‘My name is Aisling’: Woman wins battle to name man who raped her when she was a child

Aisling Vickers tells her story: 'I don’t want to be called a victim any more'

Since May 2019 The Irish Times has been reporting on one woman’s legal battle against a court-imposed gagging order. This is the first time we, or anyone else, can name her. Video: Enda O'Dowd

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Laws are in place to protect rape victims who wish to maintain their privacy while seeking justice but they also allow survivors come forward and waive that anonymity if that is their wish.

In 1993 Lavinia Kerwick became the first woman in Ireland to do so on the Gerry Ryan show on 2FM, going public on live radio. Her account of her ordeal and her struggle to receive justice led to changes in the law.

Despite progress, some victims of sexual assault or rape who want to identify themselves are still finding obstacles being placed in their path, often by the courts themselves.

Since May 2019 The Irish Times has been reporting on one woman’s legal battle against a court-imposed gagging order. This is the first time we, or anyone else, can name her.

Aisling Vickers sits at a neat wooden kitchen table, a brightly coloured Orla Kiely styled fruit bowl to one side. Her home sits in a short row of houses tucked away on the outskirts of the pretty village of Enniskerry, Co Wicklow and within walking distance of the Powerscourt country estate. This is the home she grew up in and it is, she says, filled with happy memories, the home of eight siblings who remain close to this day. It has been modernised since and now artwork and silver-framed photographs of her family adorn the walls, including a shot of her and husband David on their wedding day.

It’s a pleasantly crisp morning when we meet, socially distanced, in Aisling’s home at 10am – a time negotiated to allow her to first drop her girls off at a local school. She offers tea and coffee and makes light-hearted small talk about her trial and error gardening skills (the extension looks out on to a rolling back lawn, the Wicklow Mountains raring up in the far-off horizon).

“I feel very privileged to have grown up around here. We had a lot of freedom back then, we had the fields of Powerscourt, the hay bales, just playing and having lots of fun.”

When Aisling was aged seven her father died from cancer, at just 48 years old, and that took its toll on her family.

“It was very upsetting, but being young and not really understanding I didn’t grieve for my dad until much later on in life. My mother really did take up the role of both parents and she gave me everything I needed or wanted in life.”

I was catapulted into a world that nobody should be catapulted into, in particular a child

Two years after her father’s death the summer of 1987 rolled in, promising to be yet another summer of hay bales, of squeezing the last drop of playtime from long summer evenings. Rick Astley was topping the charts and Johnny Logan had just won the Eurovision with Hold Me Now. Madonna posters plastered Aisling’s bedroom and she had learned off the words of True Blue and Like a Prayer so she and her friends could sing them.

But that summer would bring terror, fear, self-doubt and shame into the heart and mind of a nine-year-old girl still trying to construct the world around her. It would see the innocence of childhood shattered for Aisling.

“I was catapulted into a world that nobody should be catapulted into, in particular a child.”

One of the families whose children Aisling played with were the Hannons, who lived about five houses up. She palled around with two of the younger Hannon girls, playing on the road, the fields and in each other’s homes.

Declan Hannon was 17. Looking back she thinks now it might have been odd that he was hanging around these younger children and playing games with them. But nobody thought anything of it at the time.

Aisling recalls one occasion at the Hannon home, similar to many others before it with the children running around, playing hide and seek, trying to find the best hiding spot. Declan Hannon suggested to her they hide together in a shed in the yard.

“Innocently I thought we were just hiding from the group.” She now knows he was simply trying to isolate her from the group and she thinks perhaps he targeted her because he saw her as vulnerable now her father was out of the picture.

Once in the shed Hannon raped the child. Shocked and terrified Aisling had no idea what was happening to her. Hannon told her not to tell anyone, that it was “our little secret”. “I was shell shocked. I didn’t know whether this was normal, whether it was happening to everybody or what.”

A couple of weeks later Aisling was again in the Hannon home, playing with the younger girls in their bedroom when Declan Hannon came in.

“He came up with some sort of excuse to isolate me. He brought me into the boys’ bedroom and raped and sexually assaulted me. Again there was always, don’t tell anyone, nobody is going to believe you.”

She says this warning made her feel like she had done something wrong and if she told anyone she would get into trouble herself.

“I was completely naive, and upset and just didn’t know what was going on, but also petrified, absolutely terrified because I didn’t know was I going to get into trouble, had I done something wrong. I didn’t want to talk to my mam about it or my family, so at the time I just forgot about it.”

A third attack came soon after, this time Hannon bringing her to a wooded area near their homes and raping her outside.

“I just didn’t know when this was going to stop or was this going to continue. I had a lot of shame at the time. I thought to myself I couldn’t do this to my mother. If I told her, I’d get into so much trouble. My dad had died two years earlier... I didn’t want to put her through any more stress.

“When I think about it now, the pressure that I had at the time for a nine-year-old girl was just phenomenal and to think that he had done those things to me and that I had to work through that at that age and still not know what was going on.”

