Reflections on a horrendous court decision here in Ireland. Hope all my readers are having a good 2013 so far.
If you are not an Irish Catholic, you might not know how big a deal a First Holy Communion was for an seven-year-old in 1973.
Suffice to say, it was a huge deal. Kids were prepped for months, if not a year or more. They rehearsed daily the lines of mass; “Bless me, Father, for I am not worthy to receive you; but only say the word and I shall be healed”. As May, the month of the Virgin Mary, crept closer, nuns and priests would practice songs with the children until their throats ached.
While money was tighter and the emphasis on style had not yet crept in, girls thrilled over their white dress, swooned at white shoes and prayer books. The boys looked sweetly self-conscious in their rosetted suits; the girls couldn’t wait to be miniature brides.
For Fiona Doyle’s classmates, the night before their First Holy Communion was a time of giddy excitement, another evening to count down before they became the centre of attention for a whole day. But for this young Dubliner, it would be the start of a decade-long nightmare.
This was the night that Fiona Doyle’s father raped her for the first time.
Rape, for Fiona, became as commonplace as “having dinner”. He didn’t care where he violated her, or who saw; in the graveyard where her grandparents were buried; in front of her brother; while she tried to watch cartoons on TV.
Fiona’s mother knew of the abuse, she believes. Bridget O’Brien would call her pre-pubescent daughter “your father’s little whore”. Patrick O’Brien’s wife still stands by him.
The facts of this case are extremely disturbing, a kind of unreal nightmare. Unsurprisingly, Ms Doyle, now in her 40s with children of her own, has found life a struggle since.
But she found the strength to take her father to court. Unfortunately, the Irish justice system proved to be another test of her endurance.
Lenient, or non-existent, sentencing of sex offenders has long been a feature of Ireland’s court system. Just last month, Anthony Lyons was released after just four-and-a-half months in jail. This man, a millionaire, rugby-tackled a young woman to the ground and sexually assaulted her in a public park. He was ordered to pay his victim compensation, as was another man who attacked a teenager in a chipper. “It must have been the hormones,” that particular gent told Judge Martin Nolan, who ordered him to pay his young victim €3000.
Does the name Martin Nolan ring a bell? He gave a prominent businessman a six-year sentence for fraudulently declaring garlic as apples, so he could dodge import tax.
But back to Patrick O’Brien. He is now 72, and is physically frail and ill. Justice Paul Carney has granted him bail to await the appeal of his twelve-year sentence.
Fiona Doyle is devastated.
The judge believes that: “If I impose a serious custodial sentence and suspend it, it will go out in soundbites, as these things do, that in one of the most serious cases of serial rape of a daughter, the man walked. That is all the community will be told.
“On the other side if I impose a heavy sentence unsuspended I will be branded as a trial judge who substituted one injustice for another. I am trying to strike a balance.”
Let us examine this for a moment. I cannot pretend to be a legal expert, or understand the position of a judge. I know it is a hard job. But surely, the weight of the criminal justice system should fall on the criminal, rather than the victim?
Soundbites? The media are, we can agree, fond of reducing complex cases to goodies and baddies, black and white. But surely a ten-year campaign of sexual abuse of a young child by her father is black and white? There is only one victim here.
No person in their right mind would have condemned Paul Carney for not giving Patrick O’Brien bail. He is not going to be sent to a gulag. He will have access to any medical treatment he will need in jail. And I know many who have little sympathy for this man, old and frail as he may be. Does it matter whether he lives out his final days in prison? He committed the most heinous of crimes against his own daughter. He took her liberty, her innocence, her future. A custodial prison sentence is the least he deserves, sick or not.
Do judges have an understanding of what victims of sexual crimes go through? Because it seems they do not. This is something that must be addressed, and addressed fast. Enda Kenny said in the Dáil this evening that he hopes that the Fiona Doyle case won’t put victims off reporting rape. But who could blame any woman, or man, for not wanting to go through the legal process as it stands now?
There was much outcry in the West about the rape and murder of a young Indian student in New Delhi last month. Amid the hue and cry, there was a certain element of superiority. Something so savage could never happen in the West.
But it does. There are personal nightmares all over Ireland. Fiona Doyle is not alone. There is probably another little girl somewhere in the country going through what she went through.
After many years of studiously ignoring sexual violence, the Indian authorities have been bandying around talk of hanging for that particular crime. I would never, ever condone Ireland going down that route, but at least, at last, the matter is being taken seriously.
Back home, though, our courts seem to disregard rape as a serious crime, when it is one of the most serious and damaging of all. It is time that the punishment for rape matched the crime.
In short, it is time that a child’s innocence was seen as being as important as garlic.