Covid prevents women seeking help, says head of Cork’s sexual violence centre

People wait until after Christmas to report sexual abuse suffered during festive season

It is only now, after the Christmas and new year celebrations, that people are contacting the Sexual Violence Centre Cork (SVCC) about the sexual abuse they suffered during the festive season, says its head, Mary Crilly.

“That’s because people try to keep things on hold until they get Christmas over and then they’ll collapse. They didn’t want to spoil Christmas. There were a few calls [to the centre] over Christmas, but only a handful,” she says.

A thousand fewer contacts were made to the Camden Place offices in 2020, according to the organisation’s last annual report, but that merely illustrates the impact of Covid-19 on women’s ability to get help, not the level of demand.

“It showed us how important professionals are to people. We normally get referrals from social workers, doctors, the gardaí and others. We continued to get contact from the gardaí as they seemed to be the only agency that were there constantly.

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“The impact from the reduction in contacts will be huge. Any one agency often isn’t enough to support [victims of sexual violence]. We all work together to help people recover,” she says.

Dublin-born Crilly, who brought up her two daughters on her own, is a 40-year veteran of the Cork centre, and has campaigned consistently for the elimination of sexual violence in society and help for those who are its victims.

“I would have been sexually abused as a child by a neighbour,” says Crilly, in her large Camden Place office in Cork city. “I was 12 when it happened. I wouldn’t have talked about it. I did go for counselling much later, in my 30s. It probably helped.

“When I see people who find it so difficult to talk about [sexual assault] because of the shame of it and the secrecy, I can really identify with that. The abuse happened to me over a year. My mother was on her own with four kids as my father died when we were young.

“The abuser was seen as respectable. I’m 66 now. In the early 1960s, there wasn’t a hope I would land that on my mother. I often hear people coming in here who say they couldn’t tell their mother they were raped or abused because she had so much going on.

“I didn’t even want to think about what happened to me at that stage,” says the quietly spoken Crilly, who insists that men must object to the objectionable behaviour of other men when they tell rape jokes, or are sexually harassing women.

Memorable campaigns

The SVCC, which employs counsellors and brings victims of rape to the Sexual Assault Trauma Unit (SATU) at the South Infirmary Hospital in Cork as well as providing a helpline every day of the year, is adept at running memorable campaigns.

For the festive season, a poster depicting a broken Christmas ornament with the words “Christmas can be fragile” was on the front windows of the building. “That’s how we see Christmas,” she says.

“We had a situation when a girl got on to us to say she was going home for Christmas but would have been raped last year by a guy in her parish. It can seem very personal. Everybody in that parish knows everybody else.

“When the girl was raped, she didn’t know how to deal with it. People like her are going home to situations where they were abused by an older brother or an uncle who is now married with a family.

“The person is still fearful of him or wants to do something about it. But the family are saying ‘Would you ever leave it off? He was young then, only a teenager. You’re making a big deal of it.’ Or you have a family who have no idea that a daughter was abused by somebody in the house.”

Contrary to belief, sexual violence levels do not increase at Christmas. Simply put, they are bad all of the time. “Our figures for last year were very similar to the year before and to the year before that.”

Last year, “a lot of people” thought rape numbers would fall because the pubs were shut: “But 80 per cent of people are raped by someone they know. You could have someone in an apartment or student accommodation who is raped by somebody else in the apartment.

“The victim can feel there’s nothing she can do. That was happening with and without Covid. I think it really shows what rape is. It’s about power and control. It’s not something that just happens when people are drunk.

“It’s not where a guy just loses his mind for a minute and does it. It is planned and pre-meditated – even if only five minutes beforehand. The guy has decided he is going to rape and he feels entitled to do it,” she says.

Viral hit

Last year, the SVCC secured a social media viral “hit” when they came up with a campaign that used the messages given to women for decades to protect themselves, such as blowing a whistle if they are in danger.

The How to avoid sexual assault! A Quick and Easy Guide told men to use the “buddy” system. “If you can’t stop yourself from sexually assaulting someone, ask a trusted friend to accompany you at all times to stop you.”

Urging such men to carry a whistle, it went on: “If you think you might rape someone, blow the whistle until someone comes to stop you.” And it advised, “When you see a woman walking by herself, leave her alone.”

Men, in particular, reacted well to the guide: “There are so many good guys out there who want to do something [about sexual violence] but they don’t do enough as far as I’m concerned. I want them to say more, to be uncomfortable.

“When you’re one of a group of guys and you know one of them is doing stuff that isn’t appropriate, it isn’t easy for guys to stand up and say stop this, this isn’t on. I think we all need to be a bit uncomfortable. It’s never going to be easy. It’s important to interfere.”

But many bystanders of rape, assault or harassment do not interfere, says Crilly, who cites the case of then 18-year-old Rachel McElroy in Cork, who was videoed as she was being sexually assaulted by an attacker, who then forced her to go a more secluded place where he assaulted her again.

“I understand that we’re all concerned about our physical safety. But if you have people videoing an assault, would someone not move closer and say, ‘Stop it?’” she asks. Crilly believes sexual assault victims are no better treated today than they were 40 years ago.

“When I’m going to court, they’re still talking about the victim being a witness. They have no say as to whether it goes to court or not. I wish people knew this because it might stop the myth about girls lying and bringing people to court for something that didn’t happen,” she says.

Crilly will probably retire next year when the SVCC is 40 years old. Before then, there is a campaign on stalking to be done: “I think it is a big issue. There has never been a survey looking at the prevalence of stalking.”

The SVCC is working with University College Cork on a survey about the issue, which is the subject of legislation before the Seanad. “We need to show the authorities how prevalent stalking is,” she says. For Crilly, the campaign is never over.

Crilly’s can-do attitude is an asset that has given her organisation a high profile and a lot of respect.

sexualviolence.ie. Freephone 1800 496 496.