The abuse came to an end after another girl walked in on the final attack – again, Hannon had isolated Aisling during a game of hide and seek and told her they would hide in a caravan.

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I was in and out of counselling and all of that had an effect on me as a teenager, as you can imagine

The attacks ended with the summer and Aisling says she suppressed the knowledge of them until they all came rushing back when puberty hit a few years later.

“My teenage years were very rough. I was in and out of counselling and all of that had an effect on me as a teenager, as you can imagine.”

The first professional Aisling told about the rapes was a HSE social worker. This woman was satisfied rape had taken place and referred her to Crumlin children’s hospital which also concluded the rape allegation was credible. But somehow Aisling’s case fell through the cracks; it took a year before anyone got back to her and the 13-year-old girl wrongly concluded she wasn’t believed.

Eventually Aisling was referred back to the original HSE social worker for counselling during which she revealed only that Hannon had sexually assaulted her; she was now afraid to mention “rape” as she believed the social worker hadn’t believed the rape allegation. This omission would later have devastating consequences in court.

All this time, Hannon continued to live in the area. Social workers visited the Hannon home and told them allegations of sexual assault had been made against Declan. Other families in the area were also advised but Hannon denied everything.

Aisling Vickers and her husband, David: the couple were expecting their first child in 2013 when the phone call came from the garda.
Aisling Vickers and her husband, David: the couple were expecting their first child in 2013 when the phone call came from the garda.

Aisling continued to work through the trauma of the attacks and she and her mother made the decision not to go down the legal route. It had been a turbulent few years for her and her mother wanted to protect her from the strain of going to court as a child. It’s a decision Aisling agrees with to this day.

She and her husband, David, were expecting their first child in 2013 when the phone call came. When it came, it felt as if she knew it was always going to come some day; a phone ringing or a knock on the door and a decision to make.

The garda on the phone asked Aisling if Hannon had abused her. She said he had but said she needed time to decide about whether to make a statement or not.

“I had tucked away a lot of that horror and moved on with my life. But it was always in the back of my head; should I have done something. When the call came it was like the calling, this is what I have to do. I knew I needed to do my bit.”

She talked it over with David and a week later the garda rang her again and she said yes, she would give a statement.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) recommended prosecution in Aisling’s case.

The second trial collapsed over those HSE counselling notes where Aisling hadn’t used the word rape when describing Hannon’s attacks

This was the start of a seven-year journey, which would involve three criminal trials and a trip to the Supreme Court. The first trial collapsed when a witness became unavailable. The second trial collapsed over those HSE counselling notes where Aisling hadn’t used the word rape when describing Hannon’s attacks because of her fear of not being believed. Justice Deirdre Murphy ruled that the prosecution had not properly disclosed the counselling note to the defence and put a stay on any future prosecution of the rape offences.

In order to try for a third trial the DPP would have to appeal this ruling. The DPP successfully argued in the Supreme Court that Justice Murphy had no jurisdiction to stop another trial going ahead. A third trial began in March 2019, six years after Aisling first spoke to gardaí.

The jury began deliberations in late March 2019. As the courts had gone into the Easter vacation, the judge asked jurors to continue deliberating over the weekend. That Saturday morning Aisling and her husband experienced as eerily quiet what is the normally bustling chaotic court house on Dublin’s Parkgate Street. They had just popped out for a coffee when Aisling’s phone rang: word had come back from the jury minder; there was a verdict.

I was just staring at the ground and shaking. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. On all six charges

Aisling and David rushed back to the building, as did the lawyers on both sides. “I wouldn’t consider myself a nervous person but I was trembling, my stomach was churning. I saw the jury come out. I was shaking. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.”

She felt at that moment her world would fall apart if the words “not guilty” were read out. “He would have won. I knew in my heart and soul that even if he was found not guilty, I still knew what he had done and what kind of man he was, so he could never escape that. But it was paramount to me that he would be held accountable and that people believed me.”

The court registrar took the issue paper – the formal document on which the verdicts are recorded – from the jury foreman in preparation for reading out the verdicts.

“I was just staring at the ground and shaking.”

Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. Guilty. On all six charges.

Hannon of Ramsgate Village, Gorey, Co Wexford was convicted of four counts of rape and two counts of indecent assault at various unspecified locations in Co Wicklow on dates between 1987 and 1989. He had denied the charges.

So long as he could be named, the six years of legal twists and turns and accompanying emotional up and downs were worth it

“It was like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders. The emotion came out. I just said thank you, thank you, thank you. My husband let out a big yelp... I just knew then he was being held accountable, these people believed me.”

She said she didn’t care what happened next, so long as his name was out there in the public domain, preventing him from harming anyone else. So long as he could be named, the six years of legal twists and turns and accompanying emotional up and downs were worth it.

