotional wherewithal,” she says. She became a journalist, a crime reporter, working for the Star, Ireland International and the Sunday Business Post. She covered murder trials. “I remember thinking, which would be worse, to be murdered or raped,” she says. “I thought that at least with murder it is over. Rape goes on and on. It doesn’t end.”

She went back to the PSNI in 2004. “They said they couldn’t find my files,” she says. She made a new statement. Notes of the social services case conference were also provided. The social worker to whom Rossi had confessed provided a statement as did friends in whom Connolly had confided as a child. The assistant director of the Public Prosecution Service directed that there should be no prosecution.

Connolly moved to New York where she met her now husband, Jonathan Kesselman. During a visit to Ireland he and her mother went to the PSNI again, in 2016. The case was reviewed and the PPS directed that Rossi should be prosecuted. The case was to be tried in January 2018 but was delayed.

Then Rossi admitted to 18 out of the 20 offences with which he was to be charged.

Mr Justice Kerr noted however that he had persisted in blaming his victim. Connolly is satisfied that he has gone to prison and that by naming him she has warned others that he is a paedophile. “But he will probably walk free in 2½ years,” she says. “Two-and-a-half years for child rape? I’ve suffered all my life and there are so many others like me. The system just isn’t right. It degrades victims and disincentivises people from coming forward rather than perpetrators. It is hard to think of a system that is more biased against kids.”