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Tag: Danny Foley

A Matter of Respect

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.

A Depressing Reminder of the Status Quo

Today’s papers are all reporting the sentencing of Kerry bouncer Danny Foley yesterday.  What’s newsworthy isn’t the seven years he got (with the final two suspended) or even the brutal facts of the case.  The thing that has people’s blood boiling this morning is the amount of support Foley had in court yesterday, with a procession of well wishers queuing to shake his shake his hand as the court filled for the sentencing.

The case has been discussed on radio, tweeted about on Twitter and will undoubtedly be the subject of a lot of comment over the next few days.  But there’s one thing most people seem to be forgetting.  This isn’t unusual.  People convicted of crimes have friends and families just like anyone else.  In a lot of cases those friends & family will strenuously support their loved ones. People have a tremendous capacity to believe the best in someone if the alternative makes the world into a dark and scary place.

I’ve been working in the courts for three years and counting.  I used to cover the sex trials a lot more than I do now.  I’ve seen incest cases where the victim sat alone with someone from Victim Support while the rest of their family sat smiling and waving at her abuser.  This support isn’t just limited to rape cases.  In murder trials the accused will usually have their own cheer squad.  It’s more unusual for this support to continue past conviction but it’s definitely not unique.

The victim in yesterday’s Listowel case said, in her victim impact statement, that she had felt judged in the small town.  Even though her name had never been reported, everyone knew who she was and she had even been approached and asked if she was sorry to have pursued the case.

Shocking though this is to hear, it also is a long way from being a unique occurrence.  It’s one of the things that the victims of these crimes have to consider when they report an assault to gardai.  Earlier this month the Rape Crisis Centre launched the study “Rape & Justice in Ireland”.  They found that only 1 in 10 cases of suspected rape reach court giving us one of the lowest prosecution levels in court.  Unfortunately though, Ireland is still a country that clings to conservative values.  We support priests who’ve been caught abusing children and frequently find it easier to assume that a woman who’s raped, in some way had it coming.

Attitudes are changing, slowly, there are still swathes of Ireland that will bow to the respectable male pillar of society and trample over their victim to greet them.  The women and children who are the victims in these cases are nothing more than dangerous, malicious outcasts whose clamour threatens to rock the boat. 

My first reaction when I read about the Listowel case this morning was one of irritation.  It was no different from the over excited stringer who proudly reports that the judge in a murder trial refused leave to appeal (as they always do) and another reason why every journalism student should cut their teeth in the courts.  But that’s not it. 

Working in the Four Courts I’m used to seeing things that really should make my blood boil.  Things that I wouldn’t even comment on any more because they happen so often.  The media rarely pick up on rape cases.  The anonymity of both victim and accused doesn’t make for particularly strong copy and there are just so many of them that they simply don’t make news any more. Until you get a case like this.

I’ve commented before here that on any one day the majority of the crimes passing through the Central Criminal Court will probably be against women or children.  A colleague from New Zealand once told me that there are so many wife killings in New Zealand the papers similarly don’t cover them.  It’s the old chestnut of familiarity breeding contempt and apathy.

So when we’re confronted with these attitudes, when the unpalatable status quo suddenly hits us in the face,we get upset.  But a couple of days outrage are unlikely to make a difference.  Something far more fundamental needs to change.  Only then will scenes like those at Danny Foley’s sentencing become truly shocking, because they go against the grain of the Irish psyche.  At the moment, sadly, that just simply isn’t the case.

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