The call for mandatory life sentencing for anyone that is found guilty of a sexual crime was put to the Minister for Justice and Equality, Charles Flanagan, TD, on the Claire Byrne Live show on RTE on the 31st April,2018. He responded by saying “I’m not a fan of mandatory sentencing, it’s been proven in the past that it hasn’t achieved what it’s been designed to do as a deterrent. He then stated that he was looking into setting up yet another committee that we fear will again 1. Take too long to set up and 2. Nothing will get done as a result. This is a disappointing and unfortunately typical response from our government representatives.
When you read the horrifying statistics around the reporting of these crimes and how few cases make it to court we must ask what we can do differently. Back in September 2017 the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre stated in their submission to the Policing Authority that less than 10% of those who are victims of sexual offences will report it. And of those who do report, the attrition rate between report and prosecution is one of the highest of those studied in Europe.
The submission went on to say that in three out of four cases, victim and perpetrator are known to each other including those who have suffered abuse as children. The relationship that victims have to their abuser is a major factor in why victims struggle to come forward and report the abuse. Add to that, the horrendous treatment victims experience in court, the ridiculous sentences perpetrators receive, and it is surprising we even have 10% coming forward.
In a report published by the Irish Times research, which analysed every rape offence conviction in the Central Criminal Court between 2013 and 2015, they showed that the vast majority, 70 per cent, of offenders received a partially suspended sentence. This is so offensive to victims and unacceptable to those that have shown the courage to come forward.
Examples of this injustice are that on the 18th April, 2018 in the Dublin District Criminal Court Judge Nolan handed down a 5 year sentence with 3 years suspended to Karl Walsh who plead guilty to sexually abusing his five year old cousin over a course of six years
Again, on the 24th of April, 2018 is was reported that a priest that had a previous conviction for sexual abuse received an 18 month fully suspended sentence after pleading guilty to all charges, by Judge Óonnabháin in Cork Circuit Court stating “Given his age and the level of his rehabilitation, I see no point or purpose in imprisoning him at this stage”.
What is a victim of rape or sexual abuse, or indeed any member of the general public to conclude from these sentences? What message do they receive? It is this pathetic sentencing and the constant reduction in those already poor sentences, that causes so many victims to lose all faith in the legal system and rethink if they should even bother coming forward and putting themselves through the ordeal of reporting their abuse/rape.
We also ask why a perpetrator gets an automatic reduction in their sentence if they plead guilty. If we have to look at each case individually then this assumption that victims in all situations do not want their day in court is misleading and unfair. If you put your hand up and say ‘yes I raped that child’ how does that automatically mean you should get a lesser punishment for the lifetime damage you have done to your victim.
We must also look at the bigger picture when it comes to mandatory sentencing as it will not be appropriate in all cases. Sexual crimes occur on a spectrum of abuse, anything from a person exposing themselves to a child to the serial rapist. It will never be a one solution suits all situation.
Also, a mandatory life sentence of 15 years for sexual predators on its own is not the answer and will not change the epidemic of sexual abuse in Ireland. We believe that if the mandatory life sentence was linked to compulsory treatment programmes it would go some way to making a difference and move us towards a justice system that is actively trying to rehabilitate not merely punish. Without treatment programmes, we may be simply kicking the problem further down the road which does nothing to address the issue. However, if the abuser simply attends treatment and does not engage or fully participate then they should risk the possibility of losing privileges and any chance of early release.
We also need to have a much wider discussion around the entire justice/legal system and how it appears completely ill equipped to deal with crimes of a sexual nature. In a recent article published in the Irish Independent on 28th April, 2018, Ms Justice Ní Raifeartaigh said the Supreme Court has said that rape offending should be punished with an immediate and substantial custodial sentence but that there was no information about sentencing in past cases. She went on to say “One judge’s substantial could be four years, and another’s could be 14 years. It’s somewhat bizarre that an area that is so sensitive has so little in the way of guidance for a trial judge.”
Lack of justice for victims of abuse has been demonstrated on an almost daily basis calling for a complete overhaul of a system that still looks at defending and prosecuting sexual crimes in the same manner as other crimes.
Each year the DPP get to decide which cases they will bring to court, and those decisions are understandably based on what they believe are winnable cases. It is utterly bazaar that barristers and lawyers do not have to undergo specialised training around sexual crimes. If you do not fully understand for example that the effects of childhood sexual abuse and just how the damage can last a lifetime, how could you possibly argue a case in front of a judge and jury (who also has no training in this field).
Those arguing on behalf of the victim have a responsibility to become fully informed of the psychological damage that sexual abuse causes its victims. It is abhorrent that they do not insist on this training as a matter of course. Unfortunately, we live in a country where accountability for poor or disastrous decision that impact people’s lives is never addressed.
We challenge anyone who works with, supports or comes in contact with victims of sexual abuse on a professional basis to read our books ‘Click, Click’ and ‘Why go back? 7 Steps to Healing from Childhood Sexual Abuse if you really wish to be informed about the lifelong damage that sexual abuse causes to its victims.
We must ensure that the victims at the centre of all these cases are provided with the best possible support/treatment. People are waking up and demanding long overdue change to way sexual crimes are managed and responded to. It’s time we spoke up and said no more.
The Kavanagh Sisters