Sexual violence silences the victim – it is up to others to speak out
Colm O’Gorman: ‘Paudie McGahon’s courage and dignity are inspiring’
‘We cannot place the burden of reporting the threat to others posed by a suspected rapist solely upon his victims.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Twenty years ago I made a Garda statement detailing how I was raped and abused by Fr Seán Fortune, a Roman Catholic priest, from when I was 14 years of age until I was 17. It had taken me more than a decade to reach the point where I could even name the crime inflicted on me. Even then, when I did, it was in a very detached way. In that statement I described the mechanics of what I had suffered: the acts of abuse were set out in descriptive terms, but not the impact. I remember the words seeming strange in my mouth, how my throat seemed to close around them as if to prevent me from speaking them. How, when I heard them read back to me, they sounded alien, bizarre and unreal.
Sexual violence is a dehumanising experience. It reduces its victims to objects, rendering us completely powerless in that moment of shocking brutality. It’s difficult to describe the impact of that powerlessness. But once it has been experienced, the world becomes a very different and frightening place. It is difficult to ever feel safe again. This is especially true if the predator comes from a trusted place or institution; like family, or church, or a close-knit community. These are the trusted spaces where we expect to be protected, but they are also protected spaces. They are the institutions from which we derive our identities, our belief systems, our political and social views. We need to trust in them as good and true. Sadly then, we often refuse to recognise when they are not. This can mean we stay silent, and refuse to name wrong even when we witness it. But it often goes further: when victims speak out, they are silenced, diminished and dismissed.
When I went to the gardaí in 1995, it was for two main reasons. Firstly, I was concerned that the man who raped me might still pose a risk to others. But secondly, and just as importantly, I needed to put down the burden I had carried for so long. I couldn’t carry it any more. I couldn’t handle the secrecy, the trauma, the guilt that wasn’t really mine. I needed someone to take it from me. And in a functional society, that’s the job of the criminal justice system. To investigate and objectively address the wrongs we humans sometimes do each other. To deliver justice; to apportion responsibility and to bring comfort to those who have been wronged.
It’s a tough process for victims. It is not easy to come forward. Stigma, fear and shame are very silencing. And the necessary rigour of the criminal justice process can be a harsh and traumatic experience. This is why it is so important that we have a culture which values and supports victims in speaking out.
It is also why we must ourselves be prepared to speak out when we become aware of such crimes. We cannot place the burden of reporting the threat to others posed by a suspected rapist solely upon his victims. This is particularly true if we hold positions of authority. It is simply not good enough to defer full responsibility for reporting such concerns to a victim of rape. It is not enough to offer support in reporting, and if the victim still declines to report, to then stay silent and assert that we have done all that we can to protect others.
I have listened carefully to Paudie McGahon in recent days. His story is horrific. He has explained that his family were deeply committed to the cause of Irish nationalism, providing a safe house to republicans involved in terrorist acts. Paudie says that one of those to whom they offered safety raped him when he was 17 years old. And that after he was assaulted, the rapist told Paudie that if he spoke of the rape he would be killed and “found on a Border road”. I cannot begin to imagine the fear and pressure Paudie has lived with for the past 20 years. I can only marvel at his courage in coming forward first in 2002, and then again in 2009. His courage and his dignity are inspiring.
Which is why I find it troubling that those to whom he reported his rape felt it was acceptable to leave it to Paudie to report this to the Garda Síochána. They cannot have been in any doubt about the risk that Paudie’s alleged rapist might pose to other children, but it appears they were satisfied to leave responsibility for addressing that to him. And that is simply not good enough.
Sexual violence silences its victims. And our collective silence in response to it allows it to continue unchecked. When those in positions of authority stay silent, they grant tacit permission for the abuser to continue to abuse.
The State of course has the overarching responsibility to ensure that victims like Paudie feel able to report the brutal crimes they have experienced. It also has a responsibility to ensure that when victims do come forward, they are offered support rather than simply dragged through a criminal justice system that sees them purely as witness and leaves them to struggle along alone outside that process. In recent years cuts to victim support services have meant that such support is less available. And that is not good enough either.
But we all, as a society, have moral responsibilities in this regard that go beyond our strict legal responsibilities. Our most basic responsibility is to name wrong when we become aware of it. And to report well-founded concerns we might have about those who pose a risk to children and vulnerable adults to the proper authorities. We are rightly critical when those authorities fail to act, but we must ensure that we are not ourselves guilty of that same failure.