A leading campaigner in the field of sexual violence has called for the establishment of separate courts to allow for the fast-tracking of sexual assault and rape cases.
She has also called for more clearcut mandatory sentences for sexual crimes including automatic double-digit sentences for serious sexual crimes.
Mary Crilly, director of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre, says victims often have to wait for up to two years before the case is finalised.
Looking back on 30 years of experience, she remarks on improvements in the courage of victims in coming forward and also advances in the Garda handling of such cases. However she sees the need for fundamental changes in the legal system.
“One of the reason that people don’t report sexual assault and rapes is because of the long delays – they feel they can’t afford to put their lives on hold for years and certainly in rape cases, it’s taking 18 months to two years before the case is heard and that’s a long while.
“I would advocate that there should be special courts set up to deal with sexual violence crimes so that they could be dealt with within a year, because the families of both the perpetrator and the victim must go through hell waiting two years for a case to be tried, wondering what’s happening.”
Ms Crilly also called for the introduction of mandatory sentences for sexual assault and rape, saying that there is not enough consistency, whereas a mandatory sentencing approach would send out a very clear message regarding society's views of sexual crimes.
“I think mandatory sentencing has to be brought in . . . I know people in the legal system are against it but I think there has to be mandatory sentences,” she said.
“I think it is outrageous that somebody should walk out of a court after saying ‘I did rape that child’ – five to seven years seems to be the average for rape but I think double-digit sentences would send out a message that society is taking this very seriously.”
One of the difficulties about sexual offences is that very often there is no witness to the offence to corroborate a complaint and the system puts such emphasis on acquitting an accused person if there is any doubt.
“I think if I was on a jury and I was given all the warnings that juries are given because of our legal system, I think I would be afraid to find somebody guilty because you are told it has to be beyond reasonable doubt and if there is any doubt you have to give the defendant the benefit of the doubt.”
This year marked the 30th anniversary of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre which began life as the Cork Rape Crisis Centre in 1983 in rented rooms in the Quay Co-Op in Cork.
Over the decades, Ms Crilly has seen huge changes both in the service and how it is perceived by the public.
She estimates that back in 1983, the service dealt with 15-20 victims in its first year of operation. This year, there were 1,500 calls to its helpline and 347 people came into the centre on Camden Quay to meet its professionally trained and accredited counsellors.
Some 80-85 per cent of those availing of the Cork Sexual Violence Centre services are women, with about half of these being adult rape victims and have being the victim of child sexual abuse. Most of the 15-20 per cent who are male service users are the victims of child sexual abuse, she says.
“We’ve seen huge changes over the years – gardaí now are much more supportive, we have the sexual assault treatment unit in the South Infirmary Victoria Hospital, plus there is a much greater awareness of sexual crimes among the public, all of which are to be welcomed.
“I’m here 30 years and I think what has kept me here is the courage of people who come in.”