Last year at One in Four our advocacy officers supported 31 people, all adult survivors of child sexual abuse, through trials in the Circuit Courts and in the Central Criminal Court. Of these, 3 sex offenders pleaded guilty, 8 sex offenders were convicted by a jury and 11 accused people were found not guilty by a jury. The remaining cases are still before the Courts. Do I believe that 11 of our clients were lying about their experience? No I don’t. But I do understand that the very high level of proof needed to reach a “guilty” verdict in a criminal trial is often not attainable in sexual crimes, especially if the alleged sexual abuse has taken place many years ago.
To appear as a complainant witness in a trial of sexual offences is a very daunting experience. Most of our clients describe giving evidence as demeaning, humiliating and traumatic. Even when there is a guilty verdict, many people say that if they had known what they would have to endure in the witness stand, they would never have made a complaint to the Gardaí in the first place.
This raises a very fundamental question for society in general and for organisations like One in Four who support survivors of sexual crimes. Should survivors be encouraged to come forward and seek acknowledgement of the harm that has been inflicted on them through the criminal justice system? Or should we discourage vulnerable people from putting themselves through the ordeal that awaits them in the Criminal Courts?
The American psychiatrist Judith Hermann says that “remembering and telling the truth about terrible events is the prerequisite for the restoration of the social order and for individual healing”. We need to hear the truth about the high incidence of sexual violence in Ireland and to understand the devastating effect sexual crimes have on the lives of survivors. Without this understanding the sexual predators will continue to abuse children with impunity and the suffering will continue.
It is vitally important that survivors should feel confident in coming forward. But we need to really question the way in which trials of sexual offences are conducted and to acknowledge that the current system is causing further harm to survivors. We have to create a system where survivors are treated with dignity and respect while they tell their truth, even if the evidence is not sufficient to reach a “guilty” verdict. Until then, all we can do at One in Four is to provide full information so that survivors make an informed choice. We must validate those who decide that they do not wish to
make a complaint and also support fully those who decide to go forward.