Recently in the Central Criminal Court a woman who had accused three men of raping her and falsely imprisoning her was asked to step down from the witness stand to identify each one. According to a report in yesterday’s Sunday Independent, from Conor Gallagher, the only journalist covering the trial, the woman was shaking and so visibly upset that barristers on the case had worried she would collapse.
The next morning she did not attend court. I wasn’t covering the trial myself but I was in court that day on a different matter. I heard gardai approach Mr Justice Paul Carney, the trial judge, and tell him that the woman was missing. She had left a note for her partner, they said, telling him she could not face going back to court, that she was terrified.
Handing down a bench warrant for her arrest Judge Carney commented that he would now have to discharge the jury and if she ended up spending a considerable amount of time in prison until a new trial could go ahead, “that’s her fault.” At the time I didn’t really think anything of it. Judge Carney has form when it comes to taking a dim view of witnesses not attending court. I’ve seen him send both men and women down to the cells in contempt of court on more than one occasion. I’ve never seen anything like this happen with the main prosecution witness in a rape trial though.
At home that evening, the woman took an overdose and was rushed to hospital. On her release she was arrested and taken to the holding cells in the courts. She was released after a few hours.
The three men were subsequently acquitted after a two week trial.
Before I continue I’ll make a point. Shocking and all as the image of a rape victim forced to face her attackers is, that’s not what happened in this case in the eyes of the law. The word “alleged” carries weight. She was an “alleged” victim, just as the accused men were “alleged” attackers. It’s not just careful journo speak. We live in a country where there is a presumption of innocence at the heart of the legal system and until someone is convicted of a crime they are innocent and victims can never be more than “alleged”.
This particular story, unsurprisingly, caught fire on Twitter. By evening there were outraged calls for the judge’s impeachment and an overhaul of the justice system. While I agree that pushing a witness to the point of collapse is neither desirable nor creditable in a compassionate justice system, I think that calling for a judge’s impeachment is a step too far (although such things are often called for on Twitter).
You see, I’ve written about the various rulings and comments of Mr Justice Paul Carney on numerous occasions. He’s one of the few judges to have his own tag on this blog. But while I’ve written about him handing down a suspended sentence for a rape or jailing a reluctant witness, I have also written about him handing down a life sentence to a child rapist (subsequently reduced on appeal) or pointing out that penalty available is not sufficient for the heinous crimes (sentencing Gerald Barry for a double rape that had occurred mere weeks before he brutally killed Swiss student Manuela Riedo). He’s one of our most outspoken judges but I don’t think he’s one of the worst – the opposite in fact. I don’t agree with everything he says but I respect his knowledge and application of the law.
The problem here is far bigger than the insensitive actions of a single judge and at it’s root it all comes down to respect. I accept that rape victims, or the families of murder victims, cannot really have a place in a fair justice system. Trials should be decided on the weight of evidence and that’s not really somewhere that emotion can go. That’s why it’s the state, society, that is the prosecuting side. While a conviction might provide catharsis for a victim the healing can only really take place afterwards. Of course too much detachment can lead to brutality. We should never forget that among the “alleged” victims are actual victims and people in a fragile state should be treated with humanity, respect and gentleness. There has to be a way of doing this without sacrificing the presumption of innocence.
But it’s bigger again. Over the past few weeks there’s been a lot of discussion about sex crimes for one reason or another. It’s 20 years since the X Case shook Ireland to it’s core as Kathy Sheridan wrote in the Irish Times a week ago. A lot has changed in those 20 years, we’ve seen boom and bust, but when it comes to sex crimes and the punishments those guilty receive we’ve only taken a few baby steps. The man at the centre of the X case, who had abused a 12-year-old girl leaving her pregnant at just 14, received 14 years for that particular crime – reduced to four on appeal. In 2002 he received a mere 3 years for the assault of a 15-year-old girl he had picked up in his taxi. Ridiculously low sentences yes, but ones you’d still see today. An average rape sentence here is around 8 years maximum. It’s usually less.
In December last year the Limerick Leader refused to name the 21 men prosecuted for soliciting prostitutes. They had no problem naming and printing photographs of the women prosecuted for prostitution at the same time.
There have been numerous calls to reform the laws on prostitution, especially since the excellent Prime Time documentary Profiting from Prostitution earlier this month. Decriminalising the girls and women forced into the sex trade would definitely be a step forward but destroying the demand by criminalising the thoughtless, ignorant men who think it’s ok to pay for sex with a woman who may be forced to do what she’s doing, is also vital.
As long as we let the attitude persist – and it does – that men are somehow not altogether responsible for their actions and women failing to recognise that are walking themselves into trouble, we do not live in an altogether civilised society. It’s a lack of respect to both sides. I’ve lost count of the number of times where female murder victims have been painted either harridan or whore to argue provocation.
We live in a society where people will queue to shake the hand of a man convicted of sexual assault in a staggering expression of support, a society where the Slutwalk movement is just as relevant as the Reclaim the Night marches have been for years. Isn’t it about time we stopped treating our daughters as if they were treacherous Eve, about time we taught our sons that women are to be respected and that taking advantage, crossing that line, is a crime against all of us. A crime that should result in shunning, condemnation and punishment harsh enough to hurt.
There are too many of these stories and yet there are not enough. The majority of cases that come before the upper criminal courts are committed by men against women or children. Most of these are never covered. The cases I’ve mentioned in this piece are just the tip of the iceberg. Isn’t it time for a fundamental change? A change in the law and a change in attitude. We need to grow up.