THE findings of the Rape and Justice Report by Conor Hanly of NUIG make for chilling reading. It is difficult to identify one particular area which is more shocking than another but a number of points leap out.
Firstly, the fact that two-thirds of rape cases reported are not brought to trial is yet another reminder of our failure as a society to punish this grievous crime but is not new information. Rates of attrition in Irish rape cases have been historically low. Now, it seems, despite the excellent work being carried out by campaigning women’s groups, it appears they remain stubbornly so.
The fact that it has been almost entirely a subject tackled by groups such as Rape Crisis Network of Ireland is very interesting in itself. There has almost been unwillingness on the part of our wider society to acknowledge there is a problem. Clearly there is. Society’s attitude to those groups that do work in this area has also been historically suspect. In all the time I have worked as a journalist, I have consistently seen a severe lack of funding in all areas associated with rape and its victims. The crisis centres themselves continue to struggle financially and help those who have been victims of the crime. Medical facilities also remain difficult to access in many cases.
Another consistent theme which is repeated very strongly in the report is the link between alcohol consumption and the crime of rape. This report is very clear in stating that the binge-drinking culture is a factor in the lack of prosecutions in many cases.
This is a very tricky area. Certainly, the issue of alcohol must be looked at but we must do so in a sensitive way which doesn’t shift the blame away from the perpetrator of the crime. In far too many cases in the past, the fact that alcohol had been ingested when the crime took place was taken as some form of consent on the part of the victim. There is instant societal judgment of a woman who goes out drinking and returns home with a man. People are willing to believe that by doing this, the woman is consenting to whatever transpires in the aftermath of the action. It is a puritanical hangover from the days of the church-strangled Ireland when loose women were derided, abused and hidden away. The deplorable, ‘maybe she was asking for it’, attitude is still very prevalent in Ireland and it must be acknowledged and addressed if we are finally to reverse the situation reflected once again in this report.
There has been a massive change in Ireland’s culture in recent decades. Part of this change has been the rise of a significant binge-drinking culture which the nation has yet to fully acknowledge. There are Government campaigns on the topic and efforts by health professionals to draw attention to it but it is difficult to say that society in the wider sense is taking on board the fullness of the change.
It is difficult to acknowledge the change of course because it requires long, hard looks in the mirror. The binge-drinking culture is alive and well in every town and village in Ireland, so to say there is a problem is to say we all have a problem. Similarly the crime of rape is unfortunately just as pervasive. Again, if we say there is a problem then we must say that it is our own sons, brothers and fathers who are carrying out the crime. This is difficult but of course this acknowledgement means we must also state clearly that the victims are our daughters, sisters and mothers.
This is the case, so why is society at large not incensed by the fact?
What has been well known for years is reiterated in this most recent report, the stereotypical rape, carried out by a stranger is far less prevalent than rape by someone known to the victim. Attacks by strangers still occur of course and need also to be addressed but the bigger problem by far is assault by somebody known to the victim.
It seems that juries, essentially microcosms of society, are less willing to prosecute cases where the victim knows the attacker. The report indicates that they are far more likely to prosecute if the assault fits the narrow stereotype of the unknown assailant attacking in a dark alley. There also seems to be a divide in relation to jury decisions along gender lines. Incredibly, it seems that female-dominated juries are less likely to deliver guilty verdicts.
Another vital cog in this sorry tale is the reaction of gardaí. The report highlights reluctance on the part of victims to proceed because of the reaction of gardaí upon reporting the crime. Forty percent of those who reported the crime considered then withdrawing from the process because of garda reaction, according to the report. This must be a cause of great concern. Looking deeper at the garda reaction is also revealing in another way. The report indicates that gardaí are asking victims if they are prepared to go through the trauma of a trial process.
In one way, it is admirable that gardaí would be so concerned for a victim that they would ask such a question but it begs another. Why is the trial process such an ordeal for a victim that the State police force would be questioning the wisdom of engaging with it? If the process is frightening or intimidating women into not seeking justice, then we have a very serious problem that will continue to escalate until it is addressed in a very straightforward and honest way.
Until we do this, we will continue to have in our society women who have been the victims of a very serious crime and have been denied access to justice. They will have to live with this for the rest of their lives. The psychological implications for these women and the wider implications for our society are very grave indeed.