During the trial, lawyers for the DPP had asked the court – and the court agreed – to impose reporting restrictions preventing the identification of any parties, despite the fact that the 1981 Rape Act already makes it a criminal offence to do so. That law also means that the anonymity protecting an accused man falls away upon conviction, unless naming him would identity the victim.

In May 2019 when Hannon was up for sentencing, Justice Michael White commended the exceptional courage shown by Aisling in giving evidence on five different occasions over the course of three trials before he jailed Hannon for seven years. At the end of that hearing lawyers for the DPP again asked the judge to impose reporting restrictions on identifying either Aisling or Hannon. The judge agreed to do so. Although Aisling was present in court, nobody on the prosecution team had asked her for her views on this.

It was only in the following days when she contacted this reporter to say she wanted Hannon to be identified in news reports that she realised a mistake had been made. The judge had imposed an order which couldn’t be lifted without everyone going back into court.

This practice by the DPP of seeking orders to restrict reporting over and above the legal protections that are already in place to protect victims has become more prevalent in the past five years, leading to difficulties for some victims who want to go public. Aisling says she believes it’s “totally wrong”.

She says the approach by the prosecution team led to a further two years of unnecessary court hearings and a protracted battle to not only have her attacker named but even to identify herself publicly and be freely able to tell her story.

“At the end of a trial and conviction it should be discussed with the victim, and you have the ability then to either talk… or the ability to say nothing at all.

“I would have loved to have been afforded that at the time so I didn’t have to go through the last two years,” she says. But she is adamant she doesn’t have any regrets about going to gardai.

“They probably felt I wanted my privacy, and it wasn’t an issue. But at that time it was always paramount to me to have his name published, irrespective of me and my name.”

A court hearing to lift the reporting restrictions got put back a number of times. At one point Hannon, through his legal team, even made the unprecedented submissions that the 1981 Rape Act made no legal provision for rape survivors to name themselves and that what had become standard practice since Lavinia Kerwick became the first person to go public when she spoke to Gerry Ryan in 1993 was, in fact, never sanctioned by the existing law.

Finally in October 2019 Justice White ruled that the defence were incorrect but he said he no longer had jurisdiction in the case as too much time had passed since the end of the trial and his hands were tied. It was too late for him to lift the gag order he had imposed.

Hannon could now be named but there was a fly in the ointment

Once again Aisling’s case had taken an unexpected twist based this time on court rules. The DPP went to the Court of Appeal. In the midst of a global pandemic the three-judge court heard submissions from both sides via video-link. Aisling was also able to tune in from her home.

On November 11th last the court published its judgment in the matter, ruling that the gagging order imposed by Justice White “was superfluous and ought not to have been made”.

The Court of Appeal described Justice White’s approach as “unduly restrictive” and an “overly strict” view of when a judge’s mandate has expired could deny an injured party the right to be heard on an issue of very major importance to them.

Hannon could now be named but there was a fly in the ointment.

The previous month the very same court had made a ruling in an unrelated case which involved the prosecution of a woman for murder of her child. The woman was found not guilty by reason of insanity and the DPP had sought a court order preventing her identification, citing section 252 of the Children Act which prevents the publication of anything that would identify a child victim of crime.

In essence the judgment meant that a child victim of crime remains a child in perpetuity in the eyes of the law, until the legal loophole was fixed last April by a Bill pushed through by Justice Minister Helen McEntee.

Again Aisling would have to wait.

In May she was informed that despite the changes to the law her ability to waive her anonymity had to still be clarified in light of the order by Justice White. DPP officials told her they needed to go back to the Appeal Court – six months after it had ruled White’s order was superfluous.

On July 30th the DPP was able to raise the matter again before the Court of Appeal. The Appeal Court informed DPP lawyers that their judgment from November stood and there was no longer any court order preventing the publication of the identity of Aisling. Finally Aisling could step out of the shadows.

When the Court of Appeal ruled Hannon could be named it came as quite a shock to Aisling to realise there was yet another restriction on her telling her story as she saw fit, almost three decades after Lavinia Kerwick told Gerry Ryan “my name is Lavinia”.

Aisling says Kerwick’s courage in speaking out was very empowering for her and she was moved to tears when she read Kerwick had used her Twitter page to pay tribute to Aisling, who at that stage remained an anonymous rape survivor.

Aisling, like Kerwick, wants to be free to speak out, to tell her own story and reclaim her identity.

I’ve survived this, I’ve moved on, and I should be able to identify myself if I so wish

“These things happened to me but I’ve come out the other side and I fought for justice, this man is behind bars, I’m living a happy life, I have an identity, I am a person, I am a woman, and to be able to talk as myself rather than being called a victim just gives a little bit more empowerment.

“I don’t want to be called a victim any more. I was his victim but I got control back again when he was convicted of these crimes. I’ve survived this, I’ve moved on, and I should be able to identify myself if I so wish.

“I’m Aisling Vickers from Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. That’s who I am.”