‘Be brave and help us’ - Rape survivor calls for major changes in how assault victims are treated

Rape survivor Lavinia Kerwick has challenged the Garda Commissioner, the Government, and the judiciary to match her bravery by bringing about major changes in the way victims are treated in sexual offence trials.

‘Be brave and help us’ - Rape survivor calls for major changes in how assault victims are treated

Rape survivor Lavinia Kerwick has challenged the Garda Commissioner, the Government, and the judiciary to match her bravery by bringing about major changes in the way victims are treated in sexual offence trials.

Ms Kerwick made legal history in 1992 when, at the age of 19, she spoke out publicly about her court ordeal and the suspended sentence given to her attacker, shaming the nation by saying the experience was like being raped all over again.

Her stance led to landmark changes in the law, namely the introduction of victim impact statements and powers for the director of public prosecution (DPP) to appeal lenient sentences.

However, she said the courtroom was still a hostile place for victims a quarter of a century later. She said it was wrong that victims still had no legal representation in court and that defence lawyers could try to undermine them by referring to what they wore when they were attacked.

“The justice system broke me,” said the now 44-year-old Co Kilkenny woman, who developed an eating disorder following the trial that left her close to death. “It very nearly killed me.”

“Rapists have nothing to lose when they go to court. They already know the system is flawed.

They have everyone lined up — barristers, solicitors, character witnesses — and they will defend themselves by saying it’s the clothes that were worn, the underwear, and sure, you were up for it.

“The justice system will let this happen and all the while the victim is sitting there alone and wondering why she ever reported this in the first place.”

Her comments followed pleas by another rape survivor, Leona O’Callaghan, earlier this month for restrictions on the points defence lawyers can raise in mitigation for defendants, and after outcry over a defence barrister’s reference to a 17-year-old girl’s lacy thong in a rape trial.

“Stop talking about what we wore,” said Ms Kerwick. “Rape is rape, we said no, and what we wore should be no excuse for rape.

“We will always remember what the rapist wore. It is ingrained in our memory forever and by that I mean belts to restrain you, gloves to put in your mouth so you can’t scream, jeans to carry a knife to threaten you with.

“It’s as clear as day the system isn’t working and the last thing everyone here today wants is to go back to the old Ireland — sweep rape under the carpet and pretend it isn’t happening. It’s happening and someone will be raped in Ireland and wonder is this rape worth reporting when the system is stacked against them.”

Ms Kerwick was addressing a gathering including Garda Commissioner Drew Harris for the publication of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s annual report.

“Looking back now, I was brave, and that’s now what I need you to be, Commissioner,” she said. “We are now at a crossroads and victims are crying out for change. I’m going to now hand you back my bravery and ask you to go to the minister for justice, the judicial system, the rape crisis centres, victims, and survivors and say let’s work together, let’s be brave and let’s never hear the words as the victim leaves the court: ‘He might as well have raped me again.’ ”

The Government has commissioned a review of all matters relating to the conduct of rape trials which is expected to be completed within weeks. Mr Harris gave his “personal and professional” commitment to treating sex offences as a priority.

“In responding to the challenge that was put down to me, yes, I’m up for the challenge and that means An Garda Síochána is up for the challenge,” he said.

The Dublin Rape Crisis Centre’s report showed a substantial rise in activity on its 24-hour national helpline last year, with almost 13,000 contacts from people in distress.

While victims of childhood sexual abuse continue to make up many of the callers, the numbers reporting recent rapes jumped by a third in 2017, following on from a similar increase the previous year. Mr Harris said the introduction of specialist protective services units in all Garda divisions would be complete by the end of next year to ensure local gardaí had expert support when investigating sex crimes.

Mr Harris said a sex crimes management system was also being put in place to monitor investigations and ensure consistency in how they are handled.

I very much know and appreciate how difficult this is but it is vital that the victims of sexual crime do come forward and I would take this opportunity to ask victims of sexual crime, including rape, who haven’t done so up until now to please come forward.

"We will listen, we will support you and we will investigate,” he said.

The national 24-hour rape crisis helpline is on 1800 778888.

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