Information on how judges decide on sentences in rape and sex abuse cases must be published to ensure survivors understand the process and are not discouraged from reporting, a leading advocate for survivors’ rights has warned.
Noeline Blackwell, chief executive of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, was responding to the case of John Joe Kiernan (86) who received a suspended sentence on Monday after pleading guilty to the sexual abuse of two children 60 years ago.
Justice Michael White said if Kiernan was a younger man the court would be imposing a serious custodial sentence but, given his age and ill health, he did not think it was appropriate to jail him.
Kiernan of Forthill, Arva, Co Cavan pleaded guilty at the Central Criminal Court to six sample counts of indecently assaulting one boy between 1958 and 1963 and five sample counts of indecently assaulting the boy's younger sister between 1959 and 1963.
He had repeatedly abused the siblings when they were aged between four and ten. He raped the girl in her bedroom and threatened to “bury her” after another attack.
Ms Blackwell said it was "very hard to assess" a sentence when one was not in court or involved in the case, and sentencing in Ireland was "subjective".
However, she said, from the perspective of a victim who might be considering whether to go through the “terrible experience of a trial” one may wonder “whether the lack of information we have about sentencing would put people off”.
She called for a sentencing database, accessible to judiciary, legal professionals and victims, which would provide information on the spread of sentences and the reasoning behind them.
“This is possible and was started before the recession. It was known as the Irish Sentencing Information System. It was an important first step, but was allowed to wither with the recession.”
Also necessary were sentencing guidelines, which would be drawn up by the judiciary and other professionals, including an Garda Síochána, social workers and victim advocates, "to guide the judiciary on devising sentences". Guidelines would not be "mandatory or mechanical", she stressed.
Such steps would be important to victims and survivors, and would also send a clear message to perpetrators.
“It would say clearly to historical abusers: ‘Just because you have avoided prosecution for many years or decades, you will still face a rigorous sentencing regime when you are prosecuted.
“It would make clear: ‘Avoiding prosecution for years will not benefit or stand to you’.”