‘Our legal system gave my rapist a free rape,’ survivor tells lawyers

Leona O’Callaghan urges changes to cross-examination in cases of sexual violence

Leona O’Callaghan addresses the Bar Council conference Laws and Effects. Photograph: The Bar of Ireland/Twitter

Leona O’Callaghan addresses the Bar Council conference Laws and Effects. Photograph: The Bar of Ireland/Twitter

 

A woman who was raped as a child has told a Bar Council conference that while she continued to function through her childhood, she collapsed when having to deal with the criminal justice system.

Leona O’Callaghan, who was raped as a child by Patrick O’Dea (52), from Pike Avenue, Limerick, waved her right to anonymity after his conviction last year.

She told the conference room filled with barristers that during the four-year process leading up to her rapist being jailed that she tried to take her life on three occasions.

During the three years between making her statement to being told that the Director of Public Prosecutions had accepted the case for trial, she became “an unwell woman. I was an angry wife, an unstable mother, and a struggling survivor.”

She told the Bar Council conference, Laws and Effects, in Co Laois that she felt at that time that her life was on hold. But she still had another year to go before her trial was held.

“Preparing myself for trial and cross-examination along with the disappointments of adjournment after adjournment brought me close again to breaking point.”

During a session chaired by Judge Isobel Kennedy of the Court of Appeal, Ms O’Callaghan asked those present to do what they could to reduce the delays that complainants have to face when involved in the prosecution of sexual offences.

“Delays leave survivors in pain for years at a time instead of both the gardaí and yourselves having a level of accountability for doing your part in a reasonable timeframe. You are the experts, you know what needs to be done.”

Being in the same room as her rapist had made her feel physically sick, she said. Listening to a request for mitigation from O’Dea’s counsel “brought me to my knees”.

O’Dea was given a concurrent sentence for her rape, because he had already been sentenced to 15 years for raping a six-year-old girl.

“To me it felt like a message that either my or the other girl’s rape didn’t really matter. Our legal system says he gets a free one. I never did find out which one of us was the free rape.”

She said lawyers had to represent the rapists and child molesters of the world “who at the end of the day deserve the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. Irrespective of my history I respect that.”

However, there was a difference between ensuring the accused got fair representation and “victim blaming and the shameful humiliation of survivors in the courtroom”, she told her audience.

“Please choose wisely before you humiliate a survivor unnecessarily. Choose wisely before asking them to read aloud the slogan on their underwear that you know in your heart and your senses is irrelevant to whether a rape happened or not.

“Choose wisely before asking a victim [how] they spent the money . . . that was given to them by the man who groomed and molested them.”

Survivors’ group

Ms O’Callaghan, who has established a survivors’ group in Limerick, said it was her dream that the day would come when she would be able “to look these survivors in the eye and be able to tell that survivor that the right and the safe thing to do is to report that abuse.

“I don’t want to feel that the justice system may well leave them even more broken and damaged than they . . . are now. Please help me in that goal.”

Sean Gillane SC told the same session that questions were being asked about how the legal system deals with crimes of sexual violence, questions that have never been asked before. There were problems to be addressed, he said.

Reform in the area was always politically charged, he noted. There are always calls for rebalance that are “irrigated” with the idea that there are sides. “But if you start with the premise that the position of the victim can only be improved by harming the position of the accused, then you are starting from the wrong place.”

He said the delays in serious crimes being brought to trial were “a national scandal” that was influencing the decisions taken by the accused about whether to plead innocent or guilty. A person pleading guilty could be sentenced within a few weeks, while a person pleading innocent might not have to face the charges in court for a number of years.