Events in Listowel

 

THERE IS a sense that Brinsley MacNamara’s Valley of the Squinting Windowsis still with us. After all of the years of the Celtic Tiger, the dismantling of the urban/rural divide, the advance of the liberal agenda, equality for women and the supposed liberation of the Catholic Church, we believed that the pecking order in big cities and small towns had changed.

Maybe this is not so. Rosita Boland outlines in today’s edition how the town of Listowel is not so much divided but united, yet privately torn apart by the verdict in the Danny Foley case and its aftermath in Tralee this week.

The actions of up to 50 people who queued in the Circuit Criminal Court in Tralee on Wednesday to sympathise with Foley before he was sentenced for the sexual assault of a woman in Listowel in 2008 was, without due explanation, alarming and unacceptable. By doing what they did in the presence of his victim, they underlined the divisive nature of such cases where sides are taken, long before criminal proceedings are complete.

More significantly the approach of those who so openly supported Foley underlined the ambiguities of attitudes to sexual violence where the harsh stare of public opinion scrutinises the complainant as much as the perpetrator, where positions taken are influenced by gender and by personal perceptions and prejudices. These can relate to factors as diverse in a small town as class, wealth, gender and pecking order.

Foley’s victim has spoken with candour about her sense of being “judged” within her own community. That will have been exacerbated by the appalling behaviour of his supporters. This was compounded, in turn, by the participation of Fr Seán Sheehy, the Catholic acting parish priest of Castlegregory, who was among those who shook Foley’s hand. His involvement would be extraordinary at any time. But it is bewildering given the current woes of the church. His decision yesterday to leave his post, whether imposed or voluntary, was the correct one.

Fr Sheehy was entitled to take to the witness box – as he did – to give character evidence on Foley’s behalf. Though often formulaic, such mitigation can be of assistance to a sentencing judge. But the fact that Judge Donagh McDonagh saw fit to dismiss the priest’s evidence – and the contradiction at its core that Foley was always “respectful of women” – reflects the scale of Fr Sheehy’s misjudgment.

Whether spurred by their view of Foley’s culpability or the severity of the sentence imposed on him, his supporters have undermined – at least partially – the validation accorded the victim when he was unanimously convicted by a jury of his peers. That sends an alarming signal that will resonate far beyond Listowel.

Listowel may pull down the blinds on the behaviour in its midst. It may feel that it is not a town of squinting windows. The behaviour towards the victim is unacceptable nationally, even if not to some in a town in Kerry.