‘I was wondering if this guy was a child abuser, just staring at him’
Secondary trauma studies reveal effect of child sex crimes on professionals’ trust
Working on child sex cases makes prosecutors “hyper-vigilant” for their own children. Illustration: Dearbhla Kelly
The young barrister had been sitting at the bar for at least five minutes, an untouched pint in front of him, when he realised he had been staring at the elderly customer across the pub.
“I was wondering if this guy was a child abuser, just staring at him and wondering,” said Sam (not his real name). “There was no reason in the world for me to think this man had done anything other than come in to enjoy a pint but in my mind I decided he was probably a criminal.
“I only realised I had been staring when he looked back at me. It was utterly bizarre.”
Sam’s reaction becomes more understandable when you learn he had just finished his first child sex abuse case – a grandfather convicted of sexually abusing his granddaughter from when she was five.
He was actually defending the case. “I don’t know if that made it worse or better.” He says he has had many cases since “but none really got to me like that one.”
Burned into memories
The barrister’s reaction is familiar to those working in the area of secondary trauma research. According to an internal report into the impact of secondary trauma on employees in the office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), one of the main consequences is a loss of trust in fellow human beings.
Working on child sex cases makes prosecutors “hyper-vigilant” for their own children. Even allowing them to go on sleepovers can become a nerve-racking affair.
Images and videos of child abuse remain burned into memories for days after the case file is closed. Many have trouble sleeping while others turn to drink and drugs to cope.
It is a problem which affects a broad spectrum of people, from gardaí and social workers to barristers like Sam.
For barristers, who are all self-employed, the problem is compounded by the sense by some that they can’t talk about their feelings for fear of being seen as “delicate” and losing out on future work.
“You would be insane to advertise the fact that you find certain cases particularly troubling,” one senior counsel said. “For one thing, you’ll stop getting those cases because people would be worried about how you’ll cope. And it doesn’t matter how competent you are.”
Collegiality is massively important for mitigating the effects of secondary trauma, the DPP report notes, a fact echoed by several lawyers who spoke to The Irish Times.
Bar Council member Mary Rose Gearty SC said her profession had come a long way in recognising and dealing with secondary trauma in recent years, including the establishment of a dedicated counselling helpline.
The prospect of losing work over being seen as “weak” is less of a problem than it perhaps was in the past, she said, thanks to the efforts of barristers themselves and the Bar Council in raising awareness of the issue.
“The message from the council has been that we will all need help at some point. Know when to ask for it and whom to ask.”